Sanhedrin 74b: When a Jew is forced to commit a sin in public, even if it is not one of the three cardinal sins, he must give his life. But Esther married Achashveirosh in public! Abaye said: Esther was passive. Rava said: When the forcer’s goal is his own pleasure, it is different.
סנהדרין עד ע”ב: והא אסתר פרהסיא הואיִ ־ אמר אביי: אסתר קרקע עולם היתה. רבא אמר: הנאת עצמן שאני.
Sulika Hajuel was a teenager who was known both for her physical and inner beauty. She lived with her parents in Tangiers, Morocco and usually stayed within the small Jewish neighborhood. One day in 1834 as she was walking near a Muslim neighborhood, a wealthy young man saw her and wanted to marry her. He tried to talk to her, but she ignored him. The young man was a member of a very wealthy and influential family and was accustomed to getting whatever he wanted. He told his father that he had seen the girl he wanted to marry. His father assured him that he would do everything in his power to see to it that it happened. By law, a Muslim could not marry a Jew, but they were sure that Sulika’s conversion could be arranged, by persuasion or force.
A few days later, the father and his entourage came to Sulika’s father, Haim, and offered him lavish gifts if he would give them his daughter in marriage. He would not hear of it. “Sulika will not marry a non-Jew,” he stated emphatically. “She is very religious and will not violate Torah law.”
Sulika, too, stated unequivocally that she would not marry a Muslim. Once again, they tried to persuade Haim with promises of wealth and gifts for the entire family, but Sulika and her father would not be swayed. The wealthy man left in anger and said there were other methods that would “convince” the Hajuels to change their minds.
The Muslim family had political connections, so they fabricated a story that Sulika had indeed converted to Islam and now wanted to convert back to Judaism, a capital crime under Islamic law. When she and her family heard about it, she went into hiding to avoid being arrested. A few days later, government officers came to the Hajuel home and were told that Sulika had run away; they arrested her mother instead and told Haim that she would be kept imprisoned until Sulika was found.
When Sulika heard about her mother’s arrest, she immediately turned herself in to the authorities. Her mother was released and Sulika was imprisoned. The authorities told the family that she would be jailed in Fez, the city of Sultan Mawlay Abd al-Rahman, where the Supreme Islamic Court ruled on such life-and-death issues. There she would await judgment.
While she was in her dark dungeon, the sultan’s son saw her and told her he wished to marry her. If she would convert to Islam, she would live in the lap of luxury for the rest of her life. She adamantly refused, and said she was willing to die, but would never sin against her G-d.
Even before the trial she was tortured mercilessly. She became weaker every day because she would not eat non-kosher food. Rav Rafael Tzarfati of Fez had government connections and secured special permission to visit her. He would smuggle in kosher food and she survived on what he brought her. Soon the officials tried a new tack. They warned her that being obstinate would put the Jews of Morocco in danger. She was putting not only her life in jeopardy, but also the lives of many others.
The Moroccan Jews knew that Sulika was awaiting trial and that she was defying any attempt to force her to convert. One day Rav Tzarfati pleaded with her, “My child, do you realize how many Jews are now in danger because of you? Only you can save them.”
Perhaps Rav Tzarfati relied on the Rambam, who writes in Iggeres Hashmad that converting to Islam is not idolatry, because conversion in Islam is merely a verbal declaration which the Muslims themselves realize is insincere, coming from a Jew under the threat of death, and Islam does not involve actual idolatrous practices. Sulika was unwavering. “Is it permissible for a Jew to trample on the mitzvos of the Torah and betray Hashem just to help others?”
“My child,” Rav Tzarfati replied, “we find that Esther married Achashveirosh. So if she did it to save the Jews, why won’t you?” Sulika’s answer astounded the rabbi. “It is not the same at all! The Megillah tells us that Esther had not told of her people or her birthplace (Esther 2:10). No one knew that she was Jewish, so her being with Achashveirosh was not a Chillul Hashem. Today everyone knows I am Jewish; were I to convert to marry a Muslim it would be a Chillul Hashem of the worst order. I am not willing to do that. I would rather die for Hashem.”
Rav Tzarfati cried when he heard these words and realized the greatness and commitment of this young woman. He blessed her and left her prison cell, brokenhearted. A few days later, the trial began. It was all anyone talked about. The judges were shocked that a young girl would rather die than become a traitor to her religion. They postponed the final judgment so she could reconsider. The trial eventually resumed and the harsh judgment was handed down. The guilty apostate would be hanged in the city square in front of the entire community. However, the night before her execution she would be tied to the back of a horse-drawn wagon and dragged through the street to the gallows. The night before she was to be taken to be killed, Sulika sewed the bottom of her dress to her legs so that it would not be lifted in an immodest manner as she was being dragged.
A bloodthirsty mob yelled vicious epithets against the Jews as they gathered in the square to see the young girl hanged. As Jews cried and Muslims ridiculed, the precious soul of Sulika was returned to her Maker. As her limp body was dropped to the ground in disgrace, an argument ensued among the Jews gathered there as to where she should be buried. It was finally decided that she be buried in Fez, the city where she had sanctified Hashem’s Name.
She was buried near the graves of two tzaddikim, Rabbi Yehuda ibn Attar and Rabbi Avner Tzarfati. Moroccan Jews say that the Shechinah rests over the three graves and over the years people have told of miracles and wondrous occurrences that happened to those who prayed there.
The Jews began to refer to her as Lala Sulika. (In Arabic, “lala” means prominent lady.) Soon after, Sulika came to Rav Tzarfati in a dream and pleaded, “All my life I ran away from honor and glory. Please do not allow people to use a term that bestows prominence to my name.” Rav Tzarfati announced that from then on she may only be referred to simply as Sulika.
It was noted that the Hebrew letters of the year תקצ”ד (1834) spell צדקת – righteous woman.
Sources: Illuminations of the Maggid
[Sulika argued that Esther was not known as a Jew, so her sin was not public and involved no Chillul Hashem. Seemingly, the Gemara explicitly contradicts this: it says Esther’s sin was בפרהסיא, committed in public. And the Gemara gives two answers, both of which could have applied to Sulika. She could have married the Muslim and remained passive, and the Muslim’s goal was his own pleasure.
Of course, it could be that her refusal was due to the conversion to Islam issue. The Ridvaz (4:92) rules that one must give one’s life rather than convert to Islam, because although it is not idolatry, it is denial of the Torah. The Ritva in Pesachim 25b takes the same position. And even the Rambam, who permits it, says that it is praiseworthy to give up one’s life rather than convert. However, from her distinction between Esther and herself, it sounds like that was the main factor, or at least one factor, in her decision to be moser nefesh.
It’s also true that Sulika probably didn’t know the Gemara. But Rav Tzarfati did, and he made no attempt to point out her mistake. And it seems Hashem agreed with her mesirus nefesh: she was accepted in Gan Eden as a tzadekes who could come back in people’s dreams, and prayers were answered at her grave. Is there any way the Gemara can be reconciled with what she said?
I think the answer is that the Gemara is discussing a different kind of “public”. The Gemara’s בפרהסיא means in front of ten Jews. All the Jews of Shushan knew that Esther was Jewish. In Megillah 15b the Gemara says that one of the reasons why Esther invited Haman to the feast was so that the Jews should not rely on her to avert the decree, so that they should continue davening. When Sulika said Esther was not known as a Jew, she meant that she was not known to the Persians as a Jew. Thus Achashveirosh did not mean to force her to violate the Torah – להעבירה על דתה. Rather, his goal was הנאת עצמו – his own pleasure. However, Sulika was known to the Muslims as a Jew who refused to marry one of them. And the campaign against her was carried out not only by the man who wanted her, but by the whole government. Therefore she felt that the real motivation was to force her to violate the Torah.
Now, the Gemara gives two answers for Esther: Abaye says passivity, and Rava says the forcer’s goal is his own pleasure. Both heterim are brought down in Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Deah 157:1. So even if Sulika was right that the Muslim’s goal was not his own pleasure, seemingly the heter of passivity still remains.
The answer may be that actually, we don’t pasken like Abaye who says passivity is a heter for Chillul Hashem in public. Tosafos asks why the Gemara poses the question והא אסתר פרהסיא הואיִ – Esther did it in public. Seemingly, the Gemara could have asked a stronger question: that Esther did גילוי עריות, which is יהרג ואל יעבור even in private. Rabbeinu Yitzchok ben Mordechai answers that the Gemara already knew that passivity is a heter for גילוי עריות. This is because the יהרג ואל יעבור of עריות is derived from the law of murder, and for a passive murder one need not give up his life. However, the Gemara’s question was that in public, one must give up one’s life for any sin in the Torah. We are no longer deriving it from the law of murder, so passivity should no longer be a heter! On this Abaye answers: No, passivity is a heter even for sinning in public. Rava answers: Achashveirosh’s goal was his own pleasure. As usual, in disputes between Abaye and Rava, we pasken like Rava. True, the Rema in YD 157 does bring down the heter of קרקע עולם – passivity, but only in the case of regular גילוי עריות that is not done in public.
Another comment on the Sulika story is in order. Rav Tzarfati asked her, “If Esther married a non-Jew to save the Jewish people, why won’t you?” It seems he asked the wrong question. Esther’s heter when she first married Achashveirosh was based either upon קרקע עולם or הנאת עצמן. It had nothing to do with saving the Jewish people. How could Esther have known that five years later, Haman would decree death upon the Jews? So his argument was unnecessary. However, after Sulika’s answer, the argument of saving the Jews still remains. Because when it did come time to intercede with the king and save the Jews, Esther went in for the first time on her own initiative. We read in the Gemara Megillah 15a: Esther said, “I will go in to the king in violation of the law.” Rabbi Abba said: In violation of Torah law, because until that point she had been forced by him, but this time she was going willingly.
So whatever argument Sulika had that her case was different from Esther’s and it would be forbidden to marry the Muslim man, don’t we see that Esther eventually did something that was definitely an aveirah in order to save the Jews?
The answer lies in the Noda Biyehuda Yoreh Deah 154, who quotes the Maharik 167 who deals with the case of a caravan of Jews who were attacked by robbers intending to murder the group. One married Jewish woman seduced the gang leader and convinced him to spare their lives. The Maharik ruled that the woman did the right thing, and he brings proof from Esther going to Achashveirosh willingly to save the Jewish people. Still, she is forbidden to return to her husband, because she was מעלה מעל באישה – she was unfaithful to her husband, despite the fact that what she did was right given the circumstances. In the same way, Esther was forbidden to her husband Mordechai – כשם שאבדתי מבית אבא כן אובד ממך.
The Noda Biyehuda himself disagrees. Esther was a special case, he says, because she was saving the entire Jewish people, and perhaps she acted on orders from Mordechai, with his ruach hakodesh. But in general, a woman may not commit גילוי עריות actively, even in order to save a group of Jews from death. Sulika evidently held like the Noda Biyehuda.]