Suicide in Judaism
An elderly patient, hospitalized for acute pneumonia, required artificial respiration. One evening, while suffering considerably because of the ventilation tube in his windpipe, pulled out the tube and consequently died of suffocation. Previously, while fully conscious, with his family at his bedside, he expressed his wish to end his life in this way. What is Judaism’s response to such situations?
Such questions are being encountered with increasing frequency. The medical ethics dilemma arising here has been highlighted by Dr. Jack Kevorkian’s “physician assisted suicide.” ((G. J. Annes, Physician Assisted Suicide: Michigan’s Temporary Solution. N. Engl. J. Med. 328 (21) (1993): 1573–76.)) This paper will attempt to survey Jewish attitudes to the subject.
Suicide is not a new phenomenon, nor is the attempt to enlist medical assistance to that end. Even the Hippocratic Oath includes the undertaking, “I will not give a deadly drug to anyone, even when asked, nor will I suggest such a plan of action.”
Different cultures express different attitudes to suicide. In the Far East (e.g., China, Japan), suicide is permitted in certain circumstances such as old age, disgrace, or humiliation. In Eskimo culture, the aged are sent out into the cold to die. Socrates, Plato and Aristotle disapproved of suicide, considering it an act of self-destruction, the act of a coward who steals his own body from the gods. Others, however, such as Seneca, Epicurus and the Stoics, were in favor of suicide as expressing the individual’s freedom of choice. ((A. Steinberg, Encyclopedia of Medical Halacha Jerusalem 1988 (Hebrew), vol. 1, pp. 7–17, s.v. Ibbud atzmo la-Da’at.))
As a matter of principle the monotheistic religions condemn suicide Medical ethics in the western world takes an ambivalent attitude to suicide. On the one hand, life is considered to be of inestimable value, and hence any act of killing is deplored. On the other, a no less important value is freedom of the individual, implying the exclusive right to treat one’s own body as one pleases. Within these permissive views one can distinguish several subgroups. The most extreme advocate one’s absolute possession of one’s body and consequent right to treat it in any desired way provided no harm is done to others. On this approach, one is entitled to decide how and when to end one’s life. Less extreme groups limit the suicide act to situations in which the individual will benefit more from death than from remaining alive. ((P. Aries, Western Attitudes toward Death: From the Middle Ages to the Present, transl. P. M. Ranum, Baltimore 1974.))
Dr. Jack Kevorkian’s actions have only aggravated the dilemma. While some of his supporters have gone so far as to declare him a national hero, acting in all sincerity and in keeping with his own moral criteria, ((J. Roberts & C. Kiellstrand, Jack Kevorkian: a medical hero, Br. Med. J. 312 (1996): 1434.)) others have branded him an accessory to homicide and therefore a criminal. ((A. Davis, J. Kevorkian: a medical hero? His actions are the antithesis of heroism, Br. Med. J. 313 (1996): 1228 (letter).))
Judaism categorically forbids suicide. The proof-text for the prohibition is, “But for your own life-blood I will require a reckoning” (Gen. 9:5). As explained by Rashi: “Although I have permitted you to take the life of an animal, I will require a reckoning for your own life-blood, [that is] from a person who sheds his own blood.” And we further read in Pesikta Rabbati 24: “You shall not murder—you shall not murder yourself.” “If a person should place himself in danger and kill himself, he deserves a punishment greater than that of one who kills others.” ((Orchot Zaddikim, Sha’ar ha-Simchah.)) Maimonides rules: “Similarly, one who kills himself… is considered a murderer [Heb. shofech damim]; he has committed the sin of killing and deserves death by Heaven’s hand.” ((Mishneh Torah, Hil. Rozeach u-Shmirat ha-Nefesh 2:2)) The 12th-century commentator Hizkuni finds in this ruling a reference to the existence of the World to Come—although the suicide victim has already died, he is considered liable and will be punished.
Several reasons have been given for this grave view of suicide: 1) Life is of inestimable value and must therefore be preserved. 2) Man is not the custodian of his own body and is therefore not entitled to take or otherwise harm his own life. 3) A suicide is denying the basic principle of reward and punishment in Judaism. 4) Even though the suicide dies, his death does not atone for his sin, since by taking such a measure, by the very act of killing himself, the suicide has committed a cardinal sin.
Definition of suicide
“Who is [called] a suicide?—Not one who climbed to the top of a tree, fell and died; or to the top of the roof, fell and died. Rather, one who said, ‘I shall climb to the top of the roof or the top of the tree and shall cast myself down and die,’ and was then seen to climb to the top of the tree, fall and die—that person is considered a suicide.” ((Tractate Semachot 2:2. )) “Who is [called] a suicide?—Such as one who said, ‘I shall go up to the top of the roof,’ and was seen to go up immediately in anger, or in sorrow, and he fell and died—such a one is considered a suicide. But if he was seen strangled and hanging in a tree, or slain and lying on top of his sword—he is considered as having died a normal death.” ((R. Yosef Caro (Spain 1588 – Safed 1635), Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De’ah 345:2.))
A suicide is one who has expressed a desire to kill himself and soon afterwards actually did so, by deliberate design and in such a way as to leave no doubt that he did indeed take his own life.
Since a thief is liable by secular law to capital punishment upon being caught, the very act of theft constitutes potential suicide (though if killed he is nevertheless treated as any other deceased person, since he did not believe he would be caught). ((Ibid.))
It follows that if the thief is sure to be apprehended, he is considered to be a suicide. This is an example of indirect suicide (suicide by gerama).If a person places himself unnecessarily in danger (something permitted only in cases of major importance), for example, by walking on a frozen surface during winter slipping and drowning, or if by picking a quarrel with a violent person who kills him, that person has thereby violated the principle of “But for your own life-blood I will require a reckoning.” ((Sefer Chasidim, para. 675.))
A person who prevents others from saving him, say, by refusing to travel to a hospital on the Sabbath, by refusing to receive medical treatment that would be a desecration of the Sabbath, or (in the case of an invalid who must eat) by refraining from eating on the Day of Atonement, is considered a murderer (shofech damim). ((R. David b. Shlomo ibn Zimra (Radbaz; Spain 1580 – Eretz Israel 1664), Responsa, IV, 1,139 (67).))
A person who starves himself to death is also in the category of “But for your own life-blood I will require a reckoning.” ((R. Nissim (Ran; 12th century), commentary on R. Isaac Alfasi (Rif), Tractate Shevu’ot; R. Shneur Zalman of Lyady, Shulchan Aruch ha-Rav, 618:11.))
To be continued