The Prohibition against Suicide
As noted, both Rashi and the Rambam derive the prohibition of suicide from the above-quoted verse. The source for this derivation is a Gemara (Bava Kama 91b), which wishes to derive a prohibition of self-injury from the verse (and defers that the verse might be referring only to one who kills himself), and from an explicit teaching of the Midrash (Bereishis Rabba 34:13).
The Rambam adds that although one who kills himself is “considered to be a shedder of blood,” and “the sin of bloodshed is upon his hands,” nonetheless “[he is] not executed by the court.” Rather, his punishment is death at the hands of Hashem – misah biydei Shamayim.
Of course, it is quite obvious that a person who commits suicide cannot be put to death by a human court. The Klei Chemdo (Noach Section 3) says it refers to someone who renders himself a treifo-mortally wounded to the degree that he will not be able to live more than one year. Thus, he is still alive and it would be possible for beis din to execute him. Nontheless, he is not executed by beis din and his punishment is left to Hashem.
The source for the popular saying that somebody who commits suicide forfeits his portion in the World to Come is the Rambam in the Laws of Repentance (3:6), who writes that one who spills blood does not have a portion in the World to Come. In the above halachos, the Rambam specifically includes one who commits suicide in the category of “one who spills blood,” and it follow that he, too, forfeits his portion in the World to Come.
Attitude to Suicide
The tragedy and the gravity of suicide lie in the fact that more than any other offender, a suicide literally takes his life into his own hands.
The Mishnah in Avos writes (4:21): “Against your will you were fashioned, and against your will you were born; against your will you live, and against your will you die – and against your will you will hereafter have account and reckoning before the King of Kings, the Holy One, blessed be He.”
Life is thus not merely a gift, but a responsibility. We are required to safeguard our own lives because they are not our property, to forfeit at will (as Rav Moshe Feinstein writes, Yoreh De’ah 4:59; see also Radvaz, Sanhedrin 18:6). Rather, Torah law describes man as Hashem’s guardian of his life, charged with living his life to the fullest extent.
Based on this approach, it is obvious that suicide is a heinous crime – indeed, one of the most heinous crimes of all. Life might throw challenges our way, but the very purpose of life is to face up to those challenges, and to pass the trials. Escaping from them simply defeats the purpose.
Mourning for a Suicide
On account of the special gravity of the sin, the baraisa in Evel Rabasi (Chap. 2) states that the laws of mourning do not apply to somebody who takes his own life, and this halachah is ruled by the Rambam and by the Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh De’ah 345:1). Thus, somebody who commits suicide is not eulogized, is not mourned, and Kaddish is not said for him.
Yet, as the Pischei Teshuvah (345:2) notes, authorities over the centuries have generally tried to limit the application of this halachah. Whenever we cannot be certain that the case in fact was suicide, the regular laws of mourning apply.
Moreover, if the person killed himself out of emotional instability and imbalance (“of unsound mind”), he is mourned, like all others. This exception covers most cases of suicide, which are usually related to mental/emotional imbalance.
It is noteworthy that the Chasam Sofer (Even Ha-Ezer 69) writes that although he is not mourned, the son of a suicide should nonetheless say Kaddish for his father – a ruling also given by Mahari Assad (Yoreh De’ah 350) and by the Sedei Chemed (Aveilus 120). The Pesach Ha-Devir (3:284:10) adds that he should also observe the different yahrzeit customs that are performed to benefit the soul of the departed.
Motivation for Suicide
Another reason for why it might be permitted to mourn over somebody who commits suicide is the question of his motivation. Aside from depression, a common cause for suicide is extreme hardship or poverty, to the degree that a person gives up on life. Do we mourn for somebody who takes his life because of dire circumstances?
The Besamim Rosh (345) rules that somebody who commits suicide out of severe hardship is mourned, and the halachah (of not mourning over a suicide) is thus limited to truly exceptional circumstances (of somebody who kills himself because he has simply had enough of life, or out of scorn and contempt, as the Besamim Rosh attributes to “certain philosophers”).
The ruling is cited by Shut Chaim Beyad no. 110, and is mentioned by the glosses of Rabbi Akiva Eiger to the Shulchan Aruch. Moreover, the Maharsham (Volume 6, Responsa123) gives his agreement to the ruling, explaining that although hardship is surely not a legitimate reason for somebody to take his own life and it remains entirely forbidden to do so, one who does so is assumed by us as being a shogeg-one who has erred, and therefore may be mourned.
Yet, some authorities dispute this position, as cited by the Pischei Teshuvah. See especially the Chasam Sofer, Yoreh De’ah 326, who notes the forged authorship of the Besamim Rosh as part of his harsh criticism of the ruling.
Suicide out Penitence
Another issue raised by halachic authorities is the matter of somebody who commits suicide for the sake of penitence and repentance.
The Beis Efraim (76) writes that one who does so is not considered a sinner (and it is permitted to mourn over him), and the Semak (no. 3) cites a section of the Sefer Chassidim of Rabbi Yehuda Ha-Chassid. Thus, it is permitted to mourn for somebody who kills himself in repentance for sin.
In fact, a responsum of Rabbi Yehudah Ha-Chassid explicitly addresses the question of suicide for the sake of repentance, and he writes – quite surprisingly – that it is permitted to do so, citing the case of Rabbi Elazar b. Durdaya (Avodah Zarah 17a), who died out of grief and sincere repentance, as a precedent.
There is certainly room to defer the proof: in the case of Rabbi Elazar b. Durdaya there was not an act of suicide. His death was a natural death from the intense grief that came through remarkable repentance.
The Shevus Yaakov (2:110) likewise writes that it is permitted to take one’s own life to atone a sin. He proves this from an anecdote recounted by the Gemara (Kiddushin 81b) in which Rabbi Chiya bar Ashi went into a burning oven (Rashi explains that he meant to kill himself) in anguish at having perpetrated a heinous sin (in fact, it turned out that he did not sin at all, and he came out of the oven).
It goes without saying – but we will say it anyway – that these rulings and precedents are not applicable to our generation, and the basic ruling is that one may not take one’s own life under any pretext.
Many authorities, including the above-mentioned Besamim Rosh, mention as a precedent the case of Shaul (I Shmuel 31:4-5), who took his own life rather than fall into the hands of the enemy (after his armor-bearer refused to kill him).
The verse reads as follows: “Then said Saul unto his armor-bearer, Draw your sword, and thrust me through with it; lest these uncircumcised come and thrust me through, and abuse me.”
Shaul is not criticized by Chazal for doing so, and on the contrary, the Midrash (34:13) states explicitly that he did not sin, indicating that it was permitted for him to take his own life. Why is this so? The Yam Shel Shlomo suggests two possible reasons.
One is that Shaul was concerned that his falling into the hands of the enemy would have provoked the Jewish fighters into an impossible assault against the enemy camp, potentially costing thousands of lives. The Yam Shel Shlomo thus writes that it is permitted to give up one’s life for the purpose of saving other Jewish lives.
Another reason he suggests is that the falling of the anointed King of Israel into enemy hands constitutes a grave desecration of Hashem’s Name, and for this purpose it was permitted for Shaul to take his own life.
A third suggested explanation, which is from the Yefei To’ar (commentary to Midrash) and the Radak (Shmuel 31:4), is that the case of Shaul was special because he had been told by Shmuel that the enemy would not spare his life. Because of the certainty that he would die shortly, and given the special circumstances, it was permitted for him to take his own life.
Similarly, Shimshon’s suicide (Shoftim 16: 30), in which he brought down a building on himself and his Philistine tormentors, is defended on the grounds that it constituted an act of kiddush Hashem, “sanctification of the Divine Name,” in the face of heathen mockery of the G-d of Israel.
Suicide to Avert Spiritual Harm
The halachic status of some other renowned suicide acts is debated among halachic authorities.
Josephus (Jewish War 7. 8-9) tells how the garrison of Masada committed mass suicide. While this is usually hailed as an example of martyrdom, some authorities have questioned whether the act of these heroes was justified in the light of the possibility that the Romans may have spared their live, albeit as slaves to the conquerors. It is interesting in this light that the tale of Masada is omitted from the writings of Chazal, and we only know of it through Josephus and other historians.
The case of Masada is quite different from cases of mass suicide al kiddush Hashem in order to avoid being forced into sin (see Tosafos, Avodah Zarah 18a and Gittin 57b). This was an occurrence in medieval times, when Jews knew that if they would fall into the hands of captors, the latter would force them, on pain of torture and death, to convert. There are several stories of mass suicides undertaken to avoid this situation.
Yet it is noteworthy that even where there is a chance of falling into the hands of captors, and even where the captors are likely to torture their captives and force them to sin, the Yam Shel Shlomo (Bava Kama 8:59) writes that one should never take one’s own life.
This ruling is based in part on a passage in Da’as Zekeinim (Bereishi 9:5), which is cited by the Beis Yosef (Yoreh De’ah 157) in the name of Orchos Chaim. The passage notes the opinions of some authorities who mandated the killing of infants to avoid their forced conversion, and proceeds to imply that this practice is wrong.
In discussing the matter, the Da’as Zekeinim records a frightening tale of a rabbi who killed a number of infants on the pretext that they were destined to be forcefully converted. Another rabbi fiercely objected to the practice, and called the former a murderer, adding that if he is correct that it is wrong to kill the children, the rabbi should meet a terrible death. The end of the tale was that the rabbi who killed the children indeed met a horrific end, and the decree against the Jews was lifted.
Had the children survived, no ill would have befallen them.
We have yet to discuss the question of saving a person from suicide: Is there an obligation to prevent a person from suicide, and can the Shabbos be violated for this purpose? The morality of physician-assisted suicide has been the focus of heated debate in the non-Jewish world – what is the Torah’s standpoint? We will address these questions, please G-d, in next week’s article.
 An interesting source on this matter is the Gemara in Gittin (57b), which mentions how Channah took her own life, jumping off a roof after seeing her seven children killed. See Etz Yosef, cited in Ein Yaakov, who asks if and how this act was actually permitted. The simple solution is that the act was not permitted, but was rather a spontaneous expression of unbearable grief.
 This question might relate to the general issue of whether it is permitted for somebody to give up his life in avoiding a transgression, even where there is no obligation to do so. According to the Rambam, this is forbidden, and it would appear that it is likewise (or the more so) forbidden to commit suicide for the sake of repentance. Tosafos, however, write that giving up one’s life to avert transgression is a virtue, and this can possibly (but not necessarily) be extended to suicide in penitence.
 A famous case is mentioned by the Gemara in Gittin (57b), which describes how four hundred children who had been taken captive (and were destined for Roman brothel houses) jumped off a ship to their death. Tosafos explains that the children feared they would be tortured, and would not pass the trial of faith (see Shut Chaim Sha’al 1:46).