Among the greatest human tragedies is suicide. Suicide is often motivated by excruciating pain. Yet among the survivors, the pain it causes is no less, bringing feelings of guilt and anguish that are almost unbearable. The deep wound of shame and guilt rarely heals.
The one instance of suicide mentioned in the Tanach is that of King Shaul, whose selection as king of Israel is mentioned in the Haftarah of Parashas Korach. Defeated in battle, Shaul took his own life rather than fall into the hands of the enemy:
“Then Shaul said to his armor-bearer, ‘Draw your sword, and thrust me through with it, lest these uncircumcised come and thrust me through, and mistreat me.’ But his armor-bearer would not, for he feared greatly. Therefore Saul took his own sword and fell upon it. And when his armor-bearer saw that Saul was dead, he also fell upon his sword and died with him” (I Shmuel 31:4-5).
Shaul’s circumstances, as we will discuss below, are very different from the classic cases of suicide. However, we take the opportunity to discuss the Torah approach to suicide, and associated laws—in the hope that they will never be relevant.
What are the parameters of the prohibition against taking one’s own life? What are the halachos concerning mourning over a suicide? What is the significance of the motivation behind the action? We will address these questions, among others, below.
The Prohibition against Suicide
In Parashas Noach we find the following verse: “And surely your blood of your lives will I demand an account; at the hand of every beast will I demand it, and at the hand of man; at the hand of every man’s brother will I require the life of man” (Bereishis 9:5).
Commenting on the verse, Rashi explains (based on the first words of the verse: “And surely your blood of your lives will I demand an account”): “Although I have permitted you to kill an animal, I will require your blood, from one who spills his own blood.” According to Rashi, the verse thus includes a prohibition of suicide.
The source for this derivation is from a teaching of the Gemara (Bava Kama 91b), which wishes to derive the prohibition of self-injury from the verse (and defers that the verse might be referring specifically to one who kills himself). The teaching is also explicit in Midrash Rabba (Bereishis Rabba 34:13).
The Rambam likewise mentions the scriptural derivation for the prohibition against suicide: “But a person who hires a murderer to kill a colleague … and a person who commits suicide are all considered to be shedders of blood; the sin of bloodshed is upon their hands…. Which source indicates that this is the law? … The verse continues: ‘Of the blood of your own lives I will demand an account.’ This refers to a person who commits suicide” (Rotze’ach 2:2-3).
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 liable for execution by the court.” Rather, his punishment is death at the hands of Hashem – misah biydei Shamayim.
Of course, a person who successfully commits suicide cannot be put to death by a human court, and the statement of the Rambam means only to distinguish between the prohibition of murder and that of suicide.
There is a popular conception whereby somebody who suicides forfeits his portion in the World to Come. The source for this is the Rambam (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 includes somebody who commits suicide in the category of “one who spills blood,” and it follows that he does not have a portion in the World to Come.
Attitude to Suicide
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 also 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, Shut Iggros Moshe, Yoreh De’ah 4:59; see also Radvaz, Sanhedrin 18:6). Torah law describes man as Hashem’s agent, charged with living his life to the fullest.
Based on this approach, it is obvious that suicide is a heinous crime – indeed, one of the most heinous crimes of all. The very purpose of life is to face up to the challenges life throws our way, and not to escape them.
Sometimes challenges can be overwhelming and we do not judge anyone. But without a doubt, if a person has a challenge, he can withstand it.
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. 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 or mourned. However he is buried, for this relates to the honor of the living.
As the Pischei Teshuvah (345:2) notes, authorities over the centuries have generally limited the application of this halachah. Whenever we cannot be absolutely certain that a case was a suicide, the regular laws of mourning apply.
Moreover, if a 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 some mental/emotional imbalance or turmoil.
It is noteworthy that the Chasam Sofer (Even Ha-Ezer 69) writes that even when he is not mourned, the son of a suicide should nonetheless say Kaddish for his father – a ruling also given by Shut 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 yahrzeit customs that benefit the soul of the departed.
Motivation for Suicide
Another reason why it might be permitted to mourn somebody who committed suicide is the question of his motivation. Aside from depression, another common cause of suicide is extreme hardship or poverty, to the degree that a person gives up on life. Do we mourn for somebody who commits suicide out of dire circumstances?
The Besamim Rosh (345) rules that somebody who commits suicide out of severe hardship is mourned, and the halacha (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 (Vol. 6 Yoreh De’ah, no. 123) agrees with 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 considered shogeg (because he believes it is permitted, or that he has no choice), and therefore may be mourned.
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.
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 really permitted, but was rather a spontaneous expression of unbearable grief.
Suicide out of Penitence
Another issue raised by halachic authorities is the matter of somebody who commits suicide for penitence and repentance.
The Beis Efraim (Yoreh De’ah 76) writes that one who does so is not considered a sinner (and it is permitted to mourn him), and the Semak (no. 3) cites a precedent for this from 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 HaChassid (cited in Sefer Zichron for Rav Shmuel Baruch Werner) explicitly addresses the question of suicide for the sake of repentance, and writes that it is not sinful 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 no act of suicide, and his death was rather a natural death caused by intense grief that came through remarkable repentance.
The Shevus Yaakov (2:110) likewise writes that it is not forbidden to take one’s own life for the sake of atoning a sin. He proves the case from an anecdote recounted by the Gemara (Kiddushin 81b) in which Rabbi Chiya bar Ashi went into a burning oven (Rashi explains 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 must be said anyway – that these rulings and precedents are in not way applicable for our times, and the basic and fundamental ruling is of course that one may never take one’s own life, under any pretext whatsoever.
Many authorities, including the above-mentioned Besamim Rosh, mention as a precedent case of Shaul (I Shmuel 31:4-5), who took his own life rather than falling into the hands of the enemy, as mentioned at the outset.
Shaul is not criticized by Chazal for taking his own life. On the contrary, the Midrash (Bereishis Rabba 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 (Bava Kama 8:59) suggests two possible reasons.
One reason is that Shaul was concerned that his falling into the hands of the enemy might have provoked the Jewish fighters into an impossible assault against the enemy camp, potentially costing thousands of Jewish lives. The Yam Shel Shlomo writes that it is permitted to give up one’s life to save 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 raised by the Yefei To’ar (commentary to Midrash) and the Radak (Shmuel 31:4), is that the case of Shaul was special because he knew 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 often hailed as an admirable 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 set aside 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 a common occurrence in medieval times, when Jews knew that if they would fall into the hands of captors, the latter would force them, at pain of torture and death, to convert.
There are several stories of mass suicides undertaken to avoid this situation, one of the most famous relating to four hundred captive children, destined for Roman brothel houses, who jumped off a ship to their death rather than endure captivity (Gittin 57b). 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).
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 (Bereishis 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, calling the former a murderer, and stating that if 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.
In our day, when many societies condone suicide and even allow physicians (in certain cases) to assist individuals in taking their own life, it is of great importance to emphasize the terrible gravity of taking one’s own life.
It is our duty to do everything we can, as individuals and as a society, to prevent those in danger from committing the worst act of all – taking their own lives. Heaven forbid, when a suicide occurs the case must be treated with understanding and with care – but every case is a warning call for the next one, and we must be ready to look the problem in the face.
As we have seen, the Torah and halachic authorities have much to say on the subject. May we never need to apply them.