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soc.culture.jewish FAQ: Worship, Conversion, Intermarriage (5/12)
Section - Question 11.6.9: Death and Burial: What is the Jewish position on Suicide?

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   The Jewish position on suicide is well summarized in the background of
   the Reform Responsa on whether a suicide can be buried in a Jewish
     Surprisingly enough, there is no clear law against suicide in the
     Bible or the Talmud. Perhaps suicide was so rare that there was no
     need for such a law. The Bible mentions only two suicides in the
     entire long span of history which it covers: King Saul on Mount
     Gilboa (I Samuel 31:4) and David's counselor, Ahitophel (II Samuel
     17:23). Nor does the Talmud find it necessary to speak of the sin
     of suicide. Some of the earlier scholars base the objection to this
     crime upon the verse used by God to Noah when he and his family
     left the Ark: "Surely your blood of your lives will I require"
     (Genesis 9:5). But neither Maimonides nor Aaron Halevi in the
     Chinuch count this as one of the negative commandments.
     The first clear-cut statement about the crime of suicide is in the
     post- Talmudic booklet Semachot, at the beginning of chapter 2.
     There it is stated that those who commit suicide are to receive no
     burial rites. The phraseology used there is important, since from
     this source it has found its way into all important later
     discussions. "He who destroys himself consciously (lada-at), we do
     not engage ourselves with his funeral in any way. We do not tear
     the garments, and we do not bare the shoulder in mourning, and we
     do not say eulogies for him; but we do stand in the mourner's row
     and recite the blessing of the mourners because the latter is for
     the honor of the living." Then follows a definition of the crime of
     suicide as follows: If a man is found hanged or fallen from a tree
     or a wall he is not to be deemed a suicide unless he says, "I am
     going to do so," and they see him climb up, etc. Then it is stated
     that a child who commits suicide is not to be counted as a suicide,
     clearly because he is not to be judged as acting with a clear mind
     (lada-at), which must be presupposed before the crime is to be
     considered a crime. Then follows the law that those convicted and
     executed by the Jewish courts should not be mourned for in any way
     lest the mourning imply that the Sanhedrin had made an unjust
     From this statement in Semachot the law spread to all the codes and
     frequently appears in the Responsa literature. In this original
     source it is evident that only a person who commits suicide with
     clear mind and with an announced intention beforehand, is to be
     treated as a suicide. A mere presumption of suicide is not
     This desire to be cautious with the accusation of suicide had many
     motives, of course. One was that the law itself spoke of
     circumstances under which one should willingly accept death, when
     threatened with the compulsion to violate any of the three sins of
     idolatry, immorality, and murder (B. Sanhedrin 74a). This type of
     suicide, often carried out in wholesale fashion in the Middle Ages
     as well as in earlier times, was honored as noble martyrdom.
     Therefore, it was clear that not all surrender of life could be
     deemed blameworthy by the law. At times it was even noble. Thus,
     the Talmud speaks in praise of the mass suicide by the drowning of
     young boys and girls being taken captive for a shameful life in
     Rome (B. Gittin 57b). Besides martyrdom, the law also considered
     personal stresses. Thus, the tradition never seems to have blamed
     King Saul for his suicide. In fact, his case became a frequently
     cited case in the following way: King Saul was afraid that the
     Philistines would subject him to torture, and he saw himself as
     dying anyhow, and therefore, while the sin is still a sin, it was a
     forgivable one.
     With Saul as a pardonable prototype for most suicides under stress,
     the Rabbis, in many a specific case that came before them, sought
     and found reasons why a person who took his own life should not be
     stigmatized legally as a suicide. They generally said that whoever
     is under stress as Saul was ('anus keSha-ul"), is not to be
     considered a suicide legally, even if he takes his own life. A
     number of cases will indicate their considerate mood in this
     Jacob Weil, a German rabbi of the 13th-14th century, in his
     Responsa (no. 114) speaks of the case of a Jewish criminal who was
     executed by the German courts. Should not such a criminal be deemed
     equivalent to a suicide (since he willfully risked his life) and
     therefore not have a regular burial and be mourned for? He gives a
     number of reasons why this man should be mourned for with full
     mourning ritual. First, he was tortured, and pain is considered a
     purification of sin. Then, we assume, he made confession of his
     sins, and that, too, brought him atonement. So Mordecai Benet,
     Rabbi of Nicholsburg, early 19th century (Parashat Mordechai, Yoreh
     De-a 25), discusses a criminal who was found in his cell, having
     committed suicide. He says that such an act is to be called suicide
     only if it is done with full and clear awareness (lada-at). This
     man certainly was in terror of being executed, or of being
     imprisoned for life in the dungeons of the city of Bruenn, which is
     worse than death; therefore he is to be considered as having acted
     under unbearable stress, as King Saul was. In general, he said that
     a man is not wholly responsible for what he does in his grief.
     Solomon Kluger of Brody (middle of the 19th century, Ha-elef Lecha
     Shelomo, Yoreh De-a 301) speaks of a man heavily in debt who
     attempted suicide, failed, and some days afterwards died. First,
     there was a question of whether he really died because of the wound
     he inflicted on himself; secondly, he was under great stress; and
     Kluger concludes that whoever is under stress, as Saul was, is not
     to be considered a suicide. Also based upon the original source in
     the baraita Semachot, chapter 2, all children who for some reason
     or other commit suicide are not to be treated as legal suicides
     because they certainly cannot be assumed to act lada-at, with full
     A summary of the thoughtful, sympathetic attitude of the law to
     such unfortunates is summed up in the latest code, Aruch
     Hashulchan, Yoreh De- a 345 (Yechiel Epstein). He says, in general
     summary: "We seek all sorts of reasons possible to explain away the
     man's action, either his fear, or his pain, or temporary insanity,
     in order not to declare the man a suicide." Whatever the secular
     coroner or medical examiner would declare, the concern of Judaism,
     which deals with a man's religious rights, depends upon what Jewish
     traditional law says and feels. It would amount to this: Only a man
     who commits suicide calmly and with clear resolve is to be
     considered a suicide. In fact, some of the scholars say that he has
     first to announce his intention and then to fulfill it at once. If
     he announces such intention and is found dead much later, or if he
     is found dead under suspicious circumstances but did not declare
     such an intention, he is not to be treated as a suicide.
     Since the definition for legal suicide was so strict, there were
     many cases of presumed suicides which were not definitely so
     stigmatized. Therefore, the scholars could allow themselves to
     permit full funeral rights for many whom-- out of kindness--they
     declared as not being legal suicides. They were frequently
     uncertain as to how much ritual should be permitted. The original
     source in Semachot says that there must be no mourning at all--no
     tearing of garments, no eulogies, no mourning rituals after the
     burial. In fact, it begins by saying, "We do not deal with them at
     all" ("Ein mitasekin bahem"), which would imply that we do nothing
     even about burial. But, inasmuch as they were loath to declare
     anybody a suicide, they proceeded, as it were, to nibble away at
     the wholesale prohibitions just described.
     The strictest of all codifiers is Maimonides (Hilchot Evel), who
     says that there should be no mourning rites, etc., but only the
     blessing for the mourners. The Ramban, in Toledot Ha-adam, says
     that there should be tearing of the garments. The next step is
     taken by Solomon ben Adret, the great legal authority of Barcelona
     (13th century) in his Responsum no. 763. He says that certainly we
     are in duty bound to provide shrouds and burial. A later authority,
     Moses Sofer, in his Responsa, Yoreh De-a 326, says that we
     certainly do say Kaddish, and he would permit any respectable
     family to go through all the mourning ritual, lest the family have
     to bear innocently eternal disgrace if they do not exercise
     mourning conspicuously.
     The one part of the mourning ritual about which there is almost no
     permission is the custom of giving a eulogy of the dead. Thus,
     Jacob Castro, in his notes to the Shulchan Aruch, while saying in
     general that public mourning is forbidden but private mourning is
     permitted, adds emphatically that we do not give a eulogy and
     certainly do not have a professional eulogist. Why they were
     increasingly lenient about mourning rituals but were firm against
     eulogy is easily understood. Although the man who committed suicide
     may be pardoned, he should not be praised as an example. In the
     words of Rabbi Akiva, in the original source in Semachot: We should
     neither praise nor defame him. In other words, he should be quietly
     forgiven. Nevertheless, there are one or two opinions which would
     permit even a eulogy. One is Ezekiel Katzenellenbogen, Rabbi of
     Altona, early 18th century (Keneset Yechezkel, no. 37), who says
     that whenever there is any sort of reason, we eulogize him. And the
     other is the statement in the Talmud specifically about Saul, the
     prototype, that the children of Israel were punished because they
     failed to eulogize Saul adequately (B. Yevamot 78b). But, in
     general, the mood was as summarized by the Pitchei Teshuva, Abraham
     Zevi Eisenstadt, who said: "We mourn but we do not eulogize."
     The long and complicated succession of discussions in the law on
     the matter of suicide amounts, then, to this: An increasing
     reluctance to stigmatize a man as a suicide, and therefore, an
     increasing willingness to grant more and more rights of burial and
     mourning. The only hesitation is with regard to eulogy. It would
     therefore seem to be in accord with the mood of tradition if we
     conducted full services and omitted the eulogy, provided this
     omission does not cause too much grief to the family. If the family
     is deeply desirous of some address to be given in the funeral
     service, then the address should be as little as possible in the
     form of a eulogy of the departed and more in the form of consoling
     of the survivors. For the general principle is frequently repeated
     in discussing this law: "That which is for the honor of the living
     shall be done."

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