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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 ceremony:
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 judgment.
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 sufficient.
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 regard.
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 knowledge.
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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