The duty of preserving life, including one's own, is one of the paramount injunctions of Judaism (see *pikku'aḥ nefesh). The prohibition of suicide is a natural corollary to this, and yet it is nowhere explicitly forbidden in the Talmud. However, post-talmudic authorities considered suicide a most heinous sin, even worse than murder. It was thought to be a denial of the doctrines of reward and punishment, the world to come, and the sovereignty of God, and the opinion was expressed that the suicide forfeits his portion in the world to come. Suicide is sharply to be differentiated from martyrdom, which, under certain circumstances, is the greatest mitzvah of Judaism; a difference must also be made between letting oneself be killed and active suicide (see *Kiddush ha-Shem and Ḥillul ha-Shem).
Four definite suicides are recorded in the Bible. Samson (Judg. 16:30), Saul and his armor-bearer (I Sam. 31:4–5), and Ahithophel (II Sam. 17:23). The first three are regarded as "suicide under mitigating circumstances," so to speak. The Midrash, which regards suicide as rare (Gen. R. 82:8), includes the prohibition of suicide ("self-strangulation") in the injunction "and surely your blood of your lives will I require" (Gen. 9:5), but specifically excludes Saul as well as *Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah (Gen. R. 34:13). The Shulḥan Arukh (YD 345:3) takes Saul as an example of permitted suicide "because he knew that the Philistines would do with him as they wished, and put him to death" (Siftei Kohen, ad loc.). Samson's suicide, which brought in its train the death of the Philistines, is extolled as kiddush ha-Shem. The most famous act of suicide in Jewish history is the mass self-immolation of the garrison of *Masada in 73 C.E. as reported by Josephus (Wars, 7:320ff.). It has been suggested that they acted in accordance with their interpretation of the halakhah which included slavery and subjection to a foreign power as one of those principles concerning which one was enjoined "to be killed rather than transgress" (Rabinowitz, see bibl.). Other cases of suicide – such as the mass suicide in York in 1190 – which were motivated by either a desire to avoid forced conversion or fear, are considered to be acts of martyrdom.
It was only in the late post-talmudic tractate Semaḥot (Evel Rabbati 2:1–5) that the laws regarding suicide are formulated. It is laid down that no rites are to be performed in honor of the dead (e.g., *keri'ah and *hesped), but everything which appertains to respect for the mourners is permitted (YD 345:1; Maim. Yad, Evel 1:11). Solomon b. Abraham *Adret states that the "nothing to be done" does not include burial and shrouds (Rashba, Resp., vol. 2, no. 763). R. Ishmael states that an announcement was made concerning the suicide, "Woe, he has taken his life," but R. Akiva disagreed, saying to him, "Leave him in silence. Neither honor him nor curse him." Two cases are mentioned in the context of children (not necessarily minors) who committed suicide out of fear of punishment. The suicides were granted the full respects due to the dead. The moral which the rabbis derived from it was that it is better to punish than threaten punishment (Sem. 2:4–5).
A distinction is made between suicide while of sound mind (la-da'at) – to which alone these restrictions apply and suicide while of unsound mind (she-lo la-da'at), to which they did not apply; thus the suicide of a minor is not regarded as culpable. Only when there is the clearest evidence of felo-dese, deliberate intent, is a suicide to be considered as being of sound mind. "Who is a suicide of sound mind? It is not so regarded if a man climbed a tree or a roof and fell to his death, but only where he states, 'I am climbing the roof or the tree and I am going to throw myself to my death,' and one sees him acting accordingly… a man found strangled or hanging from a tree or cast upon a sword is regarded as a suicide while of unsound mind" (Sem. 2:2–3). It was, and in some places still is, the custom to bury suicides in a special section of the cemetery, but in recent years the tendency has grown to remove this stigma from the suicide, since the verdict is usually suicide while of unsound mind. The slightest indication is enough to
Apart from exceptional circumstances, such as during the Nazi persecutions, the incidence of suicides among Jews has been small. The mass suicides which took place during the Middle Ages to avoid forcible baptism, which are generally regarded as belonging to the category of kiddush ha-Shem, were not without their critics (see the incident recounted in Da'at Zekenim, to Gen. 9:5). The self-immolation of Meir Feinstein and Moshe Barazani who blew themselves to death in prison in Jerusalem in 1947 on the eve of their execution in order to cheat the hangman, was justified on the analogy of Saul. Their original intention, to commit the act on the way to the scaffold, causing the simultaneous death of their potential executioners, was based on the example of Samson. Rabbi S. *Goren (see bibl.), the chief rabbi of the Israel Defense Army, expressed the view that a soldier taken prisoner was entitled, and even obliged, to commit suicide if he feared that he might not be able to withstand torture, or that under it he might reveal military secrets. He was, however, subjected to considerable criticism for this view. However, with the growth of acculturation in the Western world, there is evidence that the rate among Jews is rising and approximating to that of the general population. See *Mental Illness.
[Louis Isaac Rabinowitz]
In Jewish Law
"But for your own life-blood I will require a reckoning" (Gen. 9:5) – these are the suicides whose blood is claimed by God (Gen. R. 34:13; Yad, Roẓe'aḥ 2:3). The "reckoning" is, of course, God's only, but on earth the suicide is denied certain honors due to the dead, provided the surviving mourners are not aggrieved by such denials (Sem. 2:1; YD 345:1). The suggestion that words of scorn be exclaimed at this grave was met by R. Akiva with the rejoinder, "do not abase him and do not praise him" (Sem. 2:1). In order to be reprehensible, the suicide must be voluntary and premeditated (me'abbed aẓmo la-da'at, that is, he must knowingly destroy himself). A person destroying himself is presumed to do so without the necessary premeditation (she-lo la-da'at) – whether from pathological depression and not being in possession of his mental faculties (cf. Yad, Sanhedrin 18:6), or from "duress" (see *Penal Law). Duress includes not only compulsion, such as the necessity to kill oneself rather than surrender to the enemy or violate God's laws (see below), but also the (subjectively) reasonable despair of life or the identification with a person who just died. Most of the suicides reported in Bible, Talmud, and Midrash fall into either of these categories, which may explain the fact that they are not adversely or deprecatingly commented upon. (For those in the Bible, to which the (possible) suicide of Zimri (I Kings 6:18) may be added, see above.) Examples in the Talmud are that of the servant of Judah ha-Nasi who killed himself when learning of his master's death (Ket. 103b), and of the pagan executioner who joined Hananiah (Ḥanina) b. Teradyon in the flames (Av. Zar. 18a).
Duress is also present where the suicide amounts to self-inflicted punishment for real or imagined sinfulness: the apostate Yakum of Ẓerorot is said to have entered paradise after having taken his own life in a manner devised to combine all four modes of judicial execution (Mid. Ps. to 11:7); and Ḥiyya b. Ashi is said to have caused his own death in despair over an offense he intended to commit and thought he had committed, though in fact he had not committed it at all (Kid. 81b). Where a man chooses to die rather than surrender to the heathen, no question of duress arises, because his conduct is highly praiseworthy (Git. 57b); the most notable instances are those related in the Books of the Maccabees (e.g., II Macc. 14:37–46) and the reported mass suicide at Masada (which has recently given rise to some halakhic discussion). As for the violation of Divine law, while every man has to decide for himself whether he will kill himself rather than commit any such violation (Git. 57b), the law was settled to the effect that where he is required to commit idolatry, adultery (gillui arayot), or murder, he must kill himself or let himself be killed rather than commit any of those crimes (Sanh. 74a; Sh. Ar., YD 157).
The scope of duress being as wide as it is, the law will presume that a man found dead from his own hand took his life involuntarily and without premeditation (Sem. 2:3), until the contrary is proved from what the man himself had been heard to say before his death (Sem. 2:2). As far as minors are concerned, the presumption of duress appears to be irrebuttable (Sem: 2:4–5; YD 345:3). So long as the presumption is not rebutted, a suicide may not in any way be discriminated against (Yad, Evel 1:11). The law, however, has to take cognizance of attempted suicide: a person who does any act by which he endangers his own life is liable to disciplinary *flogging (makkat mardut; Yad, Roẓeʾaḥ 11:5). Opinions are divided whether a man may inflict nonfatal wounds on himself (BK 91b); and the law is that while he is not allowed to do so, he is not punishable if he does so (BK 8:6; ḤM 420:31); yet not only might he be punished at the hands of heaven (Tosef., BK 9:31), but the disciplinary flogging may always be imposed in lieu of punishment (Yad, Roẓe'aḥ 11:5; ḤM 427:10). If suicide attempts are epidemic or otherwise constitute a threat to national security, the court may exercise its emergency powers and impose not only floggings but also *imprisonment (cf. Yad, Roze'ah 2:4–5).
[Haim Hermann Cohn]
Suicide to Avoid Severe Torture
Throughout the generations halakhic authorities have confronted questions concerning the permissibility of suicide in situations other than when it becomes necessary to avoid committing one of the three cardinal prohibitions previously discussed. These questions arose during periods of anti-Jewish violence and pogroms and attempts to coerce Jews into to apostasy.
Rabbenu Tam (Tos. Avodah Zarah, 18a) ruled that it is a mitzvah to commit suicide in order to escape extreme pain and torture, especially when used against a person to coerce apostasy. According to other halakhic authorities, suicide
During the *Holocaust, this question again arose in a practical context. In Resp. Mi-Ma'amakim (1.6), Rabbi Ephaim Oshry relates to a question submitted by a Jew from the Kovno ghetto who asked whether he was allowed to commit suicide to avoid a horrible death accompanied by severe suffering as well as to avoid witnessing the deaths of his family.
The responsum discusses the opinions of earlier authorities, and cites the incident of the suicide of King Saul (I Samuel 31:4), The answer given was that, under the circumstances, suicide was permitted, but the author requested that the responsum not be publicized to prevent it from providing assistance to Nazi murderers by sowing despair among the Jews.
The responsum concludes with the following comment: "Nonetheless we may take pride in the fact that there were no suicides in the Kovno ghetto with the exception of three people whose morale was completely shattered. The remaining Ghetto residents continued to believe and were fully confident that God would not abandon His people and would halt the murderers."
[Menachem Elon (2nd ed.)]
S. Goren, in: Maḥanayim, 87 (1964), 7–12; L.I. Rabinowitz, in: Sinai, 55 (1964), 329–32; Ch. W. Reines, in: Juda, 10 (1961), 160–70. IN JEWISH LAW: A. Roth, Eine Studie ueber den Selbstmord, vom juedischen Standpunkte (1878); J. Ginzburg, Mishpatim le-Yisra'el (1956), 247–57, 307f.; J. Nedava, in: Mishpat ve-Kalkalah, 3 (1956/57), 87–99; Z. Rabinowicz, in: Harofe Haivri, 34 (1961), 153–6; ET, 12 (1967), 681f. ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: M. Elon, Ha-Mishpat ha-Ivri (1988), 2:1156; idem, Jewish Law (1994), 3:1389; A. Ben Zimra, "Kedushat ha-Ḥayyim u-Messirut Nefesh bi-Ymei ha-Shoah al-pi ha-Halakhah," in: Sinai, 80 (1977), 151–85; J.D. Bleich, Judaism and Healing (1981), 158–61; S. Goldstein, Suicide in Rabbinic Literature (1989); S. Goren, "She'elah u-Teshuvah be-Niddon Gibborei Meẓadah," in: Or ha-Mizraḥ, 7:3 (1960), 22–27; M.Z. Neriah, "Hitabdut le-Da'at – Giborei Meẓada le-Or ha-Halakhah," in: Or ha-Mizraḥ, 8 (1961) 8–12; A. Steinberg, Enẓiklopedyah Hilkhatit Refu'it, 1: 7–17; idem, "Hitabdut le-Or ha-Halakhah," in: Halakhah ve-Refu'ah (1988) 281–95.
Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.