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.
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.
Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.