Suicide in Jewish Tradition and Literature

Suicide is deemed a grave sin, yet Jewish legal authorities are alert to mitigating circumstances.

Those who take their own lives are technically not entitled to Jewish burial and mourning rites–but suicide as a freely chosen act (with the above consequences) has been nearly defined out of existence by mental health considerations in the development of Jewish law, and in most cases deaths by suicide are treated like all other deaths. Excerpted with permission  from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, Oxford University Press.

In Jewish teaching, the prohibition of suicide is not contained in the sixth command­ment: "Thou shalt not kill" (Exodus 20: 13 and Deuteronomy 5: 17). Obviously it does not follow from the fact that a man may not take the life of another that he may not take his own life.

There is, in fact, no direct prohibition of suicide in the Bible. In the Talmud (Bava Kama 91b), however, the prohibition is arrived at by a process of exegesis on the verse: "and surely your blood of your lives will I require" (Genesis 9: 5), interpreted as: "I will require your blood if you yourselves shed it." It is possible that there is no direct prohibition because very few people of sound mind would be inclined to commit suicide in any event.

It follows from this that suicide and murder are two separate offenses in the Jewish tradi­tion, as they are in most cultures. Suicide is not homicide and is not covered in the Decalogue [the Ten Commandments]. In the usual rabbinic classification of duties, homicide would be considered an offense both "between man and God" and "between man and man," whereas suicide would fall only under the former heading.

Maimonides’ statement (Rotzeah, 2.2-3) that there is no "death at the hand of the court" for the crime of suicide, only "death by the hands of Heaven," is puzzling, since how could a suicide, no longer alive, be punished for the crime by the court?

In all probability, Maimonides formulates it in this way to distinguish between the two crimes of murder and suicide. Maimonides’ statement that a suicide is punished by the "hands of Heaven" no doubt refers to punishment in the hereafter; but the popular saying that a suicide has no share in the World to Come, which would cause a far more severe punishment to be visited on the suicide than on one guilty of murder, has no support in any of the classical sources. It has plausibly been suggested that the saying, though bogus, tended to be quoted as a warning to would-be suicides in stressful periods when there was a spate of suicides in the Jewish community.

Attitudes to Suicide

Suicide is considered to be a grave sin both because it is a denial that human life is a divine gift and because it constitutes a total defiance of God’s will for the individual to live the life-­span allotted to him. The suicide, more than any other offender, literally takes his life into his own hands. As it is put in Ethics of the Fathers (4. 21):"Despite yourself you were fashioned, and despite yourself you were born, and despite yourself you live, and despite yourself you die, and despite yourself you will hereafter have account and reckoning before the King of Kings, the Holy One, blessed be He."

Yet there are exceptional circumstances when a man is permitted to take his own life or allow it to be taken, of which martyrdom is the supreme example. The general tendency among the later authorities is to extend the idea of mitigating circumstances so that the law, re­corded in the [classical law code] Shulhan Arukh (Yoreh Deah, 345), that there are to be no rites of mourning over a suicide, is usually set aside wherever it can reasonably be assessed that the act was committed while the suicide was "of unsound mind."

Saul’s suicide (I Samuel 31: 4-5) is defended on the grounds that he feared torture if he were captured by the Philistines and would have died in any event as a result of the torture. Similarly, Samson’s suicide (Judges 16: 30), in which he destroyed himself together with 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 God of Israel.

Josephus (Jewish War 7. 8-9) tells how the garrison of Masada committed mass suicide. While this, too, is usually hailed as an example of martyrdom, some halakha [Jewish law] authorities have questioned whether the act of these heroes was justified in the light of the later halakhah, since the Romans may have spared their lives, albeit as slaves to the conquerors. Even the mass suicides of Jews in the Middle Ages in order to avoid forcible baptism was not defended by all the authorities, some of whom argued that while martyrdom was demanded, it was wrong for the Jews themselves to take their own lives. From all this it can be seen that no hard and fast rules were given, and ultimately the judgement of a suicide should be left to God.

The late Hasidic master, Mordecai Joseph of Izbica (d. 1854) in his commentary to the Torah, has an unusual discussion relevant to the theme of suicide. This author appears to have been the first to ask, from the theological point of view, whether a man, struggling for the truth against seemingly overwhelming odds, may give in mentally and entreat God to release him from the struggle by allowing him to die. For such a man actually to commit suicide is unthinkable, but is it impious for him to pray to God that he should die?

The two biblical examples of this kind of prayer are the plea of Jonah (Jonah 4: 4) and the prayer of Elijah (1 Kings 19: 4). Both prophets uttered their plea for death when their mission seemed to have failed. This Hasidic master reads the narratives of Jonah and Elijah as expressing disapproval of this kind of prayer. The good man, says Mordecai Joseph, should not take his distress at the wrongdoings of his contemporaries so much to heart as to wish that he were no longer alive to witness their sinful deeds.

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