Euthanasia: Jewish Biblical and Rabbinic Sources

The Torah prohibits murder, and the Talmud maintains the prohibition on active killing, even with the terminally ill.

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Reprinted with permission from Biomedical Ethics and Jewish Law, published by KTAV.

In the Bible we find: Whoso sheddeth man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed (Genesis 9:6). In the second book of the Pentateuch it is stated: Thou shalt not murder (Exodus 20:13), and in the next chapter, And if a man come presumptuously upon his neighbor, to slay him with guile: thou shalt take him from Mine altar, that he may die (Exodus 21:14). 

In the next book is the phrase And he that smiteth any man mortally shall surely be put to death (Leviticus 24:17), and four sentences later, And he that killeth a man shalt be put to death. In Numbers (35:30) it states: Whoso killeth any person, the murderer shall be slain at the mouth of witnesses. Finally, the sixth commandment of the Decalogue is repeated: Thou shalt not murder (Deuteronomy 5:17).

Thus, in every book of the Pentateuch, we find at least one reference to murder or killing. Accidental death or homicide is dealt with separately in the Bible and represents another subject entirely.

King Saul's (Assisted) Suicide

Probably the first recorded instance of euthanasia concerns the death of King Saul in the year 1013 B.C.E. At the end of the First Book of Samuel, we find the following:

"Now the Philistines fought against Israel, and the men of Israel fled from before the Philistines and fell down slain in Mount Gilboa. And the Philistines pursued hard upon Saul and upon his sons; and the Philistines slew Jonathan and Abinadab and Malchishua, the sons of Saul. And the battle went sore against Saul, and the archers overtook him, and he was greatly afraid by reason of the archers. Then said Saul to his armor‑bearer: 'Draw thy sword, and thrust me through therewith, lest these uncircumcised come and thrust me through and make a mock of me.' But his armor‑bearer would not, for he was sore afraid. Therefore, Saul took his sword and fell upon it. And when the armor‑bearer saw that Saul was dead, he likewise fell upon his sword and died with him. So Saul died and his three sons, and his armor‑bearer, and all his men, that same day together (I Samuel 31:1-6)."

From this passage it would appear as if Saul committed suicide. However, at the beginning of the Second Book of Samuel, when David is informed of Saul's death, we find the following:

"And David said unto the young man that told him: 'How knowest thou that Saul and Jonathan his son are dead?' And the young man that told him said: 'As I happened by chance upon Mount Gilboa, behold, Saul leaned upon his spear; and lo, the chariots and the horsemen pressed hard upon him. And when he looked behind him, he saw me, and called unto me. And I answered: Here am I. And he said unto me: Who art thou? And I answered him: I am an Amalekite. And he said unto me: Stand, I pray thee, beside me, and slay me, for the agony hath taken hold of me; because my life is just yet in me. So I stood beside him, and slew him, because I was sure that he would not live after that he was fallen…' (II Samuel 1:5-10)"

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Dr. Fred Rosner

Dr. Fred Rosner is Director of the Department of Medicine of the Mount Sinai Services at the Queens Hospital Center and Professor of Medicine at New York's Mount Sinai School of Medicine. He is a diplomat of the American Board of Internal Medicine and a Fellow of the American College of Physicians.