Defining Death in Jewish Law

Traditional sources point to the cessation of breathing as the moment of death.

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The literal reading of the key talmudic text and the comments of the rishonim (early commentators) clearly imply that the vital sign distinguishing between life and death is breathing, and not the beating of the heart. Rabbi Moshe Schreiber similarly writes: “For everything is dependent upon the breath of the nose, as is explained in Yoma 85a; and in the ruling in Maimonides and the Tur Shulchan Aruch.” Rabbi Moshe Feinstein also states: “It is explicitly stated in the Gemara, Yoma 85a,…and similarly there is a ruling in Maimonides…and in the Shulchan Aruch …that [the ruling that] if they did not sense any vitality, he is legally dead, refers to the examination of breathing…and if they see that he is not breathing, this is the sign of death upon which we can rely, and there is no need to ponder this; see the [writings of] the Chatam Sofer…”

These rabbinic decisors (poskim) make no mention of the heart in reference to the text in Yoma nor do they mention pulses in the arteries or temples, as some authorities suggest in their interpretations of this talmudic text. Thus, the heart has no halakhic status in the definition of the moment of death, and it is wrong to append to the text in Yoma any conditions, casuistry, and hairsplitting that are not there. Some contemporary rabbis posit that a distinction should be made between the case in Yoma, which speaks of a person covered by debris, and regular death, in which case the heart must be checked. This approach was rejected by the Chatam Sofer, who wondered how such a distinction could be made, since the biblical expression “breath of the spirit of life” (Genesis 7:22) does not refer to debris.

The emphasis of the Talmud in Yoma that, regarding the saving of life, the main sign of vitality is in the nose clearly implies that the definition of life and death on the basis of breathing is an essential matter of principle, and not a mere “technical” matter. Furthermore, there are cases in which a person’s heart continues to beat, but the person nevertheless is halachically regarded as dead. Maimonides rules: “If his neck is broken, and most of the flesh with it, or he is torn like a fish from his back, or his head was cut off, or he is divided into two parts in his stomach—this situation imparts impurity [as a corpse], even though one of his limbs still flutters.” Although the heart still beats, this mortally wounded person is regarded as having died immediately. Thus, the activity of the heart per se does not necessarily constitute a sign of life. Indeed, there is no allusion in the entire Talmud to the heart as an essential factor in the determination of the moment of death, except for the aforementioned version by a minority of rishonim. This opinion, however, does not constitute the final halacha. On the contrary, throughout Jewish writings, breathing is discussed as the determinant of the transition from life to death: “And He breathed into his nostrils the breath of life” (Genesis 2:7). Similarly, the words neshimah (breathing) and neshamah (soul or life) share a common root.

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Dr. Abraham Steinberg

Abraham Steinberg is a pediatric neurologist at Shaare Zedek Hospital in Israel and head of the medical ethics department of the Hebrew University-Hadassah School of Medicine. He is a recipient of the prestigious Israel Prize.