This article discusses the general topic of suicide from the perspective of Jewish law, not mental health. If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide, please get help; call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 and/or speak to a mental health professional. More resources can be found on their website.
The prevalence of suicide in our society has been gradually rising.1 In fact, according to recent data, suicide is one of the leading causes of death among the ages of 10 and 34, second only to unintentional injury.2 From the perspective of halachah, some of the fundamental questions we need to answer are: What is the halachic/philosophical objection to suicide? What are the halachic ramifications of one who commits suicide? What are the halachic criteria for a death to be considered a suicide? How do we address the many instances of suicide, individual and communal, that occurred throughout our long, tragic history of persecution?
Nature of the Halachic Prohibition
The prohibition of suicide is based on a verse in Genesis: "And surely your blood of your souls I will demand."3 The Talmud quotes Rabbi Eliezer, one of the great Tannaic sages, who interprets this verse as meaning, "And surely from your souls ('from yourselves') I will demand your blood ('I will hold you liable for taking your own life')."4 So we know that suicide is prohibited, but what is the rationale?
At its heart, the rationale stems from the basic concept in Jewish thought that one's body is not his own property but a loan from G‑d; one has no autonomy over his own body or the bodies of others.5 Based on this concept, just as one may not murder his fellow, one is similarly forbidden from "murdering" himself. Indeed, Maimonides rules that one who commits suicide is guilty of murder and will be held accountable in the Heavenly Court.6
On a more philosophical level, there are several other rationales that make suicide a distinctly reprehensible act.7
To begin with, one who commits suicide has by definition committed a sin without any option for repentance. Furthermore, one's death, in and of itself, can achieve atonement, in some instances achieving atonement when Yom Kippur cannot.8 By killing oneself, one's death becomes a sinful act9 rather than an atonement, and in a sense, one has "squandered" this opportunity.
In addition, the act of suicide implies that one is declaring autonomy and "playing G‑d," so to speak, and is, therefore, an implicit rejection of G‑d's sovereignty. The act of suicide also intimates that one is denying that the soul in fact lives on and will face judgment before the Heavenly court, thereby implicitly repudiating the immortality of the soul.
Given that suicide is considered such a reprehensible act, what are the halachic ramifications for one who commits suicide? (Please note, we are referring to one who has unequivocally committed suicide; as we'll see later, there are a number of criteria that must be met in order to characterize one as such.)
Maimonides writes that when one commits suicide, we withhold all traditional rites and rituals from him, such as mourning him or eulogizing him, but any rite or ritual that is performed as an honor for the living is not withheld .10 Maimonides further implies that one who commits suicide has no share in the World to Come.11
Burial in a Jewish Cemetery
With respect to burial, the Jewish community does nevertheless ensure that the suicide receives a burial.12 However, the question often arises as to whether the suicide victim can be buried in a Jewish cemetery. The classic halachic works do not mention this restriction when discussing the laws of suicide.13
However, there is a more general ruling mentioned in the Talmud that one does not bury a "wicked" person near a "righteous" person.14 There are halachic experts who have applied this general ruling to suicides, stating that insofar as this person's death itself was an act of sin, we have no choice but to consider him wicked and to apply this restriction.15 It should be noted, though, that applying this restriction does not preclude a suicide from being buried in the Jewish cemetery, it just mandates that he be buried at a distance from others.16
Kaddish for Suicide
With respect to saying the Kaddish prayer, Rabbi Moshe Sofer, a great 18th-century European rabbi and halachic authority known as the Chatam Sofer, writes that insofar as the Kaddish prayer elevates the soul of the departed, why would we not say it for one who commits suicide? In his words, "Because he did not behave as a Jew, should we not save him from the abyss? If he fell, should we not raise him back up?"17 Rabbi Sofer further writes that even though there is the opinion that we do not mourn for a suicide, if the lack of mourning will result in unbearable shame for the family, then the family may go through the traditional rites of mourning to be spared the embarrassment.18
As we'll soon see, given the strict definition of suicide in halachah, it is quite rare for these harsh ramifications to be implemented.
Halachic Definition of Suicide
How does halachah define a suicide? Maimonides writes that "one who [explicitly] states that he is ascending to the roof [to jump], and then is seen immediately ascending to the roof in anger and falling to his death, is assumed to have committed suicide."19 A similar phraseology is used in the Code of Jewish Law.20
Rabbi Yechiel Epstein, one of the renowned halachic experts ( poskim) of the 19th century, elaborates on this definition of suicide in his classic work Aruch HaShulchan. Rabbi Epstein writes that essentially only one who kills himself while being of clear and sound mind, free from internal or external coercion, is considered to have committed suicide. If, however, it's possible that there is another factor at play, such as extremes of fear, pain, distress or mental illness, then it's almost as though this person were "coerced" into suicide, and it's not considered a suicide of clear and sound mind. This does not mean that misery is a valid excuse for suicide, only that, post facto, we do not treat the deceased as a suicide.21
Additional examples of extenuating circumstances in which the person is considered "coerced" to commit suicide, as it were, are the fear that he would otherwise be tempted to sin22 or a misguided attempt to achieve atonement.23
What arises from the writings of Rabbi Epstein and others is that essentially we latch onto any rationale we can to avoid considering it a deliberate suicide in the halachic sense. In other words, it is not considered a true halachic suicide as far as mourning and burial are concerned unless there is no other theoretical alternative.
Based on the circumstances of the death, there are three basic types of rationales we can attempt to apply when considering whether it was, in fact, a suicide:
1) Maybe this person didn't, in fact, kill himself.24
2) We know for sure that this person killed himself, but there was some time lag between his actions and his death, and therefore it's possible he regretted his actions before he died.25
3) We know for sure that this person killed himself with immediacy; however, it's possible there was some compelling factor, such as extreme distress or a misconception, "coercing" him to commit suicide.26 27
Given the extremely limited halachic definition of suicide, it is rare to find a situation where we cannot apply some rationale or another to preclude it from being considered a suicide, and it is therefore rare to actually apply the halachic ramifications discussed above. (Of course, the above discussion in no way legitimizes or minimizes the fact that one may not take his own life. Rather, we are determining how the action is to be perceived after the fact.)
Precedents in Jewish History
Armed with these qualifying factors, we can better explore and understand the multiple tragic accounts of suicide throughout our long history.
The only explicit suicide mentioned in the Bible is that of the great King Saul, the first Jewish king. While in battle with the Philistines and realizing that capture was imminent, King Saul asks his arms-bearer to kill him. When the arms-bearer refuses, King Saul grasps his sword and falls on it, killing himself.28 According to many opinions, his behavior is not condemned,29 and several explanations are given as to why this is not considered a suicide. According to one explanation, King Saul feared that if he were captured, the ensuing attempt to liberate him would come at the cost of many lives.30
There are multiple other stories in the Talmud of suicide; of those that are not condemned, one of the extreme extenuating circumstances of either internal or external coercion can often be applied. One example is the famous story of Chana and her seven sons, which takes place during the Greek persecution during the Second Temple period.31 After her sons are killed one after another when they refuse to abandon Torah, we are told that she ascends to the roof and throws herself to her death. There, too, the mental distress caused by the enormity of her grief would exclude this from being considered a suicide in the halachic sense.32 Another example is the tragic saga of hundreds of Jewish children who are being taken captive to Rome for purposes of prostitution. All commit suicide en route.33 The early Talmudic commentators suggest that their suicide was driven by their fear that they would be tortured into sinning,34 and therefore it was not considered a suicide.
From a different angle, there is the interesting anecdote related about a known sinner in the Second Temple period who has a change of heart. To gain atonement for his past ways, he creates an elaborate scheme to punish himself with all four methods of capital punishment simultaneously35; upon his death, his actions are implicitly condoned.36 What he did was forbidden. However, as discussed above, since his actions were based on the misguided attempt to achieve atonement, this, too, would not be considered a post-facto suicide in the halachic sense.37
During the tragic years of the Crusades, Jews were often forced to convert to Christianity under threat of torture or death. Many Jews chose to take their own lives rather than face the prospect of succumbing and undergoing baptism; indeed, there were even those who preemptively killed their loved ones as well to prevent this outcome. With respect to those that took their own lives in this setting, one of the most prominent Talmudists from that era, Rabbenu Yakov ben Meir Tam, known as Rabbeinu Tam, ruled that if one suspects that he will be tortured into apostasy, then it may indeed be a mitzvah to take one's life.38 39
In summary, then, we have seen how halachah considers suicide to be a most serious and reprehensible act, and how there are several serious halachic ramifications for one who does commit suicide.
On the other hand, after the fact, it is rare for one who kills himself to truly be considered a suicide due to the extensive factors discussed above, and it is therefore rare that those ramifications are carried out.
As above, suicide is never the right choice and categorically forbidden by Jewish law. If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide, please get help; call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 and/or speak to a mental health professional.
May G‑d bless us all with complete physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health. In the words of the prophet Isaiah, "Do not fear, for I am with you; do not be discouraged, for I am your G‑d. I will encourage you, I will also help you, and I will support you with my righteous hand."40
Thank you to Rabbi Avrohom Altein, Mrs. Bronya Shaffer, Rabbi Dr. Yosef Shagalow, and Rabbi Yehuda Shurpin for their assistance with this article.