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)"

Many commentators consider this a case of euthanasia. Rabbi David Kimchi (Radak) [c. 1160-c.1235] specifically states that Saul did not die immediately on falling on his sword but was mortally wounded and in his death throes asked the Amalekite to hasten his death. Rabbi Levi ben Gerson (Ralbag) [1288-1344], Rabbi Shlomo ben Isaac (Rashi) [1040-1105], and Rabbi David Altschul (Metzudat David) [18th century] also support this viewpoint. Some modern scholars think that the story of the Amalekite was a complete fabrication.

Talmudic Sources

The Talmud states as follows: "One who is in a dying condition (goses) is regarded as a living person in all respects (Semahot 1:1)." This rule is reiterated by the codifiers of Jewish law including, Maimonides and Karo. The Talmud continues:

syringe"One may not bind his jaws, nor stop up his openings, nor place a metallic vessel or any cooling object on his navel until such time that he dies, as it is written: Before the silver cord is snapped asunder (Ecclesiastes 12:6). One may not move him, nor may one place him on sand or on salt until he dies. One may not close the eyes of the dying person. He who touches them or moves them is shedding blood because Rabbi Meir used to say: This can be compared to a flickering flame. As soon as a person touches it, it becomes extinguished. So too, whosoever closes the eyes of the dying is considered to have taken his soul (Semahot 1:2-4)."

Other laws pertaining to a goses, or dying person, such as the preparation of a coffin, inheritance, marriage, and so forth, are then cited.

The Talmud also mentions: "He who closes the eyes of a dying person while the soul is departing is a murderer [lit. he sheds blood]. This may be compared to a lamp that is going out. If a man places his finger upon it, it is immediately extinguished (Shabbat 151b)." Rashi explains that this small effort of closing the eyes may slightly hasten death.

The most famous talmudic passage concerning euthanasia is the story of Rabbi Chanina ben Teradion (Avodah Zarah 18a), who was wrapped by the Romans in a Scroll of the Law (Torah), with bundles of straw around him which were set on fire. The Romans also put tufts of wool which had been soaked in water over his heart so that he should not die quickly. His disciples pleaded with him to open his mouth "so that the fire enter into thee" and put an end to his agony. He replied: "Let Him who gave me [my soul] take it away" but no one is allowed to injure himself or hasten his death.

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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.