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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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.