Suicide in Jewish Tradition and Literature

Suicide is deemed a grave sin, yet Jewish legal authorities are alert to mitigating circumstances.

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Yet there are exceptional circumstances when a man is permitted to take his own life or allow it to be taken, of which martyrdom is the supreme example. The general tendency among the later authorities is to extend the idea of mitigating circumstances so that the law, re­corded in the [classical law code] Shulhan Arukh (Yoreh Deah, 345), that there are to be no rites of mourning over a suicide, is usually set aside wherever it can reasonably be assessed that the act was committed while the suicide was "of unsound mind."

Saul's suicide (I Samuel 31: 4-5) is defended on the grounds that he feared torture if he were captured by the Philistines and would have died in any event as a result of the torture. Similarly, Samson's suicide (Judges 16: 30), in which he destroyed himself together with his Philistine tormentors, is defended on the grounds that it constituted an act of kiddush hashem, "sanctification of the di­vine name," in the face of heathen mockery of the God of Israel.

Josephus (Jewish War 7. 8-9) tells how the garrison of Masada committed mass suicide. While this, too, is usually hailed as an example of martyrdom, some halakha [Jewish law] authorities have questioned whether the act of these heroes was justified in the light of the later halakhah, since the Romans may have spared their lives, albeit as slaves to the conquerors. Even the mass suicides of Jews in the Middle Ages in order to avoid forcible baptism was not defended by all the authorities, some of whom argued that while martyrdom was demanded, it was wrong for the Jews themselves to take their own lives. From all this it can be seen that no hard and fast rules were given, and ultimately the judgement of a suicide should be left to God.

The late Hasidic master, Mordecai Joseph of Izbica (d. 1854) in his commentary to the Torah, has an unusual discussion relevant to the theme of suicide. This author appears to have been the first to ask, from the theological point of view, whether a man, struggling for the truth against seemingly overwhelming odds, may give in mentally and entreat God to release him from the struggle by allowing him to die. For such a man actually to commit suicide is unthinkable, but is it impious for him to pray to God that he should die?

The two biblical examples of this kind of prayer are the plea of Jonah (Jonah 4: 4) and the prayer of Elijah (1 Kings 19: 4). Both prophets uttered their plea for death when their mission seemed to have failed. This Hasidic master reads the narratives of Jonah and Elijah as expressing disapproval of this kind of prayer. The good man, says Mordecai Joseph, should not take his distress at the wrongdoings of his contemporaries so much to heart as to wish that he were no longer alive to witness their sinful deeds.

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Rabbi Louis Jacobs

Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.