Tuesday, January 13, 2015

One's Own Life

There is nothing more sacred in Jewish law than human life. According to halacha, one must guard one’s life in all cases unless one is forced to commit murder, worship idols or partake in illicit relations. In these three situations only, is one permitted to give up one’s life.

Given these parameters, what is Judaism’s view on taking one’s own life? Suicide is a very difficult topic, and is not one explicitly dealt with in the Torah. Many scholars, however, understand Genesis 9:5 as a prohibition against taking one’s own life: “But for your own [life]blood I will require a reckoning.”

Tractate Semachot was critical for later halachic judgments and definitions of suicide. The legal definition of suicide requires one to very clearly declare with one’s own voice the intent to take one’s own life at that time.  That is why, in most situations, Jewish law rules that one who takes one’s own life is not considered in control and is therefore not considered to have committed suicide. The halachic interpretation of duress is extremely broad in its interpretation. (For instance, one suffering depression is considered to be under duress.) The body of a victim of suicide committed under duress is treated like any other Jewish corpse.

It is commonly believed that Jewish law does not permit one who committed suicide to be buried in a Jewish cemetery. The fact is that the Talmud states: “A suicide must be buried without any ceremony...This is the general rule: Whatever is for the honor of the living may be done; but everything which is not for their sake, it is not imperative for the congregation to do for such” Semachot 2:1). The mourning practices that honor the deceased are limited in the cases of the rare halachically defined suicide, but those rituals that benefit the mourners are always maintained.

NOTE: As with all Treats dealing with halacha (points of Jewish law), one should consult one's local rabbi for practical application.

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