Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Bemidbar/ Shavuot 5762 - May 11/ May 17, 2002

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
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Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,

Parashat Bemidbar/ Shavuot 5762 - May11/ May 17, 2002
On the Sixth Commandment: You Shall not Kill Yourself

Dr. Israel Zvi Gilat
School of Education

Alongside the plain meaning of "you shall not kill" a prohibition against taking another person's life - the Sages found a more specific, underlying significance: the prohibition against bringing about one's own death. A baraita in the Babylonian Talmud (Bava Kamma 90b) states as follows: "We are taught: But for your own life-blood I will require a reckoning (Gen. 9:5). R. Eleazar said: from your life [soul] I shall require [a reckoning of] your blood." This prohibition is also deduced from "you shall not kill" (see Pesikta Rabbati, Exodus, ch. 24): "You shall not kill - you shall not cause yourself to be killed, meaning that you shall not be killed by the person whose blood you spilled."[1] It follows from these two interpretations that the prohibition extends further than not taking another person's life; rather, it applies to taking any life, even one's own, be it directly, by deliberately committing suicide in order to hasten the end of one's life, or indirectly, by taking undue risk on oneself, hoping to come through alive.

The idea that a person is not entitled to bring about his own end provides an answer[2] to a question that has perplexed learned experts in criminal law: Is there any intrinsic value in the legal prohibition against murder, beyond fear of punishment? What if, heaven forbid, a person wished to risk himself dying by committing a crime that bears the death penalty? Is he allowed to do so? An answer to this question is given in the Midrash:

Since when is a person allowed to commit murder in order to kill himself? For we are taught, "You shall not murder." Since when can a person about to be executed declare, "I shall kill," and this be permitted him? For we are taught, "You shall not murder." Since whence is a person allowed to say, "I shall commit adultery," in order to be killed? For we are taught, "You shall not commit adultery."

In other words, the murderer and the adulterer are sentenced to death by the laws of the Torah on account of the harm they cause others, but at the same time they also transgress the religious proscription not to put oneself in the position of being killed. This interpretation clearly rests on the view that a person's life does not belong to him, and therefore one is not entitled to decide what to do with one's body[3] -- a view patently contradictory to all notions of civil liberty in which the freedom of the individual and his supreme rights over his own body are sacrosanct.[4]

Nevertheless, it must be said that the halakhic interpretations forbidding any action that harms oneself are not without question. On one hand, Scriptures, the Apocrypha, and even the histories written after the destruction of the Second Temple and the revolts that followed it provide numerous examples of important figures who willingly put an end to their own lives, be it by suicide or by dying in a battle when there "was a choice," such as Samson, King Saul, Hannah and her seven sons, the "four hundred children who were taken captive to be disgraced,"[5] the zealots in Jerusalem, the fighters on Massada, the victims at Beitar, and others.[6] Moreover, "some of our rabbis even praise them." On the other hand, the sweeping proscription against self-harm has evoked a serious polemic amongst halakhic authorities, beginning with the rishonim. Is killing oneself forbidden even to someone who is forced to commit a sin that falls into the category of "be killed, rather than transgress"? Is such a person forbidden to avert the calamity that lies in store and to kill himself, "if he sees that he will not be able withstand the test," as the Tosafists phrased it? Or, quite the opposite, is he then "commanded to inflict injury upon himself," as is the opinion attributed to Rabbenu Tam? Or is neither the case; rather, is the decision left up to the person himself?[7]

It must be noted that the Torah is not clear-cut on this issue. Moreover, the figures cited as examples have been studied thoroughly.[8] For example, take King Saul, known as "G-d's chosen," who asked a necromancer to summon the ghost of the prophet Samuel. According to Scripture, Samuel reproved Saul, concluding with the words, "Further, the Lord will deliver the Israelites who are with you into the hands of the Philistines. Tomorrow your sons and you will be with me" (I Sam. 28:19). Later we read about the battle that was waged the following day: "The battle raged around Saul, and some of the archers hit him, and he was severely wounded by the archers. Saul said to his arms-bearer, 'Draw your sword and run me through, so that the uncircumcised may not run me through and make sport of me.' But his arms bearer ... refused; whereupon Saul grasped the sword and fell upon it" (I Sam. 31:3-4). How could Saul have taken his own life?

A prevalent view among Jewish scholars is that Saul did not sin, "since Saul knew he was destined to die in battle, for Samuel had told him."[9] In other words, Saul acted as he did because he knew of a certainty that he would die in that battle. Hence, any other person whose end is not known has no right to take his own life. This view is based on the Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni, loc. sit., 141) that says:

Samuel prophesied during his lifetime and after his death. For he said to Saul: If you take my advice and die by the sword, then your death shall act as atonement for you, and your lot shall be to share the same place where I am. So Saul took his advice and was killed, himself and his sons along with him.

Indirectly we see that Saul's act of glory was not a guiding rule for later generations, but a dictate of the moment, serving as atonement for his sins, according to the words of prophecy that he received.

Another explanation found in the works of commentators[10] is that Saul's act was not considered suicide, "because the archers had found him and he had no escape. Better for him to have killed himself than for the uncircumcised to have made sport of him." This explanation, as well, rests on the uniqueness of Saul as King of Israel; or because "he reasoned that if he were to fall into their hands alive they would make sport of him and torture him. Obviously the Israelites would not have been able to tolerate seeing and hearing their king in trouble without themselves rising up to avenge him and save him, thereby causing several tens of thousands of Israelites to fall." Or, "it was not befitting for him to die at the hands of the uncircumcised, who would contemptuously torture him to death, thereby desecrating the Lord, according to our religion."

On the other side there were posekim who held that Saul did not stand beyond the strict limits of the halakhah, and that his status did not warrant him having "immunity with regard to self-inflicted death." Nahmanides, and following him also Rosh, were of the opinion that Saul's action was permitted by virtue of his being pursued, "hence he was in no sense committing suicide."[11] R. Joseph Karo, in Beit Yosef,[12] also related to Saul's act in the context of the debate among the rishonim, whether "when there is a fear that pagans will cause him to commit a transgression, for example by torture that he cannot withstand, then he is commanded to inflict injury on himself," as Rabbenu Tam held,[13] or whether that was not the case. We quote:

We interpret that in times of persecution a person may give himself over to death and take his own life if he knows that he will not be able to withstand ... Substantiation for this is provided by those who killed babies in time of persecution. Some authorities forbid this, interpreting ... that a person may not kill himself. Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah handed themselves over to others but did not harm themselves. Saul son of Kish acted contrary to what the rabbis ordained.[14]

Later generations, as well, used Saul's act to illustrate their prowess in halakhah. Here, too, there were differences opinion among the posekim. In the responsa, Hayyim Sha'al (by R. Hayyim Yosef David Azulai) the following question is asked:

A Jew was captured, brought to trial, and incarcerated in the same place as the king's prisoners, but was kept in a room by himself. After several days the prison guards said they found him strangled, a scarf around his neck. The question is whether this should be considered a case of suicide, and hence the deceased should not be mourned, or whether one should mourn for him.
Here is my answer:

One could argue that since it had been publicized that he was the murderer, this poor person feared he would be abused, and sentenced to death by torture, and therefore he chose to die on his own, without torture. Beit Lehem Yehudah wrote ... if a person puts himself to death for fear of having to face great torture as is the practice of pagan law, first torturing the condemned person, then surely this is not considered suicide.[15] ... Regarding what is said in Genesis Rabbah on the words, "But for your own life-blood," one may ask whether this also applies to people in circumstances like King Saul. That is why it says "But." Regarding Saul, Scriptures wrote that he feared the Amalekites would make sport of him. From this we learn that a person who takes his own life for fear of being tortured is not considered a suicide.

Thus we may conclude from his opinion that fear of torment is cause for special leniency, even in cases not involving a transgression in the class of "be killed rather than transgress."[16]
Rabbi Kook (in his book Mishpat Cohen) sought to deduce from Saul's act, as from all other acts of exemplary people who endangered themselves to the point of death, that Saul was not simply afraid of torture, in view of his status as king, but rather that "he was afraid the uncircumcised Philistines would come and abuse him sexually ... for if he fears being defiled sexually he is permitted to take preemptive action and take his own life." Perhaps one may conclude from this analysis that a person is not to take his own life merely out of fear of bodily suffering, if there is not also an element of coercion to commit a transgression.[17]

Saul's act became a topic of current interest in a debate among rabbis of our times, some forty years ago. The question revolved primarily around the issue whether or not the heroism of the fighters on Massada was normative according to halakhic standards. R. Shlomo Goren, then Chief Rabbi of the IDF, came out with an unequivocal halakhic ruling:[18] "The heroism of the fighters on Massada was in accordance with Halakhah as we understand it today." He gave the following reasons in support of his opinion:

1. When a person falls into the hands of a cruel enemy who is about to kill him in battle, and that person fears that he will be tortured into transgressing a commandment belonging to the category regarding which we are to chose death rather than violate the Law, such as idolatry, illicit sexual relations or bloodshed, the person is commanded to die at his own hands and not fall into the hands of the enemy.

2. When falling into the hands of the enemy would lead to desecration of the Lord and would give the enemy something to boast of and pride themselves in, and when in the end the person would be killed, that person is commanded to die at his own hands and not fall into the hands of the enemy, as happened with King Saul and the zealots on Massada.

To substantiate his assertion that the mass suicide on Massada was normative, R. Shlomo used the case of Saul's death:

Saul's act was not done entirely of his own accord, for as we discover in Yalkut Shimoni, Samuel said to Saul, "If you take my advice to fall by the sword, then your death shall be your atonement." Thus it is made clear that the advice to fall on his sword came from Samuel, and Samuel gave this advice as a prophecy from the Almighty.

If follows from Rabbi Goren's remarks above that under the aforesaid circumstances taking one's own life is not only permissible after the fact, but actually commanded from the outset.[19] R. Shlomo Goren added the new idea that even "King Saul's act, falling on his sword, was done in response to a prophetic command."

R. Moshe Tzvi Neriah came out sharply against this halakhic ruling and its antecedents, in a pamphlet entitled "The Suicide on Massada in the Halakhah" (Hitabdut Anshei Metzada ba-Halakhah):[20]

This interpretation is indeed most peculiar. Where did Samuel, as cited in Yalkut, tell Saul to fall on his sword? It says there none other than to fall by the sword, meaning to go to war and die in battle.

Rabbi Neriah raised a second difficulty: If Samuel commanded Saul to "fall on his sword," why did Saul order his arms-bearer, "Draw your sword and run me through"?

Thirdly, if Saul's act of falling on his sword was "in response to a prophetic command" this would contradict viewing the suicide on Massada as normative, since it is an important principle that a prophet is not entitled to introduce innovations, thus his instructions were only for that moment and hence cannot be used as a basis for making halakhic decisions regarding later generations.

Rabbi Neriah took the argument further, maintaining in his pamphlet that Rabbi Shlomo Goren's verdict regarding the fighters on Massada did not reflect the approach taken by most of the rishonim and the first of the aharonim. Even Rabbenu Tam was cited in other sources as taking a different view, permitting suicide although not viewing it as commanded. The argument goes on at greater length than we can cite here.

Aside from "fighting for the Torah," Rabbi Neriah's reservations are instructive in his hesitance to draw halakhic conclusions from the historical sources themselves, without relying on faithful interpretation by true halakhic scholars. As he put it:

What happened in ancient times on top of Massada requires further study and investigation, in terms of understanding the conditions of captivity to the Romans and knowing what truly lay in store for these fighters had they surrendered... Even if we were to suppose that circumstances justified their act, we must take issue explicitly with the arguments given by their commander, Eleazar ben Yair, in whose opinion suicide was the only path not only for the heroes on Massada, but also for the entire people, for "long ago G-d issued this warning to the entire Jewish people, and there is no escaping it," and "that is what the Law ordains, ... the necessity G-d has laid on us." Needless to say, these words have no substance, for the laws of our Torah commanded us to safeguard our existence and our life, even in times of surrender and captivity. For He implanted in us everlasting life.... Had our brethren who were in straits and captivity, in ghettos and death camps where they were likely to be tortured, abused, and made to betray the faith, followed this ruling, not one of them would have survived.

[1] Perush Meir Ayin, loc. sit., by Meir Ish-Shalom.
[2] Mekhilta de Rashbi, 20.13 (Epstein-Melamed edition, p. 152).
[3] See Radbaz's commentary on Maimonides, Sanhedrin 18.6.
[4] On the notions of the theory of civil liberty regarding this question, see the précis of Prof. L. Shelef's article, Bein Kedushat ha-Hayyim le-Khvod ha-Adam - Al Yissurei Guf, ha-Kidma ha-Refuit, Regishut Enoshit ve-ha-Mishpat ha-Pelili, Mispatim 24, 207-240.
[5] Babylonian Talmud, Gittin 57a.
[6] There are other such tales in the legends of the Sages, such as the story of Beruriah, wife of R. Meir, who strangled herself (Babylonian Talmud, Avodah Zarah 18b; also see Rashi, loc. sit., s.v. "ve-ika de-amri); Yakum of Tzerorot, the nephew of R. Jose ben Joezer of Tzereda, who "himself went and carried out the four methods of execution available to the court" (Genesis Rabbah, ch. 65.22). His uncle remarks there, "In but a fleeting moment he beat me to Heaven."
[7] Tosafot, Avodah Zarah 18a, s.v. "ve-al yehabel"; Tos., Bava Kamma 91b, s.v. "ha-hovel be-atzmo."
[8] For further reading on the halakhic sources, see: Y. Lichtenstein, Issur ha-Hitabdut be-Mahalakh ha-Dorot (MA Thesis, Department of Talmud, Bar Ilan University, 1991); on the prohibition against suicide in relationship to martyrdom in medieval Franco-Germany, see the critical article by Hayyim Soloveitchik, "Religious Law and Change - The Medieval Ashkenazic Example," AJS Review 12(1987): 205-221. Also see the articles by A. Grossman, "Shorashav shel Kiddush ha-Shem be-Ashkenaz ha-Kedumah, Kedushat ha-Hayyim ve-Heruf ha-Nefesh (Articles in Memory of Amir Yekutiel) (Zalman Shazar Center, 1993) p. 99; "Bein 1012 le-1096: Ha-Reka ha-Tarbuti ve-ha-Hevrati le-Kiddush ha-Shem be-1096," Yehudim Mul ha-Tzlav: Gezerot 1096 be-Historia u-ve-Historiographia (Magnes, 2000) p. 55. Also see the article by Yisrael Yuval, "Ha-Nakam ve-ha-Kelalah, ha-Dam ve-ha-Alilah: Me-Alilot Kedoshim le-Alilot Dam," Zion 58 (1993) p. 33, and the reaction which this article evoked from other scholars, published in Zion 59 (1994).
[9] As formulated by the biblical exegete R. David Kimhi, in his commentary on I Samuel 34:4.
[10] Such as Maharshal, in his book, Yam Shel Shelomo, Bava Kamma, ch. 8.59. All quotes in this section are from his work.
[11] Nahmanides, Torat ha-Adam, Sha'ar ha-Hesped (Chavell edition, p. 84); Rosh, Mo'ed Katan, ch. 3, par. 94. Both comment on the text from Midrash Rabbah, ch. 34: " 'But for your own life-blood I will require a reckoning - from your life [soul] I shall require [a reckoning of] your blood.' Does this apply even to someone pursued like Saul? That is what we are taught by the word "but.'" Note that the word "pursued" is a descriptive addition that does not appear in the Midrash itself.
[12] Yoreh De'ah 157, s.v. ve-ha-Rambam.
[13] Tos. Avodah Zarah, 18a.
[14] He continues, "Once there was a rabbi who slaughtered many babies during a time of persecution, for he was afraid lest they be forced to betray their religion. There was another rabbi with him who was angry at him and called him a murderer, but he did not listen to him. The former rabbi who wished to hold him off said, "If I am right, may that rabbi die a strange death." And so it was that he was captured by the gentiles, who pulled off his skin and stuffed sand between his skin and his flesh. Later the evil decree was cancelled, and had he not slaughtered them, they might have been saved and not killed. See the resolution of this issue by Maharshal, Yam Shel Shelomo, Bava Kamma, ch. 8.59.
[15] Sefer Beit Lehem Yehudah ve-Sha'ar Ephraim, by R. Tzvi Hirsch b. R. Azriel, Yoreh De'ah, par. 345.3. There the author cites a broad variety of laws, all concerned with the same matter: "If someone has robbed and is punished by the death penalty in law of the kingdom, he is mourned ... and not considered a suicide... If one accepts as repentance for his sins "the four death sentences given by a bet din", and consequently drowns himself in the river, he is not considered a suicide. It also seems to me that if he puts himself to death because he is afraid of having to face great torture, as is the way of pagan law, that first they torture the condemned, he surely is not considered a suicide. This follows directly from what was written in Tosafot (referring to Tos. Gittin 57b, s.v. kaftzu): "They dived into the sea because they were afraid of being tortured."
[16] Perhaps one could claim that this is nothing more than a justification of suicide after the fact, but even what Saul did is discussed in terms of justification after the fact, asking whether or not he should have been eulogized on account of his deed. Several posekim stressed that the fact Saul fell on his sword did not stand in the way of eulogizing him.
[17] Loc. sit., par. 144 (p. 326). Rav Kook relied on Rosh, but if one looks closely at his remarks, one sees that he was not basing his ruling on the plain sense of Rosh. Rosh wrote, me-hamat she-mafkirin oto, "since he is abandoned," and Rav Kook understood this as "minhag hefker nahagu ba," he was treated as something hefker, i.e. abused. Also his assertion (mentioned above) that Saul feared he would be sexually abused, and not simply made sport of, is explained as follows: "Like the concubine in Gibeah, ... where there was also an issue of illicit sexual behavior." Rav Kook sought thereby to make Maimonides' ruling (Yesodei ha-Torah 5.4) -- "anyone who finds himself in the category of having to 'transgress rather than be killed,' and allows himself to be killed is guilty of giving up his life" - consonant with Saul's act in bringing on his own death. Later, however, he hints at another possible solution for the case of Saul, involving "permission to place oneself in danger in wartime, although in my opinion this is a special case belonging to the laws concerning kingship."
[18] Or ha-Mizrah Quarterly 7 (July-Aug. 1960), pp. 22-27.
[19] Note that when there is fear only of "awful torture should one fall into enemy hands," and this is not accompanied with coercion to betray the faith or desecrate the Lord, "and the enemy is cruel and will surely kill him in the end, by unbearable torture," Rabbi Goren carefully worded his ruling as follows: Some permit dying at one's own hands also in these circumstances, in order to prevent falling into enemy hands." While he sanctions such an act, he does not say that it is commanded. In addition, Rabbi Goren ruled, "When there is reason to fear that prior to death the enemy will try to extract by means of torture important classified information which we are commanded to safeguard with our life - for a person who divulges such information is sentenced as a rodef, one who pursues his fellow with intent to kill him and who turns over another Jew to the gentiles, and it is commanded that anyone kill such a person - then we are also commanded to refrain from so doing, and so a person in such a position must choose death rather than violate this law."
[20] Hitabdut Anshei Metzada ba-Halakhah (Summer 1961) [Also published in Tznif Melukhah, Kefar Ha-Ro'eh 1992, pp. 196-198].