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Notes from Limmud 2015: Suicide—a halachic history - Lethargic Man (anag.)

Lethargic Man (anag.)
Date: 2016-06-01 12:38
Subject: Notes from Limmud 2015: Suicide—a halachic history
Security: Public
Tags:cool, halacha, limmud

Notes from Limmud 2015

Suicide—a halachic history

Joe Wolfson

[Standard disclaimer: All views not in square brackets are those of the speaker, not myself. Accuracy of transcription is not guaranteed.]

Shabbos 106a:
When a member of the group dies, each member of the group must become concerned.

Rashi: "Concerned": which is to say, fearful of death.

The traditional perspective: R. Yeḥiel Miḥal Tikochinksy, Gesher haChayim:
One who is מְאַבֵד עַצְמוֹ לְדַעַת—wittingly destroys himself—is considered a murderer like any other murderer. There is no difference whether he kills himself or someone else... And in certain ways it is more serious than regular murder... for through his actions he denies God's ownership over his life and soul, and rejects God's part in his creation and the recognition that our life is but lent to us by God.

The basic understanding is that we are not the sole masters of our lives, and our lives are a gift to us by God, and just as well.

Nicholas Ogarev, London, 1860, not a Jewish source:

A man was hanged who had cut his throat, but who had been brought back to life. They hanged him for suicide. The doctor had warned them that it was impossible to hang him as the throat would burst open and he would breathe through the aperture. They did not listen to his advice and hanged their man. The wound in the neck immediately opened and the man came back to life again although he was hanged. It took time to convoke the aldermen to decide the question of what was to be done. At length the aldermen assembled and bound up the neck below the wound until he died. Oh my Mary, what a crazy society and what a stupid civilisation.
Josephus, The Jewish War VII.9, from the speech of Eleazar ben Ya'ir to his followers on Masada before their mass suicide::

"Truly, I was greatly mistaken when I thought to be assisting to brave men who struggled hard for their liberty, and to such as were resolved either to live with honor, or else to die; but I find that you are such people as are no better than others, either in virtue or in courage, and are afraid of dying, though you be delivered thereby from the greatest miseries, while you ought to make no delay in this matter, nor to await any one to give you good advice; For the laws of our country, and of God himself, have from ancient times, and as soon as ever we could use our reason, continually taught us; and our forefathers have corroborated the same doctrine by their actions, and by their brvery of mind; that it is life which is a calamity to men, and not death; for this last affords our souls their liberty, and sends them by a removal into their own place of purity, where they are to be insensible of all sorts of misery; for while souls are tied down to a mortal body, they are partakers of its miseries; and really, to speak the truth, they are themselves dead; [...]

But put the case that we had been brought up under another persuasion, and taught that life is the greatest good which men are capable of, and that death is a calamity; however, the circumstances we are now in ought to he an inducement to us to bear such calamity courageously, since it is by the will of God, and by necessity that we are to die.

[Though elsewhere in The Jewish War, when faced by those trying to get him to commit suicide in the wake of his defeat at Jotapata, Josephus corrals arguments about how Jewish law stands against the practice of suicide. (Though when interviewed by Vespasian, Josephus does not hesitate to put the other side in his arguments, when it suits him to do so and he's not in danger of being required to put his words into practice.)]

סמ׳ שמחות ch. 2—the tractate dealing with death and bereavement is called the tractate of rejoicing. This is not part of the Babylonian Talmud but is one of the minor tractates. It talks in legal terms, not about how to judge the person who commits suicide:

One who commits suicide is not engaged with at all (i.e. is removed from the practices regularly accompanying the deceased). R. Yishmael says we say of him "Oh empty vessel". R. Akiva responded, "Leave him as he is, neither bless him nor curse him." Garments are not torn for him, sandals are not removed, and no eulogies are given. Yet [after the person is buried] the bereaved pass through the rows [of the community], and the blessing (of comfort) is given to the bereaved, as these are on account of the honour of life.

The sum of the matter: all that relates to כבוד החיים is performed by the community. All that is not for the honour of the living, the community do not involve themselves with.

For many hundreds of years, suicides could not be buried in the main part of the cemetery, but at the back. In Christian Europe the honour of the family of the suicide was truly besmirched: they would lose their titles, and their inheritance, etc. This was never the case in Jewish law.

Halacha 2:

Who is defined as one who consciously destroys himself? Not one who climbs a tree or a roof and who falls and dies, rather one who announces [publically], "I will climb this tree or roof and throw myself off and die," and is seen ascending thus, and falls and dies. Such a one is in the category of consciously destroying himself, and the community do not engage with him whatsoever.
Halacha 3:
If a person is found strangled or hanged upon a tree or impaled upon a sword, he is not considered a suicide (it is considered one who has unwittingly destroyed himself), and all who unwittingly destroy themselves, nothing is held back from them.

Why? Because we have no verbal or written testimony.

So, we require two pieces of evidence: evidence that they intend to take their own life, and evidence that they have done so. So there are strong checks and balances.

In the Middle Ages, a dispute arose between Maimonides and Naḥmanides about the scope of honour of the living and the dead—where the dividing line was. Maimonides expanded the category of honouring the dead to shiva and sheloshim. Maimonides says the shiva is for the honour of the dead, and therefore in a case of suicide one would not observe it. Nachmanides understands that the role of these is to give comfort to the bereaved, and therefore even in a case of suicide, we would.

Although they don't mention this, because it wasn't a practice at their time, the same would apply to kaddish. [Huh!?]

Maimonides, Laws of Mourning 1:11:

One who commits suicide is not engaged with at all, and is not mourned for, nor eulogised. Yet the bereaved pass through the rows, and the blessing (of comfort) is given to the bereaved, as these are on account of the honour of life.

And who is one who is considered a suicide? Not that he climbs a roof and falls, but rather one who says "I will ascend this roof", and is seen to go up immediately in anger—this is one who is in the category of מְאַבֵד עַצְמוֹ לְדַעַת. Yet if he is found strangled or hanged from a tree, or impaled on his sword, he is considered simply as one of all the deceased, and is engaged with by the community and nothing is held back from him.

The Shulḥan Aruch, Yoreh Deah ch. 345 quotes word for word Maimonides.

Then comes the Ḥatam Sofer, R. Moshe Sofer, Pressburg. One of the most important decisors of the modern period, he is stereotyped as a figure whose sole contribution is a war against modernity: חדש אסור מן התורה "Anything new is forbidden from the Torah." But nothing could be further from the truth.

What is true is that when it came to denominational relations—i.e. with the nascent Reform movement—this was so, but when this is not the case, he takes daring leaps with halacha.

He was born in the 1770s, and was asked a question about a case of suicide in 1805. His responsum reads:

Defining suicide in halacha:

A number of questions concerning the language of the בְּרַייתָא: Why would we have thought that someone ascending a tree and falling would be considered a suicide so that we have to be taught that this is not the case?

Similarly why would finding a person choked or hanged on a tree imply that they are a suicide when we have seen nothing to imply this?

The language of "one who has unwittingly destroyed himself" is strange, when it could have said, "is not considered to have wittingly destroyed himself."

In any situation, no matter how absolutely clear, which does not have that stated intent—even if a person locks themselves in a room and they are found hanged inside it—we do not consider this a case of מְאַבֵד עַצְמוֹ לְדַעַת.

Thus it appears to me that the בְּרַייתָא is taught with great specificity, that the first statement refers to a person ascending a tree without any reason or need, and immediately falling to his death. Such an end would apparently imply that this was his intent at the start, and that he ascended for such a purpose. Even in such a case, we hold nothing back from him, for we do not know what he had hidden in him, "for who can know the thoughts of man," and so we do not say that the conclusion proves the original intentions.

The requirement of immediate effect:

And not only this, but even one who states explicitly that he is ascending for such purposes, and he is seen ascending, yet his fall is not seen—even though he is found to have fallen from exactly that place—nevertheless, since we have not seen him fall from the place he had said we do not judge him as a suicide.

What often happens in halachic topics is that someone comes up with a strong and novel approach, and it will become known as their opinion and it can be relied on in certain circumstances.

That was not the case here; it didn't become known as the Ḥatam Sofer's opinion: later writers all take this up themselves. And any method of suicide which inevitably involves some sort of time elapsing between the act and the effect is considered as falling under this category—e.g. taking pills, drowning, etc. We assume that during this time, the person committing suicide has regretted it [Adina: and modern research supports this].

The absence of stated intent—despite actions implying otherwise:

And this is also the case where his actions seem to definitely show that he committed suicide, such as if he is found hanged in a room locked from the inside. Although it is clear that he killed himself, nevertheless we cannot say that this was done wittingly for we assume that an evil spirit had taken hold of him at that time.

Even though this was a hundred years before Freud, the speaker sees it as a recognition that depression is a mental health problem.

Mourning for a suicide—Rambam vs. Ramban

Regarding mourning (sitting shiva) for a suicide, Maimonides wrote that he is not mourned for whilst Nachmanides disagreed.... [he argues that Naḥmanides' view is in fact more compelling, because R. Akiva is always authoritative]... nevertheless in practice, who can raise their head against the decision of R. Yosef Karo in the Shulḥan Aruch that the law is like Maimonides, and all the more so given that in laws of mourning the lenient opinion is followed.
...but in the very next paragraph, that is exactly what he goes on to do:
Nevertheless, I saw that in a case where the honour of a family is at stake, that they will suffer the disgrace of it being known that one of their number acted thus—if by instructing them to mourn the rabbi will give the appearance that in fact this was not a case of suicide—then the rabbi can act so without any hesitation even if it transpires that this was truly a suicide... for although with regards to mourning the law follows the lenient opinion, with regards to family honour this is not so, out of honour to the children of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
As for Tikochinksy, despite the harsh quotation at the start, he subsequently says (גשר החגים, 1947):
In the vast majority of cases that appear to be מאבד עצמו לדעת, we do not judge it thus: for in every case where we can conceivably claim that is was something else that killed him, even if exceedingly unlikely, or if it can be claimed that he was under extreme duress or his mind was not truly with him, or if it is possible that in the final moments of his struggle with death he regretted—we judge leniently that this is not a case of suice.
And in Responsa Besamim Rosh:
We are given a leniency that goes too far: that anyone who kills himself on account of great woes and strains is not considered מאבד עצמו לדעת for if we were to say thus, the category would cease to exist, for all suicide is on account of such pain. Nevertheless we can combine his opinion whenever there is any other small reason to think that this may not be a case of מאבד עצמו לדעת.

So, the underlying attitude towards suicide in Jewish law has not changed, but the sensitivity to the personal situation means it is no longer pretty much ever applied:

R. Vidal of Tolouse, 1300-1370, Magid Mishna, Laws of Neighbours, Ch. 14:

For our pure Torah, whose role is to perfect man's attributes and his conduct in this world, has given general principles such as "You shall be holy"... and "You shall do that whch is righteous and good", whose intention is that one should behave morally and justly with one's fellow. And it would not be fitting for the Torah to command specifics in these matters, for the מִצְוֹת of the Torah are eternal at every period and time whereas the character of man and his behaviour varies according to time and society, and thus the Sages write cetain helpful directives under these general principles.

[Audience question: Is there significance to the fact the Chatam Sofer wrote 30 years after The Sorrows of Young Werther was published, inspiring the first copycat suicides. Answer: don't know.]

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