Judaism's View on Suicide

Understanding B'Daat and Anuss

The Suicide of Saul by Pieter Bruegel the Elder
Wikicommons

Suicide is a difficult reality of the world we live in, and it has plagued mankind throughout time and some of the earliest recordings we have come from the Tanakh. But how does Judaism address suicide? 

Origins

The prohibition of suicide does not come from the commandment “Do not kill” (Exodus 20:13 and Deuteronomy 5:17). Suicide and murder are two separate sins in Judaism.

According to rabbinic classifications, homicide is an offense between man and God as well as man and man, while suicide is merely an offense between man and God.

Because of this, suicide is considered a very serious sin. Ultimately, it is viewed as an act that denies that human life is a divine gift and is considered a slap in God’s face for shortening the lifespan that God has given him or her. After all, God “created (the world) to be inhabited” (Isaiah 45:18).

Pirkei Avot 4:21 (Ethics of the Fathers) addresses this, too:

"Despite yourself you were fashioned, and despite yourself you were born, and despite yourself you live, and despite yourself you die, and despite yourself you will hereafter have account and reckoning before the King of Kings, the Holy One, blessed be He."

In fact, there is no direct prohibition of suicide found in the Torah, but rather there is mention of the prohibition in the Talmud in Bava Kama 91b. The prohibition against suicide is based on Genesis 9:5, which says, “And surely, your blood, the blood of your lives, I will require.” This is believed to have included suicide.

Likewise, according to Deuteronomy 4:15, “You shall guard your life carefully,” and suicide would disregard this.

According to Maimonides, who said, “He who kills himself is guilty of bloodshed” (Hilchot Avelut, Chapter 1), there is no death at the hand of the court for suicide, only “death by the hands of Heaven” (Rotzeah 2:2-3).

Types of Suicide

Classically, mourning for a suicide is prohibited, with an exception.

“This is the general principle in connection with suicide: we find any excuse we can and say he acted thus because he was in terror or great pain, or his mind was unbalanced, or he imagined it was right to do what he did because he feared that if he lived he would commit a crime…It is extremely unlikely that a person would commit such an act of folly unless his mind were disturbed” (Pirkei Avot, Yoreah Deah 345:5)

These types of suicide are categorized in the Talmud as

  • b’daat, or the individual who is in full possession of their physical and mental faculties when they take their life
  • anuss or the individual who is a “person under compulsion” and is not responsible for his or her actions in taking their own life

The first individual is not mourned in the traditional manner and the latter is. Joseph Karo’s Shulchan Aruch code of Jewish law, as well as most authorities of recent generations, have ruled that the majority of suicides are to be qualified as anuss. As a result, most suicides are not viewed as responsible for their actions and can be mourned in the same way as any Jew who has a natural death.

There are exceptions, as well, for suicide as martyrdom.

However, even in extreme cases, certain figures did not succumb to what might have been made easier through suicide. Most famous is the case of Rabbi Hananiah ben Teradyon who, after being wrapped in a Torah scroll by the Romans and set ablaze, refused to inhale the fire to hasten his death, saying, “He who put the soul in the body is the One to remove it; no human may destroy himself” (Avodah Zarah 18a).

Historic Suicides in Judaism

In 1 Samuel 31:4-5, Saul commits suicide by falling on his sword. This suicide is defended as anuss by the argument that Saul feared torture by the Philistines had he been captured, which would have resulted in his death either way.

Samson’s suicide in Judges 16:30 is defended as anuss by the argument that it was an act of Kiddush Hashem, or sanctification of the divine name, in order to battle heathen mockery of God.

Perhaps the most famous incidence of suicide in Judaism is recorded by Josephus in the Jewish War where he recalls the mass suicide of a supposed 960 men, women, and children at the ancient fortress of Masada in 73 CE. Recalled as a heroic act of martyrdom in the face of the ensuing Roman army. Later rabbinic authorities questioned the validity of this act of martyrdom because of the theory that had they been captured by the Romans, they likely would have been spared, albeit to serve the rest of their lives as slaves to their captors.

In the Middle Ages, countless tales of martyrdom have been recorded in the face of forced baptism and death. Again, rabbinic authorities do not agree on whether these acts of suicide were allowed considering the circumstances. In many cases, the bodies of those who took their own lives, for any reason, were buried on the edges of cemeteries (Yoreah Deah 345).

Praying for Death

Mordecai Joseph of Izbica, a 19th-century Hasidic rabbi, discussed whether an individual is allowed to pray to God to die if suicide is unthinkable for the individual yet emotionally life feels overwhelming. 

This type of prayer is found in two places in the Tanakh: by Jonah in Jonah 4:4 and by Elijah in 1 Kings 19:4. Both prophets, feeling that they have failed in their respective missions, a plea for death. Mordecai Joseph understands these texts as disapproving of a plea for death, saying that an individual should not be so distressed at the missteps of his contemporaries that he internalizes it and desires to no longer be alive to continue seeing and experiencing their missteps.

Also, Honi the Circle Maker felt so lonely that, after praying to God to let him die, God agreed to let him die (Ta’anit 23a).

Modern Israel

Israel has one of the lowest suicide rates in the world.