Judaism: The Ben Zygier Case: Suicide in Judaism

Whether the act arose out of defiance or distress is the all-important question in relation to the Ben Zygier case.
Published: Tuesday, February 26, 2013 12:50 PM


World attention has focused this past week on the suicide in a jail cell of an Australian-Israeli who is alleged to have been a spy. The person and his deeds or misdeeds are not the subject of this article, but his suicide is.

To what extent Judaism condones suicide is both simple and complicated.

Simple, because life is given by God and only He has the right to take it away. The Jewish codes insist that the body belongs to the Almighty, and no-one is permitted to harm, jeopardize or destroy God’s property. Genesis 9:5 says, “I will surely require an accounting for your life-blood”, and the sages say this includes a suicide (Bava Kamma 91b).

The Ten Commandments clearly prohibit murder. Rabbinic commentary extends the prohibition to say, in Maimonides’ words, “He who kills himself is guilty of bloodshed” (Hilchot Avelut chapter 1).

Deuteronomy states (4:15), “You shall carefully guard your life”, which makes suicide a serious transgression.

Amongst the Biblical cases of actual or attempted suicide, a highly significant incident related in I Samuel 31:4 is that of King Saul falling on his sword when the Philistines were about to capture and kill him. One theory as to why the Tanach does not seem to condemn him is that a king of Israel is entitled to defend the dignity of the royal office. Another view is that as his death was imminent it was as if he were already dead, though not all the commentators believe that he did actually die at his own hand.

In later thinking, even acts of suicide in times of severe persecution were not whitewashed. The usual ceremonies performed for the dead were, according to Jewish law, not carried out for suicides, and it was customary to bury them in a side section of the cemetery (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De’ah 345).

That is the theory, but in practice the issue is much more complicated. It is true that for a long period suicide was stigmatized as a brazen act of defiance of God, to be treated with visible disapproval.

But for many centuries the law has preferred not to apply a hard and fast rule but to delve more deeply into the suicide’s motivation and mental situation; in most situations the person is regarded as having acted under such mental and emotional pressure that he/she is deemed not to have made a responsible decision.

The Aruch HaShulchan (Yoreh De’ah 345:5) states, “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”.

It is interesting that Greece and Rome saw suicide as a crime. However, the Greeks gave the government the right to allow suicide in urgent cases; the Romans also saw suicide as a criminal act, particularly if it was meant to pre-empt legal punishment, but they applied the law with some leniency.

In Judaism the debate was not so much political or social, but theological. Suicide defeated God’s purposes since He “created (the world) to be inhabited” (Isa. 45:18).

Life not only belonged to God but, as the first section of Genesis averred, it was good and had to be seen as such by every human being. Yet Job admitted (3:20-21) that “the bitter in soul… longs for death but it does not come”. Rashi asks, “Why does God give light to him that is in misery?” Amongst the rabbinic sages, Choni HaMe’aggel felt so lonely that he prayed to God to let him die, and God agreed (Ta’anit 23a).

Nonetheless there were times when a person was under such pressure that taking his own life was a way of averting a grave evil. The mass suicides at Masada and other acts of self-sacrifice may not have been authorised, but they were understood, and history calls them heroic and insists that they did not lose their place in the World to Come.

However, Ahitophel, who committed suicide, is listed by the Mishnah amongst those who have no share in the next world (Sanh.10:2).

A famous case involved Rabbi Chananiah ben Teradyon, whose death is recorded in the Talmud in Avodah Zarah 18a. When the Romans wrapped him in a Torah scroll and set fire to it, the rabbi’s pupils urged him to open his mouth, inhale the fire and hasten his death. He replied, “He who put the soul in the body is the One to remove it; no human may destroy himself!”

Sometimes a person felt so guilty after doing (or believing he had done) a grave sin that he wanted to end his life, and some cases of suicide recorded in the Talmud arose out of circumstances of this kind. Others were so full of grief when a great man such as Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi died that they felt life was no longer worthwhile.

These circumstances explained the wish for suicide but Jewish teaching remained adamant that people should work through their problems and not abdicate by taking their own lives, and Rabbi Ishmael believed that public condemnation of the suicide was in order at the funeral, though Rabbi Akiva refused to go so far while still denying the suicide a eulogy and the full honours of interment (S’machot chapter 2).

The law arrived at the position that if a suicide, although still deemed a sin, could be understood as other than a deliberate act of defiance of the Creator, they were given the benefit of the doubt and the normal ceremonies were allowed.

The criterion therefore is whether the act arose out of defiance or distress. This is the all-important question in relation to the Ben Zygier case.

Pondering the suicide of Holocaust survivors, Elie Wiesel is said to have remarked, “Those who have looked at the ultimate darkness are no longer immune”. Is there not a philosophical difference, however, between the darkness that others perpetrate upon a person or people, as in the Holocaust, and the darkness and despair one somehow brings upon oneself?

There were suicides during the Holocaust (e.g. the 92 maidens who chose death rather than dishonour: an incident reminiscent of a Talmudic story in Gittin 57b), but it seems surprising that there were not more.

 In Israel, the suicide rate is one of the lowest in the world, again a surprising figure.

In “The Echo of the Nazi Holocaust in Rabbinic Literature”, Rabbi HJ Zimmels writes of two opposing emotions amongst European Jews at the time of the Holocaust – pessimism and despair leading to suicide, and optimism and hope leading to a strong will to survive.

The same conflicting emotions grapple within the heart, soul and mind of the human being who is in dire straits whatever the details. Suicide is one way out, but there is another – slowly, painfully, bravely working one’s way through the moment and holding on to life.

It has always been difficult and complex and in today’s world it is probably worse, even for a person who is not enmeshed in the highly fraught espionage business. Problems of so many kinds confront us all, and often we can’t get off their backs or get them off ours. Judaism believes in life and its sweetness, but it is easy to find oneself in the complex of emotions that Zimmels describes.

It’s altogether too convenient to sit in judgement on others and to forget the advice of Pir’kei Avot, “Judge not your fellow until you stand in his place”.