In the previous Halacha, we have mentioned the words of Hagaon Rabbeinu Chaim Palagi zt”l who writes that one who attempts to commit suicide by taking dangerous medications and the like and was later found by friends or family and revived until he was nursed back to health must then recite the “Ha’Gomel” blessing like any other person who was ill and was healed as a result of Hashem’s kindness.
We must now discuss a matter that has been somewhat forgotten as a result of ideas that are not in line with our holy Torah which is that there is, G-d-forbid, some sort of justification for the actions of an individual who endures great suffering as a result of heavy debts, harsh illness, or other emotional suffering and the like and wishes to put an end to his life and commit suicide; some mistakenly claim that such an individual has not committed a sin and he cannot be judged for his actions since he has put an end to his life as a result of his great suffering. This idea is completely contradictory of the Torah’s view which is that man’s soul is in the hands of Hashem alone and only Hashem can decide when and how a person will die.
The Gemara (Avodah Zara 18a) recounts that the evil Roman empire decreed that the Jewish nation may not study Torah. The empire publicly announced that whoever would teach Torah to others would be liable for death by burning. As a result, the Torah began being forgotten from amongst the Jewish nation as no one dared to revolt against the powerful Roman empire who threatened to kill anyone who studied Torah.
Only one sage by the name of Rabbi Chanina ben Teradyon paid no attention to the empire’s evil decree and would travel from place to place while holding a Sefer Torah and teach Torah to the masses, thus guaranteeing that the Torah would not be forgotten from Israel. Once, Rabbi Chanina ben Teradyon and Rabbi Yose ben Kisma happened to have met each other in a certain place. Rabbi Yose was very respected, even by the Roman empire. Rabbi Yose asked Rabbi Chanina, “This empire that has decreed not to study Torah has been enthroned by Heaven. How then can you endanger yourself and teach Torah to the public?” Rabbi Chanina replied, “The Jewish nation cannot be left without Torah leaders who will teach them Torah and Heaven will have mercy!” Rabbi Yose responded, “I am telling you logical things and you reply ‘Heaven will have mercy’? I would not be surprised if they burn you along with the Sefer Torah!” This means that Rabbi Yose believed that Rabbi Chanina was not behaving correctly by endangering himself in order to teach Torah to the masses.
Rabbi Chanina then asked Rabbi Yose, “If the truth is like you say that I am not permitted to endanger myself in order to teach Torah to the Jewish nation, do I have a share in the World to Come, for one who commits suicide has no share in the World to Come?” Rabbi Yose replied, “May my portion be like yours and may my lot be like yours.” (The explanation of this dialogue quoted in the Talmud follows the commentary of Hagaon Harav Shlomo Kluger in his Sefer Avodat Avodah). This means that in such a situation where Rabbi Chanina was doing so in order to save the Jewish nation from completely forgetting the Torah, he was permitted to endanger himself in order to teach them.
Soon thereafter, Roman officers apprehended Rabbi Chanina and sentenced him to death by burning. In order to make his death more agonizing, they placed sponges saturated with water on his chest so that his death would take much longer. The executioner had pity on Rabbi Chanina and asked him, “Rabbi, why do you torture yourself? Why not just open your mouth so that the fire can kill you quicker?” Rabbi Chanina replied, “Let the Giver of my life take it and I shall not inflict damage upon myself.” This is because one may not take any action to hasten one’s own death. The executioner then turned to Rabbi Chanina and asked, “If I remove the sponges to hasten your death so that you will not suffer any longer, do you swear to me that I will merit a share in the World to Come?” Rabbi Chanina replied, “I swear.” The executioner then removed the sponges and Rabbi Chanina was immediately engulfed in flames and was burnt alive along with the Sefer Torah as well as the executioner who jumped into the flames as well.
From this incident we can get a glimpse of the severity of the sin of taking one’s own life is, so much so that our Sages said that one who does so has no share in the World to Come. Although in Heaven when judging an individual, they certainly take into consideration one’s difficult situation in life, nevertheless, this is not reason enough to diminish the severity of the prohibition involved, so much so that our Sages and all of the Poskim rule that if an individual commits suicide, his relatives may not mourn for him, sit Shiva for him, or tear their clothes upon his death. All of this is as a result of the terrible sin of taking one’s own life. Nevertheless, it is apparent from the words of the Poskim as well as in Maran zt”l’s responsa (Yabia Omer, Volumes 2 and 6) that every situation must be analyzed individually, for there are instances where relatives should sit Shiva for an individual who has taken his own life; however, this in no way serves to diminish the severity of the matter.
Similarly, those who give permission to doctors to hasten the death of an ill relative are also considered murderers, for one may not take the life of any person. Even if the individual is suffering immensely, the suffering will surely be extremely beneficial in cleansing the sins of the ill individual and one’s life and the suffering one will endure are decreed in Heaven such that all of these things are for man’s ultimate good so that he may merit everlasting rest in an Infinite World. (Regarding withholding medical care for a terminally-ill patient, one must always consult with a renowned halachic authority well-versed in these laws before making any such decision.)
When Maran zt”l in Yeshivat Porat Yosef as a young man of about seventeen years old, another young man studies beside him who was truly in a pitiful situation, for he was orphaned of his father, his mother caused him great distress, and he lived amid terrible poverty. This young man eventually became so fed up with his life that he wished to end it. One day after his mother had taunted him extensively, he decided to take his own life. He then went to buy some poison after which he proceeded to the Yeshiva’s classroom; he requested a glass of water from a classmate and he then immediately drank the water along with the poison. He immediately began to twitch violently on the classroom floor where he hovered between life and death. His classmates, among them Maran zt”l, began screaming and quickly called one of the great rabbinical figures in the Yeshiva, Hagaon Harav Yosef Sharabani zt”l (father-in-law of Hagaon Harav Ben-Zion Abba Shaul zt”l) and together they quickly lifted the young man and rushed him to the hospital whose staff was successful in stabilizing him and eventually saving his life. (Maran zt”l would recount, “Every time I see this individual, I remember what happened.”)
The students and rabbis of the Yeshiva were completely distressed about what had happened. Hagaon Harav Eliyahu Lofes zt”l, who was Maran zt”l’s rabbi at the time, gathered all of the Yeshiva’s students and spoke to them sternly about the severity of the sin of taking one’s own life since at that time there were other students in the Yeshiva who lived lives full of angst and suffering as many of them were orphans as well as living in great poverty. As he spoke, he quoted the words of the great and pious Mekubal, Hagaon Harav Eliyahu Ha’Kohen author of the famous Sefer Shevet Mussar, in his Sefer Minchat Eliyahu where he recounts an incident regarding this issue, as follows:
Once, a woman living in the town of Rav Eliyahu Ha’Kohen contracted a strange illness as a result of which she would fall limp on the ground and appear to be dead, after which she would come back to life again. None of the town’s doctors could find a remedy for this woman’s bizarre illness. The woman’s family members therefore turned to Rav Eliyahu and asked him to come to her home to see if he could help her.
As Rav Eliyahu entered the woman’s home, she immediately fell limp on the ground while a spirit started speaking from within her throat and in a strange voice, it said as follows: “Shalom to you, great rabbi!” Rav Eliyahu asked, “Who are you and why do you greet me?” The spirit replied, “I am so-and-so son of so-and-so who sit next to you in the Bet Midrash and study Torah with you every day.” Rav Eliyahu told him, “Tell me what you are doing here.” The spirit replied, “I was a Ba’al Teshuva (a wayward person who has since repented). In the days when I did not observe the Torah and Mitzvot, I was financially stable. After I became a Ba’al Teshuva, I would follow every one of your instructions, as easy or difficult as it may have been. Sometime before my death, I became engaged to a young woman from a good family and at the time of the Tena’im (prenuptial agreements and preconditions), I obligated myself to give them a certain amount of money before the wedding towards building a house and for the bride’s dowry. However, from that point on, my financial situation became increasingly worse, for Heaven began collecting the debts I had amassed throughout the years when I was not Torah and Mitzvot observant. This was the situation two days before my wedding day with me not being able to pay what I pledged. I sat so ashamed about my situation. I went and sold all of my remaining belongings and I donated the money to the needy in order to atone for my sins.” This individual then went and took his own life and left the bride alone and crying. Indeed, Rav Eliyahu knew this individual while he was alive and he was also present at the time when his body was brought for burial in the cemetery far away from all of the other graves, as is the law regarding one who commits suicide. Rav Eliyahu, who was a tremendous and holy Mekubal, knew which actions to take in order to benefit the soul of this deceased person and to save him from eternal misery.
Rabbi Eliyahu Lofes concluded his sermon, “Although this young man was righteous and just during his lifetime and since he had repented, he performed all of the Mitzvot and studied Torah, this did not help him at all and as soon as he took his own life, he brought upon himself more misery and suffering than he could ever imagine enduring in this world.
Thus, the holy Jewish nation recognizes that this world is only an entrance hall to the World to Come and accept Hashem’s judgment upon themselves lovingly and as a result, Hashem will repay them with great reward in the future.”