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Torah Attitude: Parashas Shemini: Euthanasia is murder - murder is not merciful

This Torah Attitude is dedicated to Larry and Jeffrey Deverett on their birthday. May they be blessed with all the best that life has to offer.


A heavenly fire consumed Aaron's sons. Close relatives should defile themselves to take care of their deceased. The commandments were given to preserve life and not to destroy life. Even if it is a matter of prolonging life for a few moments, one is obligated to desecrate the Shabbos laws. Although, if we know that the person will suffer for the rest of his life, whether it is short or long, we are obligated to save his life. If people are sick, why does G'd not cure them Himself? G'd cures the sick and provides for the poor through His messengers. A person who takes his own life is considered a murderer. We may never contribute, directly or indirectly, to bring about an early death. Anything that brings about early death to a person is considered murder. There is a purpose in suffering.

Aaron's sons die

In this week's parasha the Torah relates how Nadav and Avihu, two of Aaron's sons, brought an unauthorized offering into the Holy of Holies at the inauguration of the Tabernacle. Our sages explain that they committed a number of transgressions by doing so. A Heavenly fire came down and consumed their souls and they died. Immediately, Moses called on his cousins Mishael and Eltzaphan and told them to carry the deceased out of the Sanctuary and out of the camp.

Kohanim and dead bodies

The question arises, why did Moses call upon his cousins rather than his nephews, the brothers of the deceased to remove them? Kohanim are prohibited from having any contact with a dead body. However, there is a special commandment, which also applies to Kohanim, that the closest relatives should defile themselves to take care of their deceased (see Vayikra 21:1-3). The Da'as Zekenim explains that since on this day the Kohanim had been anointed, they had risen to the status of the High Priest. Therefore, they could not defile themselves, just like the High Priest may not defile himself, even for his closest relatives.

Live and not die

Had Nadav and Avihu just been smitten by the Heavenly fire, and were in mortal danger, everything would have been different. Under those circumstances it would have been permissible for their brothers to run into the Holy of Holies to save them and to do anything necessary to keep them alive. As it says, (Vayikra 18:5) "And you shall observe My decrees and My laws and live by them." Based on this verse, the Talmud (Yuma 85b) teaches that saving a person's life overrides even the strictest prohibitions. The commandments are Divinely designed to give and preserve life. They do not destroy life. Even the laws of Shabbos may be violated, and it is permitted to do anything, even if there is only the slightest chance to save a life.

A few moments

Our sages state explicitly that even if there is a chance of prolonging a person's life only for a few moments, one is obligated to desecrate the Shabbos laws (see Shulchan Aruch Or Hachaim 329:4). The Meiri, one of the Talmudic commentaries, explains this with a beautiful insight. Says the Meiri, just a few moments of life can make a tremendous difference. For if the dying person repents from his sins even a few moments before death, it changes his status in Olam Haba (the World to Come) for eternity.


It goes even further. Even if we know that the person will suffer for the rest of his life, whether it is short or long, we are obligated to save the person's life. The value of being alive is so great that it overrides any concerns about the quality of life. The prophet Jeremiah exclaims, (Eichah 3:39) "What is a living person complaining about, is he strong and in control of his sins? The Talmud (Kiddushin 80b) quotes this verse and asks, how can anyone complain about what happens to him? Did he never sin? Can he truly claim that he lives in the merit of his righteousness? He should stop complaining, says the Talmud, and appreciate that he is only alive due to the grace of G'd.

Why does G'd not cure?

G'd obligates us to get involved in the lives of our fellow human beings to heal and support in any way possible. The Talmud (Bava Kama 85a) teaches that a doctor may heal based on the commandment (Shemos 21:19) that if someone hits his fellow Jew he has to pay for the healing. This is similar to the obligation to give charity: (Devarim 15:7-8) "When there is among you a poor person you shall open your hand to him whatever he is lacking." The Talmud (Bava Basra 10a) relates how the Roman commander, Turnus Rufus, once asked the great Rabbi Akiva, if G'd loves the paupers why does He allow them to become poor in the first place, and then He commands us to give charity and care for them? In the same way we may ask, if people are sick, why does G'd not cure them Himself, but instead expects us to do so to the best of our ability?

G'd's messengers

To answer this we must understand that we are dealing with two issues. On the one hand, when someone is ill or has fallen into poverty, G'd allows this for a reason known only to Him. At the same time, G'd provides those surrounding the afflicted person with an opportunity and obligation to give charity and heal. Our sages say that G'd has many messengers and ways of dealing with individuals. Both the doctor who heals and the philanthropist who gives charity are messengers acting on behalf of G'd. So in fact G'd does cure the sick and provides for the poor; however, He does it through His messengers.

Suicide is murder

On the other hand, in matters of life and death G'd has retained the final say for Himself. As it says, (Samuel I 2:6) "G'd kills and gives life." No doctor or other individual has the right to interfere with G'd's plans. As we say in our daily prayers (Shemoneh Esrei), "G'd kills and gives life and lets salvation spring forth." Only G'd knows whether the salvation comes through providing life to a person or taking his life. A dying person, in great pain, who is begging for his life to be terminated may not do so and may not be assisted to do so. It is forbidden to take one's own life, just like it is prohibited to take someone else's life. As the Rambam says (Laws of Murder 2:2), "It is forbidden for a person to take his own life." Such a person is considered a murderer.

Do not bring an early death

The Halachic authorities are very explicit that one may never contribute, directly or indirectly, to bring about an early death. The Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh De'ah 399:1) rules: "Near the time of death one must not touch a dying person as it may bring about an earlier death." Similarly, the Rambam (ibid 2:7) rules that the exact same capital punishment applies to someone who kills a dying person as to the one who kills a healthy person.

Early death is murder

In our modern society, there is a lot of confusion about the correct ethical and moral conduct in these situations of life and death. From time to time we find heated debates regarding whether the one who removes a feeding tube from a brain damaged person is a hero or a murderer? From the Torah point of view, the Halachic law is clear. Anything that brings about early death to a person is considered murder. However, one is not obligated to start using life-sustaining equipment to try to lengthen the life of a person who is about to die (Shulchan Aruch ibid). These questions can be very complicated, and one must always seek competent halachic guidance in such situations.

Purpose of suffering

We must understand that there is a purpose in suffering. In general, a person suffers due to personal transgressions, either in this lifetime, or in an earlier life. However, sometimes it is an atonement for the whole generation, and the one suffering was chosen due to this person's high spiritual level. We even find that G'd makes a righteous person suffer just to give him extra reward for overcoming his test. Where a person suffers as a punishment, we must remember that any suffering endured in this world relieves a person of much harsher suffering in the World to Come. The Ramban in his introduction to Job writes that if a person would realize the benefits of suffering in this world, he would request to be inflicted with the suffering of Job. However, we may never ask to be tested, neither with suffering, nor with any other difficulties in life. In fact, every morning we ask in our prayers not to be tested.

With this insight, we can well understand that we may not terminate life, even when it involves suffering. Only G'd sees the total picture of this world and the World to Come. Only He knows the complete situation of every individual and is in a position to decide whether this person should suffer. May we all be spared any suffering and pain, and not be tested with difficult situations. And may the time soon come when G'd will remove the angel of death forever.

These words were based on notes of Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.

Shalom. Michael Deverett

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Shema Yisrael Torah Network
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