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Ask the Rabbi #28

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Ask the Rabbi

July 2, 1994; Issue #28

This issue is dedicated in the memory of Simja de Ades

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Contents:
  • The Jewish View on Euthanasia
  • Can you open a book that has writing on the outer edge of the pages on Shabbat?
  • Subscription Information
  • Back issues are indexed both by issue no. and by subject
  • Ohr Somayach Home Page

  • The Jewish View on Euthanasia.

    Mark from Washington D.C. wrote:

    I was wondering about Euthanasia and Jewish law. I know that it's wrong to murder, but this is an act of mercy, and wouldn't euthanasia be like the verse that says to "love the your fellow person as yourself"?


    Dear Mark,

    When I began to write this response, my son came over to me and asked "Abbah, what are you writing?" "An answer regarding halachic problems with Euthenasia." "But Abbah, why would the rabbis write about the children in Asia??" (|:-)

    You are correct in your assumption that we are commanded to love another person (even someone that starts out with a bad joke)- but, of course this care and concern for others must be expressed in a manner which is not contrary to Jewish law.

    Jewish law forbids euthanasia in all forms, and is considered an act of homicide. The life of a person is not "his" - rather, it belongs to the One Who granted that life. It may be therefore be reclaimed only by the true Owner of that life. Despite one's noble intentions, an act of mercy-killing is flagrant intervention into a domain that transcends this world.

    One source in the Chumash for this prohibition may be found the Book of Genesis:

    "But your blood of your lives will I require; ...from the hand of man, from the hand of a person's brother, will I require the life of man."

    The additional phrase "a person's brother" after having already stated "from the hand of man" is redundant. The author of the book HaKtav v'haKaballah explains that this verse refers to a prohibition against euthanasia. Although murder is the opposite of brotherly love, one might think that euthanasia is in fact a permitted expression of brotherly love. This verse imprints on our conscience that this particular form of "brotherly love" is nothing more than plain murder.

    This does not mean that one should be lax about relieving the other person's pain. Elimination of suffering is a commendable goal. In fact, this may permit even "aggressive" treatment of pain to a degree that is not standard medical practice. For example, heroin use for treatment of pain may be acceptable according to Jewish law, in spite of the risk of addiction. It may be prohibited, however, by civil law.

    There are other considerations which are beyond the scope of this column, such as passive/active intervention, prayer for a suffering person's death, and the definition and treatment of a moribund patient (goses). These and other related topics may be further studied of the texts in the accompanying list of sources.

    Sources:

    • "Judaism and Healing" - J. David Bleich, Ktav Publishing House.
    • HaKtav v'haKaballah, ibid.
    • Bereshis - 9:5.
    • "The Jewish Attitude Towards Euthanasia," by Fred Posner, Jewish Bio-Ethics, by Fred Posner & J. David Bleich, Sanhedrin Press.
    • Jewish Ethics and Halacha for Our Time, by Basil F. Herring, "Euthanasia", Ktav Publishing.
    • Practical Medical Halacha - Association of Orthodox Jewish Scientists, "Euthanasia", Feldheim Publishing.
    • Medical Halacha for Everyone - Abraham S. Abraham, "Euthanasia or Mercy Killing", Feldheim Publishing.


    Can you open a book that has writing on the outer edge of the pages on Shabbat?

    George from Jerusalem wrote:

    I have been to synagogues that have their names stamped on the outer edge of the pages. Can they be opened on Shabbat or is that considered erasing and thus forbidden?


    Dear George,

    The Talmud lists amongst those activities prohibited on Shabbat that of "Erasing for the purpose of writing two letters." Generally destruction is prohibited by the Torah only when it is part of a bigger program of creation. So erasing that is not for the purpose of writing in the future (such as in our case) would only be rabbinically prohibited. In the case of the writing on the siddur there is an additional factor, which might have effected the halacha which is that when he opens the siddur he doesn't mean to erase the letters. Even here there would be a rabbinic prohibition because there is no way to open the book without erasing the letters (Psik Reisha).

    The halachic conclusion in our case is a matter of dispute. There are those who determined that it is rabbinically prohibited to open the siddur for the above mentioned reasons. The Mishna Brura cites the Rema and a majority of halachic authorities who decided that it is permitted and that the custom is to permit it because the book is made to be opened and thus the opening of it is no more an act of erasing than opening a door would be an act of tearing down a building. He goes on to say that if there is another book to use you should opt to use that one so that you can satisfy everyone's opinion. He also mentions that because there are people who forbid opening such books, you should not stamp words on the outer edge of the pages of books in the first place.

    Sources:

    • The Talmud - Tractate Shabbat 73a
    • Rabbi Yisroel Meir Kagen - The Mishna Brura, Orach Chaim, 340


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