August 23, 2019


[Editor’s Note: This is the first of two (or more) entries looking at topics in the realms of ‘Planned Dying’, Suicide, ‘Assisted Suicide’, Euthanasia, and a ‘right to die’. These two entries look at the subject from different perspectives. The thoughts expressed are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the positions (if any) of Expired and Inspired, the Gamliel Institute, or Kavod v’Nichum.]

Is a life worth living regardless of its circumstances? Is there dignity in taking one's own life? Should we legislate to allow assisted suicide?

A few weeks ago at the end of a working day in Canberra, Australia, I rented a bike for a 20 mile ride around the Burley Griffin Lake. Its winter there and about 40 degrees (Farenheit), but bright and clear – ideal riding weather. I rode over a body of water and there was a sign midpoint that read, “please don’t commit suicide here, the water is shallow”, and it then listed a number to call.

I had to ask myself, ‘Is this a positive endorsement for suicide, a joke, or just a warning not to contaminate the drinking water?’ If this is the answer given by secular society, it is a mistake. As states in the US consider ‘right to die’ or ‘death with dignity’ laws, we need to be clear that these are not legislative initiatives that we, as Jews, should support.

When people are depressed we don’t hand them a gun. We give them tools to cope with their circumstances. We help them.

I want to tell everyone who wants to take his/her own life that your life is valuable and worthwhile to the end. Treat your pain, get counseling, work with your loved ones.  We should not give the dying or ill a tool to end their lives, rather we should give them tools to live.

There is beauty in their lives; perhaps more even than before their diagnoses or crises. You see life differently when death is imminent. The easiest course seemingly is to take your life and all that it is, in a simple solution to a complex problem, but like most easy fixes, it has costs and consequences that are perhaps worse than the problem.

I am not a Rabbi, but I do get asked the question often regarding my opinion on planned death, or suicide. I go to the Torah and plumb its depths, and I learn in the Torah that we can't ever, ever, take our lives; quite simply “its murder.” So that is my answer. Providing the means, or assisting someone to commit suicide is commission of murder, or perhaps, acting as an accessory to murder, but in either case, it is wrong. Murderers are subject to punishment for their criminal actions. 

Even so, if one does commit suicide, our wise Rabbis do not label that person as a criminal or murderer. They consider that person as having a terrible illness, rendering them unable to choose life, as the Torah commands, so as not to ostracize that person from the community in life or in death. No person would ‘normally’ commit suicide, is the reasoning; this is the result of a sickness that lets/misleads him/her to take their lives, and we don’t condemn anyone for committing an act they can’t or don’t comprehend because they are sick.

The Talmud tells us that for one who is terribly ill, and where there is absolutely no hope of recovery, we don’t wish them an impossible Refuah Shelamah; instead, we wish them words to the effect that “you are in God’s hand.” (Though there is a dispute among the later commentaries if one should actively pray for ones death in cases of absolutely no hope of recovery.) We hope that God will help them, either with a miraculous healing, or with the tools that they need to enable them to face the future in store for them.

We should always, always, have hope – read in detail Psalm 91 and its powerful message, in which faith is all prevailing even in the most desperate of times.

For these reasons, I oppose legislation that provides means for persons to take their lives, or for anyone to assist another in doing so.


Isaac Pollak is the Rosh/Head of a Chevrah Kadisha on the upper East Side of Manhattan, NYC and has been doing Taharot for almost 4 decades . He is an avid collector of Chevrah Kadisha material cultural items, with over 300 historical artifacts in his own collection. He serves as chairperson of the Acquisition Committee for Traditional Material Culture at the Jewish Museum in NYC, and is CEO of an International Marketing Company. He is a student and participant in Gamliel Institute courses.





Starting in October:

Chevrah Kadisha: History, Origins, & Evolution (HOE). Classes weekly Tuesdays from October 13th to December 29th, 8-9:30 pm EST/5-6:30 pm PST (12 sessions), with an online orientation session Monday October 12th (same hours).

The course is an examination of the evolution of the institution of Chevrah Kadisha, starting from Biblical and Talmudic source texts, examining medieval development including the establishment of the “modern” Chevrah in Prague (1626) and on, through history and geography, as the institution was imported to  North America, including a focus on major developments beginning in the latter part of the 20th century. We will look at how the Chevrah has changed over time, with readings that include text study and emphasize history, sociology, politics, government, and many other factors.

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During the coming Winter semester, the Gamliel Insitute will be offering two courses. Chevrah Kadisha: Taharah & Shmirah (T&S), and Chevrah Kadisha: Ritual, Practices, & Liturgy [Other than Taharah] (RPL). These courses will begin in January, and will each run for 12 sessions. More information to come, or visit the “>Kavod v’Nichum website.


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