Halachah for the Battlefield by Eitan Leff


After the water from the Mabul subsided, Hashem commanded Noach to be fruitful and multiply and blessed Noach that all animals on the earth will fear human beings (BeReishit 9:2). Then Noach is warned that he should not eat from an animal that is still alive (9:4). After that, the Torah says, “VeAch Et Dimechem LeNafshoteichem Edrosh,” “But your blood, of your souls, I will demand” (9:5). Rashi (ad loc. s.v. VeAch Et Dimechem) explains that even though man is able to take the life of an animal, man is not permitted to take his own life. Rashi’s next commentary (ad loc. s.v. LeNafshoteichem) adds that while you might have thought one would be able to kill oneself with strangulation, for no blood is spilled, that too is forbidden.

In 2008, the Israel Defense Forces conducted Operation Cast Lead to stop rocket fire from Gaza into Israel. Some IDF soldiers were warned by their commanders to avoid capture, and if necessary, choose suicide over capture. There are a few reasons the commanders said to choose suicide over capture:

1. Avoid torture.

2. The soldier would be used in a trade for prisoners.

3. A rescue mission could result in more deaths than it would save.

4. It could affect the troops’ morale to know that their friend is being tortured.

Under Jewish law, would it be permissible to commit suicide to prevent being captured alive? Commenting on the Gemara (Bava Kama 91b), Rashi writes that Hashem will punish a person who kills himself. Rambam (Hilchot Rotzei’ach UShemirat HaNefesh 2:2-3), based on Rashi’s commentary, states that a person who kills himself is equated to a murderer and thus is liable for the punishment of death at the hands of God. Rambam derives this Halachah from our aforementioned Pasuk from Parashat Noach. Another proof of the prohibition of suicide is found in Pesikta Rabbati (Shemot 24), which states that when the Torah writes “Lo Tirtzach,” “Do not murder,” it is talking about killing oneself. Rambam rules in Hilchot Sanhedrin (18:6) that Beit Din should not punish someone on the basis of his own confession; rather, Beit Din must have two witnesses to find someone guilty and punish him. Ridvaz argues that the reason for this is that a person’s life is not his own, but rather is Hashem’s. Just as a person is forbidden to kill oneself, one is also forbidden to confess to something that will get oneself killed.

The question now arises about Sha’ul’s suicide (recorded in Sefer Shemuel) – if up to now we have said that it is forbidden to commit suicide, how could Sha’ul have fallen on his sword to kill himself? Shaul’s reasoning for wanting to die was that the Phelishtim were waging war against the Jews, and he did not want to be killed by the enemy and be made into a mockery.

The Midrash (BeReishit Rabbah 34:13) states that the reason our Pasuk in Parashat Noach says “VeAch Et DiMechem,” “But your blood,” is to exclude some cases, such as Shaul’s. The word “but” implies a limitation to the rule; therefore, Shaul’s suicide was permitted.

Why was Shaul’s suicide permitted? The Beit Yosef (Yoreh Dei’ah 157, Bedek HaBayit), quoting the Orchot Chaim, explains that one can commit suicide to avoid torture. The Rosh makes a similar assertion but adds that it is forbidden to eulogize someone who committed suicide. However, in Shaul’s case, the Jews should have eulogized him, because his suicide was permitted and the Jews were even punished for not eulogizing him. The Orchot Chaim then presents an alternate approach – perhaps, Shaul’s suicide actually was not permitted. The Yam Shel Shlomo (Bava Kama 8:59) says that Shaul knew that the Phelishtim would torture and kill him and realized his fellow soldiers would possibly risk their lives to save him, which would result in many deaths. Therefore, Shaul chose his death over many deaths. The Shayari Knesset HaGedolah, commenting on the Beit Yosef (Yoreh Deah 157), explains that Shmuel HaNavi had already informed Shaul HaMelech when he would die, and therefore Shaul was certain his death would occur in the battle with the Pelishtim at Gilboa. However, he says that if a person is not informed of his impending doom by a Navi, he is not allowed to kill himself, because there is a chance he will be saved.

Rav Zilberstein, in his popular work Veha’arev Na, says that he is not sure how to rule regarding this mater. However, if a soldier committed suicide, even if the suicide was not endorsed by Rabbinic authority , Rav Zilberstein asserts that he would not lose his share in Olam HaBa and should be buried and mourned like a soldier who died in action. May Hashem ensure that we never face such tragic situations as these.

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