Suicide is prohibited in the Torah (Genesis 9:5-6, Bava Kama 91b). One remarkable passage shows how far one sage went to preserve his own life (prevent his own suicide):
The Romans found R. Hanina b. Teradion sitting and occupying himself with the Torah, publicly gathering assemblies, and keeping a scroll of the Law in his bosom. Straightaway they took hold of him, wrapped him in the Scroll of the Law, placed bundles of branches round him and set them on fire. They then brought tufts of wool, which they had soaked in water, and placed them over his heart, so that he should not expire quickly….His students said to him, “… Open then your mouth so that the fire enter into you [and you may die quickly].” He replied, “Let Him who gave me [my soul] take it away, but no one should injure oneself” (Avodah Zara 18a).
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 34,598 Americans died from suicide attempts in 2007. In 2010, it was over 38,000. Since about 11 people attempt suicide for everyone who dies, approximately 380,000 people attempted suicide that year. While it is the tenth-leading cause of death overall, it is seventh overall for men and third overall for those age 15-24 (at this age, about 5-6 times as many young boys and men commit suicide than girls/women). The incidence of suicide also surges among the elderly. We should all be on the lookout for those most likely to commit suicide:
- More than 90 percent of suicides have depression and either one or more mental disorder and/or substance abuse disorder
- Suicides have a high incidence of a family history of mental disorder, substance abuse, suicide, or violence/sexual abuse
- More than half of men committing suicide use firearms, while 40 percent of women use poison, and younger children use suffocation more
- American Indian and non-Hispanic white people are more than twice as likely to commit suicide as non-Hispanic black and Hispanic people
These factors by themselves do not predispose an individual to suicide, and other factors cannot be seen. For example, chemical changes in the brain, especially decreased levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin, also occur in those who commit suicide. It is imperative that we do not assume that people with risk factors or who were unsuccessful in a suicide attempt will not commit suicide.
Even before our modern age of scientific studies and databases, there was an understanding that those who committed suicide had suffered. Consider this passage that demonstrates the rabbinic sensitivity to this situation.
It once happened that the son of Gordos of Lod fled from the school house and his father pointed to his ear (indicating that he would hit him on it) and he became frightened of his father and destroyed himself in a pit. They went and asked Rabbi Tarfon and he said, “We do not withhold any (burial rites) from him.”
It once happened that a young child of B’nei Brak broke a bottle on Shabbat and his father pointed to his ear (threatening to hit him on it) and the child became frightened of his father and destroyed himself in a pit. And they asked Rabbi Akiva (if the boy could have full burial rites) and he said, “We deny him nothing.”
From this (these two cases) the Sages said, “A person should not threaten a child with boxing of the ears, but should hit him at once or be silent and say nothing” (Semakhot 2:4-5).
The suicide of 12-year-old Rebecca Sedwick in Florida this September highlighted an alarming new trend: cyberbullying, where groups of teenagers (usually girls) bombard someone with hateful texts and other messages that literally drive the person to suicide. In this case, even the cancellation of her Facebook account and move to another school did not stop the harassment and social isolation. An examination of the Facebook and search terms on Sedwick’s computer revealed that many of the girls harassing Rebecca literally sent messages hoping she would die, and Rebecca began to search for information regarding the number of pills necessary to die before eventually jumping to her death from a water tower. This case further illustrated the need for renewed efforts to deter bullying and keep track of our children’s social media content, and also raised calls for parents to be held responsible for their minor children’s cyberbullying.
What is the measure of suffering? Rav Eleazer said: if a man had a garment woven for him to wear and it does not fit him. Rav Zeira (some say Rav Samuel b. Nachmani) demurred to this: more than this has been said. Even if he was to be served hot, and it was served cold; or cold, and it was served hot! And you require so much? Mar the son of Ravina said: even if his shirt got turned inside out. Rava (some say Rav Hisda, some say Rav Isaac, or as was taught in a Baraita) even if he put the hand into his pocket to take out three coins and he fetched only two (Arakhin 16b).
No one can judge for another what is truly suffering, or what small irritant will prove to be, as the saying goes, the straw that breaks the camel’s back.
In the history of halakhah, embracing suicide as something other than “hate for G-d” was the main entry point in to grappling with the reality of mental illness. Initially, one who committed suicide was not to be mourned for; however, there was serious transformation in the halakhic process (Semakhot 2:1-3 through Chatam Sofer Y.D. 326 ), and real responsibility and empathy was cultivated (in many cases) for those who suffered with mental illness. The Arukh HaShulchan (Y.D. 345) wrote:
In regard to suicide we find whatever circumstance we can to remove the person who has apparently committed suicide from the denial of mourning rites. For example, to ascribe the act to fear or suffering or insanity or that the deceased thought that by committing suicide he was avoiding the possibility of transgressing some of the commandments of the Torah. We do this because indeed it is improbable thing that a person would commit such an ugly act with a clear mind. Go and learn from Saul the righteous one who fell on his sword in order to prevent Philistines from tormenting him. And situation similar to his is considered “under duress.”
Many today are suffering and we must do all we can to act out against hate, intimidation, and suffering. We must ensure our community is safe and nurturing and never, G-d forbid, creating alienation or suffering. Consider for example the tragic case of Uriel de Costa. When it tragically leads to suicide, we must mourn the victim and comfort the family.
One of the best things you can do if you believe there is a risk of suicide for yourself or someone else is to call 1-800-273-TALK (8255), the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, which is staffed 24 hours a day, every day. The calls are confidential, so you need not worry about repercussions in a personal or work situation. In addition, do not leave a suicidal person alone, but try to get them to a healthcare provider or the emergency department of the nearest hospital, or even call 911 if nothing else can be done. Be sure to check that there are no firearms or prescription medications accessible to the suicidal individual. We do not have to be helpless in the face of someone at risk for suicide.
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Executive Director of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of “Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century.” Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America.”