Does "Thou Shalt not Murder" apply to Suicide?

David P. Stern



            I was reading the web site "Ekev:10 commandments" from 1977. I was interested in the exact interpretation of the 6th commandment, "Thou shall not murder". How does this relate to self murder, ie: suicide? Nowhere is suicide discussed in the bible and I found that odd. Thanks for any insight you may have.


      I am no authority on religious law--do not even consider myself religious, in the old-fashioned sense--so all I can give you is quotes from writings of others and personal opinions.

    Traditional Judaism prohibits suicide, citing verse 5 in ch. 9 of Genesis:

        "And surely your blood of your lives will I require; at the hand of every beast will I require it; and at the hand of man, even at the hand of every man's brother, will I require the life of man."

    "Man's brother" in the bible means just any other man (as in "brethren"), so the fact this is preceded by the phrase "at the hand of man" has been interpreted as "even one's own." It is a somewhat far-fetched interpretation. Note that this predates the ten commandments, and presumably has wider applicability--the commandments are meant for Jews alone, while this applies to anyone descended from Noah, i.e. to all humanity.

    The problem in ranking suicide with murder, theft, adultery, bearing false witness and coveting one's neighbor's property--grouped together in the commandments and all forbidden--is that all those have evil intent, whereas suicide is usually an act of personal desperation. Samson committed suicide--though it may be claimed that before doing so he asked God's permission, and God granted it by giving him back his powers "just this time."

    Faced with inevitable death, preceded by suffering (e.g. hopeless cancer), is suicide a sin? I would rather follow Hillel the Babylonian, who said (Saying of the Fathers, ch. 2, v 5) "Do not judge your fellow until you are in his position." King Saul and his armor-bearer chose to "fall on their swords" rather then be captured and tortured by the Philistines (last chapter of Samuel I), although this is complicated by a different version of the story in the 1st chapter of Samuel II.

    Look at it differently. If a person is caught in attempted murder--or burglary, or adultery, or perjury--we would still prosecute him or her, or at least accuse them of sin, because evil intent was still evident, even if the crime itself was stopped in time. If a person is caught attempting suicide, most people would interpret it as a personal cry for help, and try to provide such help.

    If on the other hand suicide has been committed, that person is beyond our reach. If you wish to think so, the final judgment is God's.

    The only question remaining then is, does such a person deserve regular burial. Christianity was very strict on refusing this (e.g. see "Hamlet"). Among Jews, I feel, that would be improper. Hillel's rule still applies: "Do not judge your fellow until you are in his position."

    In 1917 Turkish soldiers surrounded the home of Sarah Aaronson in Zikhron Ya'akov, in what was Turkish Palestine. Sarah was the sister of a famous agronomist (who was then in Egypt, ruled by England) and was organizing an underground movement to help the British take over the country. The Turks interrogated and tortured her for four days, and in the end she shot herself and died. Today her grave in Zichron Ya'akov is a revered site.


David P. Stern
Greenbelt, Maryland

Further question:

    Thanks for the interesting reply. I believe the actual scripture is "thou shall not murder", not "thou shall not kill". I guess my question has to do with the actual wording used for the word "murder" when it was translated from Hebrew or Aramaic, probably to Greek and then to English.


    The translation "Thou shalt not murder" is the right one.

    To be precise, the definition of "murder"in the Bible is somewhat broader than today's. It also included causing accidental death, which some people took as reason enough for exacting revenge. The commandment seems to apply only to intentional violence: see Numbers, chapter 35, verse 9 and on.

    However, ending a human life was not always viewed as "murder." As that chapter makes clear, capital punishment was not murder, and avenging a proven murder was taken as appropriate punishment. Criminals and offenders could also be hanged (Deuteronomy 21, v 22) and in public executions, stoned (just ahead of that section) or even burned.


David P. Stern



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