There are a lot of misconceptions that people have about Judaism. Even observant Jews fall for the myths sometimes.
MYTH: One is supposed to throw bread when reciting the Tashlich prayer on Rosh Hashana.
REALITY: Tashlich is supposed to be said at a body of water that has fish in it. One may not feed wild animals – including fish – on yom tov (festivals). Therefore, if Tashlich is recited on Rosh Hashana, bread specifically should not be thrown.
MYTH: A person with a tattoo cannot be buried in a Jewish cemetery.
REALITY: While tattooing is clearly prohibited by the Torah, the idea that a tattooed Jew cannot be interred with his coreligionists appears to be a scare tactic used by previous generations so much that it has become culturally ingrained.
MYTH: Jews are not allowed to donate organs.
REALITY: Ay, there’s the rub.
Judaism has the utmost respect for the deceased. We don’t leave a person’s remains unattended. We try to bury as quickly as possible. We certainly don’t mutilate a person’s body after his or her death. For this reason, autopsies are generally not performed. People mistakenly assume that this also applies to organ donation. It doesn’t.
You have probably learned that one can violate all but three “cardinal” sins to save a life. These three sins are murder, adultery and idolatry. But saving a life overrides all other prohibitions (except in a time of forced assimilation). If someone needs a hospital on Shabbos, for example, we may drive him there in order to save his life. If one needs to eat non-kosher food for compelling medical needs, he may do so. And, if an organ from a deceased individual can save another person’s life, that supersedes other interests including a speedy burial and not tampering with the remains. It is therefore wholly permissible to donate life-saving organs, assuming that the donor is actually already deceased.
Remember, however, that murder is one of the three sins that one may not commit in order to save a life. The Talmud (Shabbos 151b) tells us that one who closes the eyes of a dying person, hastening his death by mere moments, is a full-fledged murderer. Taking an organ from a dying person, thereby hastening his death, would be absolutely prohibited. The relevant question, therefore, is, “What constitutes death in Jewish law?”
This is actually the topic of a longstanding debate. The Talmud in Yoma (85a) discusses the case of a person trapped under a pile of rubble on Shabbos. If he’s still alive, we must dig him out but if he is already dead, we must wait until after Shabbos. (We may violate the laws of Shabbos to save a life but not to preserve the dignity of a corpse.) There are two opinions in the Talmud there as to how to determine whether or not a person is still alive. One says to check and see if the victim is still breathing; the other says to check his pulse. These two opinions have ramifications today, in the form of brain-stem death (reflecting the cessation of autonomous breathing) vs. cardiac death.
Brain-stem death is not a coma. A person whose brain stem is dead is not going to wake up. Brain-stem death counts as the moment of death under civil law in the US and elsewhere. The question is whether such a person is still considered alive under Jewish law. If they are, stopping the heart and taking the organs is murder and not permitted even to save another’s life. This is obviously a very serious matter but since many life-saving organs are only viable at this stage, it’s important for a person to evaluate the matter in consultation with a rabbi well-versed in the subject.
There are other relevant questions when it comes to organ donation. For example, we may only use the donor’s remains because doing so can help to save a life. But what about corneas? The Talmud in Nedarim (64b) compares blindness to death, based on Eicha 3:6, “He caused me to dwell in darkness, like those long dead.” Based on this and other considerations, there are authorities who permit even cornea donation.
It’s clear that organ donation is permitted under halacha to one degree or another. The devil, as the saying goes, is in the details. I encourage everyone reading this to check out the Halachic Organ Donor Society (www.hods.org – I’m a member!). A person can have his or her organs used only for life-saving transplants, in consultation with their rabbi and with maximum care given to their mortal remains. One can choose between waiting to have organs removed after the irreversible cessation of autonomous breathing, confirmed by brain-stem death, or only after the irreversible cessation of heartbeat. (Full disclosure: my card opts for irreversible cessation of heartbeat. This limits the number of organs that might be used but it was the opinion of the rav I consulted. Many authorities – I daresay most – agree that the irreversible cessation of autonomous breathing constitutes the moment of death. I encourage everyone to investigate the matter with their own rabbi and not simply do what I did.)
I cannot stress strongly enough that I am not poskining – that is, I am not ruling in matters of Jewish law; issues such as this are way beyond my pay grade. When I state that things are permitted or prohibited, I am walking in a path that has been well-trod by others. But this is such an important matter, I truly believe that it behooves everyone to look into halachic organ donation and to contribute to the fullest extent that one’s conscience permits.
“It seems clear that kidney donation is permitted, though not obligatory. Is there anything else to discuss?” Find out at Jewish Action in Kidney Donation in Jewish Law: A Testimony to the Progress of Science and Medical Halachah.
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz is Torah Content Editor at the Orthodox Union. He is the author of five books, including The Tzniyus Book. His latest work, The Taryag Companion, is available from OU Press as well as on Amazon.