(3rd-6th century)

Bava Kamma 91b
Avodah Zarah 18a
Gittin 57b
Semahot 2:1-2


The Babylonian Talmud, the most comprehensive body of rabbinic literature and a central text of Jewish civil and religious law, dates from the 2nd century b.c. to its final redaction during the 5th and 6th centuries A.D.. Talmudic literature, including the Mishnah, the Babylonian and Palestinian (Jerusalem) Talmuds, and the various midrashic commentaries on the Hebrew Bible [q.v.] including Genesis Rabbah [q.v.], provides the classical, canonical statement of rabbinic Judaism.

The Mishnah, the oldest text of the talmudic literature, is a codification of laws derived from an oral tradition. These legal and folkloric teachings, normative statements, and anecdotes relating to rabbinic practice and instruction developed over a period that began several centuries before the Christian era. In the 3rd century a.d., Rabbi Judah ha-Nasi compiled the existing traditions and gave them the fixed form now known as the Mishnah. The word “mishnah” is a noun formed from the verb “shannah,” which means “to repeat” or “to learn,” specifically indicating an education derived orally through continual recitation. The Mishnah is the foundation of both Talmuds.

The Palestinian Talmud, also called the Jerusalem Talmud, contains both the Mishnah and a commentary on the Mishnah called the Gemara. This Talmud was collected and written by Palestinian scholars from the 3rd century A.D. to the 5th century A.D.. The Babylonian Talmud includes both the Mishnah and its own Gemara written mostly in Aramaic, different from the commentaries found in the Palestinian Talmud. The contents of the Babylonian Talmud were collected and composed by scholars in the 3rd century A.D. through the 6th century. While the two Gemaras partially overlap, the Babylonian Talmud is generally more extensive and its discussions are more fully developed; within the later Jewish tradition, it is considered the authoritative Talmud.

Several selections from the Babylonian Talmud are included in this volume. The first is from Bava Kamma (“First Gate”), a treatise of the order Nezikin (“Injuries”) on compensation for damages it cites disagreement among the Tanaim, scholars of the period of the Mishna (sing. Tana). This text again cites the same midrash regarding suicide, though in somewhat different form, that had been earlier “creatively” developed in Genesis Rabbah. It confirms the prohibition of suicide midrashically derived from Genesis 9:5, and explores both sides of the issue of whether a person is allowed to harm himself or herself. Clearly, some early sources in the Jewish tradition appear to allow self-harm (see the selections from the Hebrew Bible [q.v.]); the Talmud here seems to labor to find a clear source for a more restrictive view. As is common in talmudic discussions, this remains an unresolved issue.

The second inclusion from the Babylonian Talmud is found in Avodah Zarah (“Idolatrous Worship”), also of the order Nezikin, a treatise on the laws regulating the conduct of the Jews toward other forms of worship and practices regarded as idolatry. In this selection, Chanina ben Tradyon, a rabbi and teacher, is condemned to die by the Romans for continuing to teach Jewish law. Initially, when his students suggest hastening his death, R. Chanina refuses their offer and affirms the general prohibition of suicide by appealing to the idea that God alone has sovereign power over all life. Then, in a seeming contradiction, he agrees to have the executioner bring about his death quickly and promises the executioner—a pagan—eternal life in exchange for helping him. The executioner increases the flame, precipitating R. Chanina’s death, and then promptly leaps into the fire himself. A heavenly voice approves of the actions of both men, saying, “R. Chanina b. Tradyon and his executioner are invited to the world to come.”

The third and fourth selections from the Babylonian Talmud come from the treatise Gittin (“Documents”) of the order Nashim (“Women”). Both excerpts offer examples of suicide during times of persecution, in one case to escape sexual slavery, and in the other as a response to severe grief. The first example, from the aftermath of the failed Jewish rebellion against Rome, describes the suicides of 400 boys and girls who were intended for use as prostitutes. Responding to a question by one of the girls, the eldest boy cites a verse from Psalms to show that they would be brought into the world to come if they jumped into the sea. Each group then throws themselves into the water. This selection raises several important questions about the relationship between suicide and martyrdom, including whether actively committing suicide to escape an evil like forced prostitution is morally distinct from allowing oneself to be killed, as in the biblical account of Chananyah, Mishael, and Azaryah, or Shadrach, Meschach, and Abednego, and why the suicide of the boys and girls is acceptable when it was inappropriate, at least initially, for R. Chanina to hasten his death to escape the torture of immolation.

The Gittin also depicts the suicide of a woman whose children allowed themselves to be martyred to avoid the sin of idolatry. The woman, who was not a martyr like her children, is nevertheless represented as an example of an appropriate an appropriate example of suicide: she throws herself from a roof and then “rejoices with her sons” in the afterlife. No explanation is given for the licitness of the woman’s death, although it is possible that her suicide was excusable in her unique circumstances because of extreme grief.

The final inclusion from the Babylonian Talmud is in Semahot (“Joys,” a circumlocution for mourning), a later treatise that is placed after the order Nezikin in more recent editions of the Talmud; it deals with mourning for the dead. Semahot is a post-talmudic composition that arrived at its present form in the 8th century a.d.; it is included here because it undoubtedly contains earlier material. The selection describes what is to be done in terms of rites and mourning for a person who has committed suicide. However, the passage ensures that few deaths will be classified as suicide by holding that one may be treated as a suicide only if witnesses can testify that the deceased expressed clear intent and acted immediately following the expression of intent. (This requirement presumably incorporates the usual rules requiring two reliable witnesses who are independently cross-examined and excluding circumstantial evidence.) This attempt at defining suicide opened a subsequent debate within Judaism spanning several centuries and comprising an enormous body of rabbinic literature.


Babylonian Talmud: Bava Kamma 91b, Abodah Zarah 18a, Gittin 57b, Semahot 2:1-2, tr. Baruch Brody.  Comment in introduction from Noam Zohar.


Bava Kamma 91b

There is a disagreement among the Tanaim, for some say that a person is not allowed to harm himself while others say that he is. Which Tana says that a man is not allowed to harm himself?

Is it the Tana who taught: “But your blood from yourself I will seek punishment [Genesis 9:5]”? R. Elazar says, from you yourself I will seek punishment for your blood.Perhaps self-killing is different…

It is the Tana who taught: R. Elazar Hakfar said, what do we learn from the verse [about the Nazirite] which says, “it will redeem him from the sin that he sinned in himself?” What is his sin? He denied himself wine. We can argue afortiori. If this person who just denied himself wine is considered a sinner, then the person who more fully harmed himself is certainly considered a sinner.


Abodah Zarah 18a

They took him [Chanina b. Traydon], wrapped a Scroll of the Law around him, and placed bundles of branches around him, which they set on fire. They brought wool soaked in water and placed it on his heart so that he could not die quickly…His students said to him, “Open your mouth and let the flame enter [so that you will die].” He said to them, “It is better that [life] should be taken by He who gave it and a person should not harm himself.” The executioner said to him, “Rabbi, if I increase the fire and take the wool from your heart, will you bring me to the world to come?” He said, “Yes.” “Swear that to me.” He did. Immediately he [the executioner] increased the flame and took the wool from his heart, and he died. He [the executioner] jumped into the fire. A Heavenly Voice said, “R. Chanina b. Traydon and his executioner are invited to the world to come.”


Gittin 57b

It happened that 400 boys and girls had been taken captive to be used as prostitutes. They realized for what they were wanted. They asked, “If we drown in the sea, will we enter the world to come?” The eldest taught, ”I will bring from the depths of the sea (Ps. 68:22); these are those who drown in the sea.” When the girls heard this, they all jumped into the sea. The boys argued a fortiori about themselves. “If these for whom it [the intended sexual act] is natural did this, we, for whom it [the intended sexual act] is not natural should certainly do so.” They also jumped into the sea…

The mother [of the seven martyrs] said to them, “Give him to me so that I may kiss him a little.” She said to him, “My son, go and say to Abraham your father, you sacrificed on one altar and I sacrificed on seven altars.” She went up to the roof and fell and died. A Heavenly Voice came and said, “The mother of the sons rejoices.”


Semahot 2:1-2

If someone commits suicide, we do not perform any rites over him. R. Yishmael says, “We say over him, Woe! He has taken his life.” R. Akiva says, “Leave him in silence. Neither honor him nor curse him. We do not rend any garments over him, not take off any shoes, do not eulogize him. But we do line up for the mourners, and we do bless them because this honors the living. The rule is: we do whatever honors the living…”

Who is someone who has killed himself? It is not the person who has gone up to the top of the tree and fallen or the person who has gone up to the top of the roof and fallen. It is the person who says, “I will go to the top of the roof or the top of the tree and throw myself down and kill myself” and we see him do just that. This is the person about whom we presume he has committed suicide.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Babylonian Talmud, Christianity, Middle Ages, Middle East, Selections

Leave a Reply