Solomon ben Jehiel Luria was a rabbi and author of several analytical discourses on the Talmud [q.v.] and its early commentaries. He was born in Brest-Litovsk, Lithuania, and was educated as a child by his grandfather, Rabbi Isaac Klauberia, in Poznan. After returning home and continuing his studies in 1535, Luria married and was made rabbi of Brest. In 1555, he became leader of Lublin’s celebrated yeshivah, or Talmudic academy. Luria, careful and methodical in his studies of Jewish law, said of himself, “I was painstaking always to trace the last source of the Halakah,” and his assiduous reliance on Jewish law and its sources was combined with a distrust of all forms of secular philosophy. Luria once told a friend and fellow scholar, Rabbi Moses Isserles, a student of classical philosophy, “You are turning to the wisdom of the uncircumcised Aristotle. Woe unto my eyes that they should see such a thing.” Luria’s many works include Hokmat Shelomoh (1582), a collection of analytical glosses on the Talmud, and Yam shel Shelomoh (1615), a study of several individual treatises of the Talmud. He died in Lublin on November 7, 1573, several years before his major commentaries were published.
Luria approaches the question of suicide in his commentary On Bava Kamma, dealing particularly with the authoritative tradition concerning the suicide of Saul in the Hebrew Bible [q.v.] and the story of Rabbi Chanina ben Tradyon’s martyrdom in Avodah Zarah [q.v., under Babylonian Talmud and under Tosafot]. Luria contributes interpretations of the prohibition of suicide, a prohibition that had long since become general within Judaism. Arguing that allowing or even encouraging others to kill themselves can in some circumtances be permissible; that even setting the house on fire is somehow akin to letting things happen rather than to direct self-killing; and that Saul’s suicide was permissible not because he sought to spare himself suffering, but rather to save the lives of many others. At the same time he draws a distinction between actively committing suicide and allowing oneself to be killed, concluding that the latter is allowable while the act of self-killing is prohibited, even in cases of torture and coercion to commit sin.
Solomon ben Jehiel Luria, Yam shel Shelomoh On Bava Kamma 8:59. Tr. Baruch Brody.
from ON BAVA KAMMA
It seems to me that even if one is captured by the idolators and he is afraid that they will torture him until he worships idols, he should not kill himself. He should do his best to endure the tortures… One should let oneself be killed and not commit these sins, and this is not considered suicide, as Asheri says that it is not considered suicide when one allows himself to be killed [rather than commit idolatry]. But to kill himself is certainly prohibited. And that is what we find in the case of Rabbi Chanina ben Tradyon… But he did ask others to hasten his death.
But if one is afraid that they will torture him because of other Jews, and many lives will be lost, as some rulers have forced one Jew to falsely testify against all the others so that afterwards many died, then he is permitted to kill himself. And perhaps Saul thought of this when he fell on his sword. He thought that if he was captured alive, they would mock him and torture him. The children of Israel would not be able to see and hear the suffering of the king, and they would not think of their lives, but would avenge him and save him and many thousands would die… To save the lives of others it is permissible to kill oneself…
Nevertheless, one can set the house afire so that he and his children will be burned to death in a time of decrees [i.e., persecutions], and this is not considered suicide, but like letting oneself be killed, and this is permissible. Rabbi Chanina ben Tradyon also asked [the executioner] to hasten his death, but he would not do it himself by opening his mouth to allow in the fire, as this is literally committing suicide.