Position Paper: Prayer for the Death of a Patient in Severe Distress with No Chance for Recovery

Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, Rabbi Uriel Ganzel, and Rabbi Shaul Bruchi

1. Introduction

Prayer in a time of need is one of the ways that man expresses his faith and dependence on the Master of the World and demonstrate God’s ability to heal the sick. We generally tend to turn to God in prayer to heal the sick and extend their life, but at times the condition of a patient is terminal, the doctors dictate there is no chance for recovery, and they are suffering. In situations like these we see that the patient’s wish is to pass away, and that they view their death as more beneficial than their life. This leads us to the dilemma of how best to pray for them. Is it permissible to pray benevolently for the death of a patient?For practical questions, call Tzohar’s call center – *9253.

2. Sources

The Gemara in Ketubot (104a) recounts the story of Rebbe’s passing. In this account, the Sages decreed a fast and prayed for his recovery, but when his maidservant saw that his suffering was great, she prayed “may it be the will [of God] that the upper worlds subvert the lower worlds”. Ultimately, when the maidservant managed to stop the prayers of the Sages for a moment, Rebbe passed away. Granted there is no direct halachic statement in this text permitting prayer for the death of a person, but it seems that the discourse around the maidservant’s actions is positive, as there is no indication of criticism towards her1. There are many such locations in Shas where the Gemara discusses prayers for the end of a person’s life2.

In the Tanach, Eliyahu and Yonah both pray for their own deaths. To contrast, King David does not accept the death sentence of his son, and prays for him until his passing3. According to the Midrash, King Chizkiyahu prays for his own recovery despite a heavenly decree of death and says “This I have learned from my fathers’ household: even when a sharp sword is placed on a person’s neck, they should not withhold themselves from [appealing to God’s] mercy”4.The central source of halachic discourse around this topic is the Ran5, who learns from the discussion in Mesechet Nedarim that “at times one needs to request a merciful death for a sick person, such as when the sick person is suffering tremendously from his disease, and it is impossible for them to survive”. The Ran notes two conditions for prayer in this fashion – the patient is suffering and there is no chance of recovery.

3. The Halachic Position

From the statements of the Ran we learn that in extreme circumstances where the patient has no chance for survival and is suffering great pain, one may pray for their death6; however the poskim qualified this ruling with certain conditions:

  1. We are worried that close family members, even to the slightest degree, may not be acting out of compassion for the patient but for themselves (the tremendous burden on them or their pain due to the patient’s suffering). Therefore, only one who is not a relative of the patient may pray for his passing7.
  2. Prayer like this is permitted only if the patient’s suffering is great and there is no hope for recovery8. Due to this, it is very difficult to define when one may pray, and this decision may not be taken by just anyone. Additionally, it is known that there are cases where the doctors lose hope in the patient’s recovery and the patient survives regardless of the assessment.9
  3. Even when there is no chance for patient recovery, but they are in a vegetative state and there is no suffering, it is forbidden to pray for their death10.
  4. There are those that hold that only extraordinarily spiritual figures may pray such a prayer11.

Despite all this, it seems that the most appropriate method is to pray that God should save the patient from his suffering, or that he should have mercy on the patient and act mercifully, without mentioning death itself.12 This prayer allows for the possibility of death and recovery13. It also makes sense that prayer in this fashion resonates better with the one praying, as it places his faith in God who knows what’s best for the patient, rather than directly praying for death.

4. Conclusion

  1. It is a great mitzvah to pray for a patient to survive, all the more so when their condition is serious.
  2. Regarding a patient who has exhausted all methods of recovery, it is preferrable not to excessively pray for their survival. When a patient like this is suffering, granted that one who prays that they should pass has what to rely upon, but it is more appropriate to pray to God that he should be saved from suffering. One should do what they deem best.

הערת שוליים

  1. The Ran (in his commentary on Nedarim 40a) brings proof from this story that one may pray for the death of a sick person, see later on. Based on this, Rabbi Chaim David Halevi writes (Aseh Lecha Rav Responsa, volume 9, article 22): “and since this story is written in the Gemara, the intent was surely to teach a halacha to allow prayer for a sick person that they should die when suffering is great”. Rabbi Waldenberg (Tzitz Eliezer Responsa, volume 5, Ramat Rachel, article 50) perceived this story to have contradictory evidence, since the Sages did not stop praying for the recovery of Rebbe despite his suffering.
  2. On Bava Metzia 84a, it is told that Rabbi Yochanan became mentally incompetent, and the Sages pray for him to pass. On Taanit 23a, Choni HaMaagel becomes repulsed with his life after sleeping for 70 years, and the Sages pray for him to pass. In the Talmud Yerushalmi (Shabbat, Chapter 19, Halacha 2) it is told of Rav Ada Bar Ahavah that he had a child born with a physical deformity, and he prayed for him to pass. The poskim bring evidence from these cases that one may pray for a sick person to die. The Emek Sheilah on the Sheiltot (Sheiltah 93:9) brings proof from the words of Rav Pappa (Rosh Hashanah 17a) “Prepare for him burial shawls” and explains that Rav Pappa was hinting that they should pray for his passing. Rav Waldenberg (Tzitz Eliezer ibid and in other responsa) rejects all of these proofs, see his responsa in volume 7, article 49, section Even Yaakov, chapter 13, article; volume 9, article 47; volume 18, article 48:5; volume 19, article 10:1.
  3. Eliyahu – Melachim I 19:4, Yonah – Yonah 4:3; David – Shmuel II 12:15-23.
  4. Berachot 10a.
  5. See earlier endnote 1.
  6. This is the ruling of the Aruch Hashulchan, Yoreh Deah, article 335:3; and of the Igrot Moshe Responsa, Choshen Mishpat, volume 2, article 73:1; ibid., article 74:1+4; Minchat Shlomo Responsa, volume 1, article 91:24. See as well: The Medical Halachic Encyclopedia, volume 5, entry ‘Terminally Ill[1]’, pages 162-166; Nishmat Avraham, Yoreh Deah, article 335:15. It is also brought in the name of Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach that even though it says “even when a sharp sword is placed on a person’s neck, they should not withhold themselves from [appealing to God’s] mercy”, when the sword is not “placed” but “cutting” the neck, one may cease praying, see Nachum Stepensky (editor), And Its Leaves Shall Not Wilt: The Conduct and Teachings of Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (Hebrew), volume 2, Jerusalem 5761, page 132. See the Yalkut Yosef as well, Prayer 2, article 119, footnote 3, that cites a time where his father Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef prayed for a sick person to pass in order to save a women from her agunah status. The prayer that was prayed in that circumstance was penned by Rabbi Yosef Chaim (the Ben Ish Chai), Lashon Chachamim, volume 2, article 45, who brings this prayer and advocates for it as well. To contrast, Rav Waldenberg (Tzitz Eliezer Responsa, see endnotes 1-2) holds that one should not pray for a patient to die. According to him, the Ran’s opinion is a singular opinion that is not brought as halacha in the Shulchan Aruch and other poskim, and seemingly was rejected from halachic authority. Aside from the reasoning behind rejecting the statement of the Ran, Rav Waldenberg writes that the reality is that a patient who is depressed due to suffering and asks to die may still recover, and therefore one cannot decide that the time has come for prayer advocating his death.
  7. Chokekei Lev Responsa, volume 1, Yoreh Deah, article 50; Aseh Lecha Rav Responsa, volume 5, article 112. Additionally, see ibid., volume 9, article 22.
  8. Teshuvot VeHanhagot Responsa, volume 2, article 82; Shevet Halevi Responsa, volume 10, article 26. It seems to the rest of the poskim who permit this (earlier endnote 6) – that great sickness and suffering are both required as well.
  9. Shevet Halevi Responsa, volume 10, article 292:3. This, according to him, is the reason the poskim do not bring the statement of the Ran as halacha.
  10. Shevet Halevi Responsa, volume 10, article 26.
  11. Igrot Moshe Responsa, Choshen Mishpat, volume 2, article 74:1. According to him, there is doubt as to whether one can pray this prayer in our generation. See as well the Shevet Halevi Responsa there.
  12. It is brought in the name of Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach in the Nishmat Avraham, Yoreh Deah, article 335:12, and in the Halichot Shlomo (Edited version of Yitzchak Trager and Aharon Auerbach) volume 1, Tel Aviv 5760, chapter 8, footnote 56. See the Sefer Chasidim, article 794 and Rabbi Akiva Eiger, Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim, article 230, who write that if a baby is born in the eighth month of pregnancy it is forbidden to pray for its survival, and they cite Taanit 24a as a source. See Rabbi Re’em Hacohen, ‘Prayer for Someone Who is Braindead’, Assia Books, 16 (5779), pages 249-250, who writes that it is forbidden to pray for the recover of one who is braindead, since this is a hopeless prayer. See the response from Rabbi Mordechai Peterfreund, who disagrees with him, ibid., pages 251-255, and the response of Rabbi Re’em Hacohen ibid., page 256.
  13. Teshuvot VeHanhagot Responsa, volume 2, article 738. This is how he explains the prayer of the maidservant of Rebbe as well, who said only “may it be the will [of God] that the upper worlds subvert the lower worlds” and did not mention death explicitly. He writes similarly ibid., article 82. In the prayer of the Ben Ish Chai in the Lashon Chachamim (earlier endnote 6) there is only the recitation of verses and no hint as to the purpose of the prayer, unlike other prayers brought there. To contrast, see the version in the Pachad Yitzchak, entry ‘One Who is Dying (7)’.

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