Parsha Mitzvot: Vayechi: Chikkekei Lev: A Prayer To Hasten Death
Were Joseph and his brothers permitted to pray that Jacob die and be relieved of his suffering? We turn to a famous Responsum:
A God-fearing scholar has a pious wife. For our many sins, the woman has been sick with a long, enduring illness for more than twenty years. She is plagued and crushed with pain. Her hands and legs are shriveled up and she is therefore housebound. This woman has borne these sufferings patiently and her husband ans met them without bitterness. He has not troubled her even for an instant. On the contrary, he shows her special love, so that she should not grieve because he may resent the burden.
This woman, because of her great pain, prays to God that He take her life so that she should find rest from her suffering. Her sons bring her physicians and many medicines and have hired a servant for her that she should have no household worries. But her pains have now greatly increased and even the doctors have despaired of her recovery from this illness. She pleads with her husband and her sons that they should pray for her death and asks particularly that her sons ask God’s mercy for her. But her husband and her sons do not listen to her. On the contrary, they seek out scholars to study in her behalf. They continue to give charity and atonements and oil for the synagogue’s Menorah, in order to obtain healing for her.
Now, teach us, O righteous teacher, whether there is any prohibition involved if they should really pray for her to die in order that she may find rest.
The first part of the Responsum consists of a general discussion of obligation described in the Talmud, by which a husband is bound to love and cherish and protect his wife; of how wrong it is, according to Talmudic law, even to think of her death, if, for example, he wishes she were dead, that he might marry someone else. After discussing how sinful this would be, Rabbi Chaim Palaggi (Smyrna, 1788-1869) proceeds to show that in this case all these Talmudic cautions are not applicable:
The prohibition against wishing one’s wife dead applies only when such wishes are without her knowledge or due to hatred. But here, where she wishes it herself and can no longer endure her pain, under these circumstances, it is possible to say that it is permitted.
I come to this conclusion from what the Talmud says in Ketubot (104a). We are there told that on the day on which Rabbi Yehudah the Prince was to die, the Rabbis decreed a fast and said that anyone who should say that Rabbi has died would be put to death. But the servant-maid of Rabbi Yehudah went up to the roof and she said, “The angels seek Rabbi Yehudah; the earthlings seek him too. May the earthlings conquer the angels.” Once she saw how much suffering Rabbi Yehudah underwent, she changed and said, “May the angels conquer the earthlings.” But the Rabbis continued to pray for his recovery. She then threw a pitcher from the rof among them. This interrupted their prayer, and he died.
Now it is clear that this woman saw his great pain. Furthermore, we know from the Talmud and the later scholars that they learned laws from this woman. She was full of learning and piety. Therefore we may learn from her this law, that it is permitted to ask mercy for a very sick person that he may die, so that his soul may come to rest. For if this action of hers were not in accordance to the law, the Talmud would not have quoted it. As for the Rabbis who continued to pray that he should live, they did not know Rabbi Yehudah’s suffering as much as did she.
So the law emerges in our case that this owman who suffers all these agonies, and asks that others pray for her that she die, it is certainly completely permitted them to do so. I have also seen the words of Rabbeinu Nissim (Nedarim 44a), in which he says, “It seems to me that there are times when it is necessary to pray for the sick that he die; as, for example, if the person suffers greatly and it is impossible for him to continue living much longer.”
Rabbi Palaggi continues with the caution that there is some danger that people might think ill of the sons for praying that she die, although they have every right to. People may imagine that they are trying to get rid of the burden. Yet on the other hand, they cannot pray that she should live and continue to suffer. So he concludes:
But others, who are not relateed and would be free of any of these suspicions, if they would pray that she should die and find rest, they may do so; for it is all for a high purpose and God searches the heart.
As it is said in Sefer Chassidim (#234) that we must not cry out aloud when the soul is departing, in order not to cause the soul to return and bera more pain. Why did Kohelet say, “There is a time to die”? It means that, when he time comes for a man’s soul to go forth, people should not cry aloud so that his soul should return, for he can only live a short time and in that short time he must bear great pain.
See too the Ramah on Yoreh Deah 399.
This is what, to my humble opinion, I have written hastily, for my strength is weak and may Almighty God say, “Enough!” to our troubles, deliver us from error, and show us wonders from His Law. Amen.
Chikkekei Lev, Volume I #50.