Organ donation in Jewish law

Organ donation in Jewish law

Under Jewish law, organ donation raises some questions, and has traditionally been met with some skepticism. However, it has met increasing acceptance as medical transplantation methods have improved. In both Orthodox Judaism and non-Orthodox Judaism, the majority view holds that organ donation is permitted in the case of irreversible cardiac rhythm cessation. In some cases, rabbinic authorities believe that organ donation may be mandatory, whereas a minority opinion considers any donation of a live organ as forbidden.[1]


Relevant principles of Jewish Law

In judging cases of organ donation, rabbis consider a range of principles and precedents, including mutilation of the body, the determination of death, the risk of the medical operation, and the duty to preserve or save life.

Mutilation and undue benefit of a dead body

Jewish interests in avoiding desecration of the body has been considered a factor in gauging the permissibility of organ donation. Those halachot are nivul hamet, which forbids the needless mutilation of a dead body, halanat hamet, which forbids delaying the burial of a body, and hana'at hamet, which forbids getting benefit from a dead body.

Determination of death

Another major debate around organ donation has to do with what is considered death. One opinion is that death is indicated by the irreversible cessation of breathing, and the other opinion is that death is indicated by the irreversible cessation of a heartbeat, which is the majority, long standing accepted opinion. Those who hold this way believe that any other definition of death e.g. brain death or brain stem death, is incorrect and removing organs from such an individual is tantamount to murder.[2]

Another issue is the prohibition against touching a goses. Goses is a halachic category ascribed to people who are critically ill and expected to die within a brief period, typically three days. Halakha forbids touching the body of a goses for fear that any sudden movement may accelerate the time of death. For this reason, there may be reluctance to medically intervene with an imminently dying patient solely for the purpose of preparing them for organ donation.[citation needed]

Preservation of life

In favor of organ donation, most authorities rely on the overarching principle (pikuach nefesh) that requires extraordinary actions to preserve or save life.

Another issue is Jews donating organs to non-Jews. Some say that because every man is created in the image of God pikuach nefesh spreads to non-Jews also. There is a fear of enmity between Jews and non-Jews so rabbis say that pikuach nefesh has to apply to non-Jews, because there is already a complaint in the medical world about Jews being willing to receive organs but not give organs. In addition, by putting yourself on an organ list there is a possibility that a Jew on the list will be bumped up if a non-Jew is given your organ.

Overall, according to many Halachic rulers, there is no Halacha that says you can't donate organs, and usually it is pikuach nefesh that gives people permission to donate. However, because of some dissenting Halachic rulers, it is advised to consult with a rabbi before making a decision.

Ultra-orthodox opposition

Some ultra-orthodox Jews (haredim) are vehemently opposed to organ donation. Haredim in Israel have recently issued an anti-organ-donor or "life" card which is intended to ensure that organs are not removed from the bearer after brain death or brain stem death. It states: "I do not give my permission to take from me, not in life or in death, any organ or part of my body for any purpose." [3]

See also

  • Religious views on organ donation


  • Elliot N. Dorff. Matters of Life and Death:A Jewish Approach to Modern Medical Ethics Philadelphia and Jerusalem: Jewish Publication Society 1998. Pp. xix, 476. $24.46. ISBN 0-827-60647-8
  • Jakobovits, Immanuel. 1959. Jewish Medical Ethics. New York: Bloch Publishing. pp. 285–291
  • Lau, Y. "The sale of organs for transplantation" (Hebrew), Tehumin 18:125-136, 1998
  • Joseph Prouser. "Organ and Tissue Donation Card" in Mackler, Aaron L., ed. 2000. Life & Death Responsibilities in Jewish Biomedical Ethics. JTS.
  • Ramirez, Anthony. "Medicine Meets Religion In Organ Donation Debate." New York Times, 18 November 2006, Vol. 156 Issue 53767, pB2-B2, 1/3p; (AN 23283799)
  • Sinclair, Daniel. Jewish biomedical law. Oxford Univ. Press, 2003 (Chapter 6)
  • Twersky, Abraham, Michael Gold, and Walter Jacob. 1991. "Jewish Perspectives." pp. 187–98 in New Harvest: transplanting the body and reaping the benefits, edited by C. Don Keyes and Walter E. Wiest. Clifton, NJ: Hurnana Press.
  • Stephen J. Werber. “Ancient Answers to Modern Questions: Death, Dying, and Organ Transplants – A Jewish Law Perspective,” ‘'Cleveland State University Journal of Law and Health, 1996 / 1997, v.11


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