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Organ Donation

Organ Donation

Saving a life is paramount in Jewish law, but organ donation is much more complex than signing a donor card.

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The Jewish position on organ donation is as complex as the issue of life and death, because it derives directly from the Jewish perspective on the sanctity of life and the role that our physical existence plays in the advancement of our spiritual selves.

On the one hand, we have a sacred obligation to preserve human life (pikuah nefesh).This is an overriding principle in Jewish law -- so important that almost any other law can be broken for this reason.For example, we can break Shabbat to drive an injured person to the hospital.

We can break Shabbat to drive to the hospital; we can eat pork if we are starving in the desert.

On the other hand, Jewish law prohibits desecration of a dead body (nivul hamet). A dead person's body, since it once housed the holy soul, is to be treated with the utmost respect. Every part of the body must be buried -- which is why you see the heart-wrenching images of religious Jews dutifully going around after a terrorist bombing, scraping up pieces of flesh and blood for burial.

How do we resolve these two principles?

To Save a Life

Organ donation is permitted in the case when an organ is needed for a specific, immediate transplant.

In such a case, it is a great mitzvah for a Jew to donate organs to save another person's life.

It is forbidden to simply donate to an "organ bank," where there is no specific, immediate recipient.

Organ donation is not necessarily limited to dead people: Someone who can afford to spare a kidney, for example, may donate one to someone in need.

Yet in consideration of the prohibition against desecrating the body, it is forbidden to simply donate to an "organ bank," where there is no specific, immediate recipient.

Furthermore, it is also forbidden to donate for general medical research or for students to dismember in medical school.

Caution Required

Even when there is a specific, immediate transplant, there is need for caution, because oftentimes in order to obtain organs as fresh as possible, a doctor will remove the organ before the patient is actually "dead" according to Jewish law.

The doctor is therefore effectively killing the patient, which is, of course, forbidden.

The bottom line is that each case is different. A myriad of considerations in halacha must be reviewed. So before going ahead with any procedure, consult with a rabbi well-versed in Talmud and Jewish law. It is clearly not as simple as blankly signing an organ donation card.

Sources:

Rabbi Yechezkel Landau - Noda BeYehudah II, Yoreh Deah 210
Rabbi Moshe Feinstein - Igrot Moshe, Yoreh Deah II, 174
Dayan Weiss - Minchat Yitzchak V, 7
Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg - Tzitz Eliezer X, 25

Further information:

Institute for Jewish Medical Ethics in San Francisco (800-258-4427)
"Judaism and Healing" by Rabbi J. David Bleich (Ktav Publishing 1981)

Published: January 23, 2000


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Visitor Comments: 8

(8) Rebekah Arsenault, August 11, 2009 3:02 PM

Misconception

It is misleading to say that donating your organs to an organ recovery organization is not the same thing as providing organs to someone in immediate need. Donated organs are used as quickly as possible; they are not "stored" for future use. 18 people a day die while waiting for a transplant. If that doesn't qualify as an immediate need, I don't know what does.

(7) Debbie, April 25, 2009 3:33 PM

donation

THis is very helpful information. My mother in law died from kidney disease. I tried to donate, but was not a match. I agree with Jewish traditions and think donating kidneys and bone marrow is such a mitzvah. I wish I could have saved my mother in law. However, I feel that people should go with what they feel is best. After all, a mitzvah is a mitzvah- whether is is done when you are alive or not. THis is a very complicated issue.

(6) Camille, January 17, 2008 8:38 PM

patients are dead before organ donation

I do not know the definition of death in Jewish law, but I do know that it is illegal in the US to harvest organs unless a patient is brain dead.

(5) Anonymous, January 19, 2006 12:00 AM

Did you respond to this comment .please forward if you have

Ted Feder, 6/13/2001
Organ Donation
Last week, the whole world read that organs from an Israeli Arab (here in Brazil, the news said from a Palestinian)were donated by his family to Jews that needed the organs. Today, a famous Jewish music star passed away, after being run over by a motorcycle on Monday evening while jogging, and the local radio stations said that he would not be buried in the Jewish cemetery, because Jews are against organ donation, and as his family did donate his organs, he was to be buried elsewhere. The comparison of these two situations made me feel very bad: we can receive and cannot give. Your explanation is clear, but apparently the solution is complicated. Why then receive if I cannot give?

(4) s.t., March 26, 2004 12:00 AM

I myself have never donated an organ but I work at the hospital in the icu and I see so many patients come in that have touched my life and it is sad to see them go if they have not recieved there transplants on time I always tell myself not get attached but I always end up geting my heart beoken.

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