Wednesday, January 24, 2007

praying to hasten death - a disturbing yerushalmi

I am familiar with the opinion of the Ran (Nedarim 40) that it is permissible to pray for a person’s death where an individual is terminally ill in chronic pain and extending his/her life only serves to prolong suffering (aside: I am speaking only of praying – taking overt action to hasten death is tantamount to murder). Nonetheless, I found this Yerushalmi in Shabbos 87b disturbing. The gemara tells of R’ Ada bar Ahava, who had a child born with an arla kevusha, which requires doing hatafas dam bris – blood must be drawn even if there is no foreskin to cut for a bris milah. According to one version of the story cited by the gemara R’ Ada tried to perform the mitzvah and his son died at his hands – a tragic accident. The gemara continues with a different version of the story, which troubles me. In this second version R’ Ada rendered his son a petzu’a daka, making him unfit to marry or have relations. R’ Ada fasted and prayed that his son should die, and his prayer was answered.

I would have thought that there is a difference between a chronic physical condition of pain that cannot be alleviated except through a peaceful death, and a prospective condition that 1) does not yet exist and 2) portends emotional and social stigma but not direct physical pain. R’ Ada’s child had a future as a capable functioning member of society, albeit unable to marry or have children, yet R' Ada thought it better to pray that such a child die rather than grow up with this (major) stigma and burden. Of course I am not in a position to second guess Chazal, but I feel I must be misunderstanding something because the implications of this statement bother me. Any ideas?


  1. yehuda R11:34 AM

    Perhaps Rav Addas tefilah was motivated by a similar concept to 'momzer lo chays'.SOME opnions feel we don't daven for a sick momzer so that he shouldn't get mixed into klal yisroel.OTOH noone says to daven that a momzer should die and a momzer is worse the petzua dakkah in that his progeny are also momzerim.

  2. It seems like the chiluk you are making is between physical pain -- which you understand -- and emotional pain. Why do you assume that physical pain is worse and more deserving of rachmanus than emotional pain? I am not in a position to weigh in on how much emotional pain one ailment would cause and whether that is worthy of a tefilah that the person should die, but I am not sure I agree with basic assumption of this point.

  3. I am making 2 chilukim: 1) the emotional pain condition is not yet present at the time R' Ada davened; 2) it is emotional and not physical. Anon1, I was thinking along the lines of your sevara, but still have trouble swallowing it. Part of the problem is that I cannot imagine what might go through a parent's mind if chas v'shalom they face the prospect of having a child with a severe and terminal condition that will forever prevent that child from leading a normal lifestyle. Would someone who is involved in pastoral counseling advise such a person to pray for the death of such a child? I find even writing those words difficult. If someone out there is a psychologist or does counselling, maybe they can provide some feedback on this difficult topic.

  4. Years ago I read about a woman who was suing her ob for not having warned her or tested to detect the damaged state of the fetus she was carrying. Her son was born with severe, irreperable damage. She said she realized that her actions indicate she would have preferred her son not be born, and she admitted that was the case. One has to be truly honest oneself to admit that and be prepared for an assault of maternal guilt during such a suit. Yet, an actual death wish would probably be frowned upon.

  5. anon13:01 PM

    Chaim and Ariella,

    you raise good points and it is tough to know or to measure how much pain -- physical or emotional is too much to bear that would warrant this kind of tefilah. I guess what colors my comments and views is that my wife is a psychiatrist and she often comments how the emotional pain she sees with her patients is just as bad if not worse than other types of physical pain. Again, I am not measuring the pain that would be in the case in the Yerushalmi or otherwise but I think emotional pain is worth dealing with.

    As for the point that the emotional pain is yet to be there, that doesn't persuade me so much. Working with the "ein somchin al ha-nes" principle and that the medical science of that time would not allow for a cure, it seems like that emotional pain would be inevitable. But I agree with that the question is a hard one.

  6. A petzua daka may marry a non-meyucheses, i.e. a giyores. Whether he can marry a mamzeres is a machlokes between the Rambam and the Tur. See EH 5:1.
    The Yerushalmi is fascinating. It certainly needs explaining.
    There is one Bavli that it reminds me of-- where a father was mispallel that his son die because the son had supernaturally caused a tree to bear fruit.

  7. Bill Selliger8:15 PM

    The gemara in Nedarim (64b) says that one who can not have children is considered dead. R' Ada rendered his son incapable of having children - effectively murdering him. Maybe R' Ada wasn't praying on his son's behalf. Maybe he was praying for himself.

  8. Barzilai- it was his daughter.

    Remember the gemara where the talmidim in the yeshiva davened for rabbi yochanan to die after rabbi yochnan went crazy following the death of his brother-in-law and chavrusa, reish lakish.