Magic Jewball

all signs point to no


Jew & A – organ donation

Filed under : Jew & A,Judaism
On August 11, 2009
At 11:00 pm
Comments : 4

Oh look, Jew & A! Maybe you vaguely remember this concept. Anyway, I received two questions, one last week and one this week. Let’s start with last week’s. One should not assume that we’ll have to wait till next week for this week’s but stranger things have happened.

Dear MJB,

I recently overhead an acquaintance say that she and her husband could not be buried together in the Jewish cemetery because she had signed her organ donor card, and removal of her organs would prevent her from being buried in that cemetery. Is this correct? Is this why the klezmer is so popular?

On a side note, is this why there is so much care taken to retrieve body parts following a catastrophic death?


Dear Deas,

This is an interesting question because it pits two big principles of Judaism against each other. Two principles enter! One principle leaves! Or something, I don’t really watch that show. And of course, since this is Judaism, there are varied interpretations of which principle trumps the other. Let’s start with our contestants, shall we?

#1 is 25, likes moonlight walks, and is looking for a man to understand her.

Wait, let’s start again.

#1 is called “nivul hamet” or “insult to the dead.” A dead person should be shown great respect, and we would never want to embarrass or dishonor him or her. For example, he or she is never left alone all the way until burial; there is always a living person sitting with the body. This may sound creepy but is an important mitzvah (commandment). If it is your loved one, it can even be comforting. Also part of this rule is making sure that all parts of the body are buried, this honors the person by making sure their remains are not unnecessarily mutilated. Similarly, the body is purified, prayers are said, and he or she is buried right away, usually within 24 hours.

#2 is called “pikuach nefesh” or “saving a life.” This is really the overarching principle of Judaism and almost nothing nullifies the obligation. For instance, if driving on the Sabbath, usually forbidden, could get someone to the hospital to get treatment for a life-threatening condition, it is permitted, and actually required.

You can probably see where I’m going here. But let’s start with a different question. My, I love questions! So, is an autopsy permitted? Cutting open a dead person is certainly a disrespect; have you never seen Fast Times at Ridgemont High? The answer is, sometimes. A routine autopsy is not permitted but one that would establish a cause of death that might help someone else live is OK. But an organ transplant is always done to heal a living person and therefore, most authorities would say it is not only all right, but should be encouraged.

Now, as with all things Jewish, it depends on who you’re asking. You, of course, are asking me and I would tell you that everyone should sign up to donate their organs and perpetuate life. But some Hassidic and other groups within Judaism argue that #1 is just as important and a dead person must be buried whole. Therefore, autopsies and organ harvesting are never allowed, according to them. Does your acquaintance typically wear long skirts, long sleeves, and a wig? If not, the cemetery she’ll most likely be buried in will gladly accept her and her money. I mean, her and her body.

Not to mention, there’s always a lot of talk about Jewish cemeteries not accepting people, it’s kinda weird. I’ve heard, “I can’t be buried in a Jewish cemetery if I have tattoos,” “I can’t be buried in a Jewish cemetery since I intermarried,” “I can’t be buried in a Jewish cemetery if I commit suicide,” and now “I can’t be buried in a Jewish cemetery if I donate my organs.” Who knew that Jewish cemeteries were a tougher get than Harvard? Personally, I’ve never heard of this happening, maybe it’s a Jewish urban legend. Where’s JewSnopes when you need it? I can’t say with total authority that it never occurs (particularly the intermarriage one), but at the funerals I’ve been to, the dead person arrives in a plain wood coffin and is buried, spit spot. I’ve never seen anyone peek inside and make sure the body looks pristine.

And yes, when you see official personnel in Israel after a fatal event collecting human remains, this is why. They are mostly from an organization called Zaka, which does search and rescue, as well as this horrific task. In Judaism, making sure a person receives a proper burial and is treated with honor after life ends is considered one of the greatest things one can do, because there is no reward for it in this lifetime. It is called “chesed shel emet” or “true kindness.” My cousin told me once that she had served time on a committee at her synagogue that prepared and purified a person for burial. It was hard at first, but after a while it became routine. You could be called at a moment’s notice, too, even in the middle of the night, and you wore special garments. I was awed and impressed, but she is a truly kind person, so there you are.

Relatedly, no one really knows why klezmer is popular. Many grants have been funded to study this issue. I kid! Of course this is why klezmer is popular! Life is short, death is sad, let’s make music and dance!

Thanks for writing!

Elton John – Someone Saved My Life Tonight