Daf Yomi Sotah 45
The pro-life versus pro-choice debate was heating up and so the government decided to put together a religious advisory committee.
The chair of the committee turns to the priest and poses the question to him, “When does life begin?”
The priest replies, “According to our faith, life begins at conception.”
The chair notes his response and then repeats the question to the minister, “When does life begin?”
The minister thinks for a moment and says, “Honestly, life truly begins when the embryo begins to form.”
Finally, the chair looks at the rabbi and asks his opinion, “Rabbi, when does life begin?”
The rabbi strokes his beard and repeats the question, gazing Heavenward. “Yes, indeed, when does life begin?” he sings softly to himself. “Life begins, I must say, when your youngest child graduates college, finds a job, gets married, and moves out. That’s when life begins!”
The Torah states, “When a corpse is found upon the ground that Hashem your G-d has given you to inherit, fallen in the field, unknown who killed it. The elders and officers shall go out and measure the distance to the cities around the corpse. The elders of the city closest to the corpse shall take a calf . . . and decapitate the calf in the valley. . . . and they shall say: our hands did not spill this blood . . . and the blood shall be atonement for them.”
Mishnah: If they found the dead man’s head in one place and his body in another, we bring the head to the body, according to Rabbi Eliezer. Rabb Akiva says we take the body to the head. From what part of the body would they measure (the distance to the nearest city)? Rabbi Eliezer says from his navel. Rabbi Akiva says from his nose.
Gemara: What is the basis of their debate? Rabbi Akiva believes the primary life-force is in the nostrils; while Rabbi Eliezer maintains that the primary life-force is in the navel. Let us say that their debate parallels the mishnaic debate concerning from where an embryo begins to form. The first opinion is from the head. Aba Shaul says from the mid-section. But indeed, we could even say that Aba Shaul agrees with Rabbi Akiva, for Aba Shaul is only talking about beginning of life – when life begins it is from the mid-section. But concerning life generally, everyone might agree that it is in the nose, as the Torah states, “And He blew into his nose the breath of life.”
The Gemara here, of course, is not discussing when life begins, but from where life begins. And the Gemara suggests that knowing where life begins can shed light on where life ends. Of what consequence is the question of where life ends? For the talmudic discussion here, we need to know whether life ends in the head or the body in order to determine from where to measure if we find a corpse.
But today, there is another major practical implication of the question of where life ends. And that is the question of organ donation. A lot of people mistakenly believe that Jewish law prohibits organ donation. After all, is there not an obligation to be buried completely intact? Ordinarily, that is indeed the case. But where we having a competing obligation to save a life, we most certainly should endeavour to put our organs to good use by donating them to a living person in need of a transplant!
The problem with organ donation, however, is that by the time a person is dead, the organs are mostly useless for harvesting. So when are successfully transplanted organs harvested? It occurs in the case of brain death. Sometimes a person’s brain may cease to function while their other organs are still operating. It is at that point that we could take his heart or other mid-section organs for donation. The question is, though, by taking out his heart, are we killing him? Or was he already dead once his brain activity ceased?
That question is a complex halachic dilemma. But we see that it is not a new question. Already in the Mishnah, we find Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Eliezer debating the question of the main source of life. Is it the body or the head? And in another Mishnah, we find Aba Shaul’s debate: does life begin from the head or the body? In other words, what comes first, the head or the heart? Likewise, our question is: when is halachic time of death, when the brain ceases to function or when the heart stops beating?
It is an important discussion and if you haven’t thought about organ donation, it’s time to have a conversation with your rabbi about which organs you may donate and which you may not. You could be saving multiple lives!
What’s more, even before you die, there are organs you could be donating during your lifetime that everyone agrees is permissible, if not obligatory! For example, most healthy people have two kidneys. You really only need one to live. You know why Hashem gave you two kidneys? So that you could have the opportunity to use one to save the life of another human being whose kidneys have failed. The risks associated with kidney donation are minimal, but the spiritual rewards are tremendous. The Talmud says that “One who saves one life, it is as if he saved an entire world!”
The Torah loves life. We are obligated to do whatever we can to protect the sanctity of life, both at the beginning and the end. May you merit dedicating the blessings of life you were given to bestow life upon others!