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Praying for One to Die: Philosophical Considerations

December 1, 2009 by  
Filed under Halakha, Philosophy, Prayer


Praying for One to Die: Philosophical Considerations

by Ezra Schwartz

There is a great deal of literature about treating a terminally ill patient.  However, the question most relevant for family members, namely how they should pray, remains mired in obscurity.  Although Ran in Nedarim 40a, basing himself of Ketubot 104a, teaches that one should pray for the terminally ill patient who is undergoing a great deal of suffering to expire, this position is left out of Shulchan Aruch.  Consequently, contemporary poskim are divided as how one should daven.  Should they continue to daven for the patient to survive despite the obvious pain that he or she is in?  Or should they follow the Ran and daven for the patient to expire?  There are three schools of thought among poskim.  Some completely endorse the Ran’s position; others reject it entirely, yet others in theory endorse the Ran’s position but in practice hold that it is not applicable. 

The Makhloket Ha-Poskim

Advocates of the first approach – those who accept the Ran – include the Aruch HaShulchan (YD 335:3); the Tifferet Yisrael (Yoma 8:7), Rav Chaim Kanievsky (cited by Rav Shmuel Eliezer Stern in Siach Tefilla page 719), Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (Minchat Shlomo vol. 1 #91, 24), and Rav Ovadia Yosef (see later editions of Yalkut Yosef YD 335).  In contrast, Tzitz Eliezer (Volume 5 #5) completely rejects the Ran.

 Rav Moshe Feinstein (CM vol. 2 #74,1) takes the middle approach.  He maintains that in theory one may daven for a person to die; however this is only as a last resort.  After all the tefillot for the person to live came up short, then one may daven for the person to die.  Since in our day, people are no longer expert to daven, in practice one can never daven for a person to expire.  Rav Wosner (Siach Halacha page 772) arrives at a similar conclusion to Rav Moshe, but for a slightly different reason.  Rav Wosner maintains that in theory we may daven to end the life of a person who has no hope of recovery.  However, today we are never certain when and if a person arrives at that state.  Therefore, in practice, Rav Moshe and Rav Wosner maintain that one can never daven to end a person’s life.

The Nature of Prayer:  Active or Passive Intervention?

It seems that the dispute whether or not to accept the Ran’s principle may be based on a fundamental question regarding the nature of prayer.  To what extent is a person who prayed for a particular outcome viewed as being responsible for that outcome?   In other words, do we view a person who prays as a passive party who bears no direct responsibility for the outcome, which was caused solely by G-d?  Or do we view prayer like an active mechanism to manipulate Divine intervention? 

Rama in Yore Deah (339:1) teaches that one never actively do something which will shorten a person’s life.  However, he permits passive intervention, including preventing an external noise which is protracting a person’s life.  Based on this distinction between active and passive acts, it is possible to explain the dispute between Ran and the other poskim.   If prayer is viewed as an active form of intervention, it would be forbidden to daven for an ill person to expire.  If, however, davening is considered passive intervention, it would be permitted to daven for one to expire based on the guidelines set down by Rama[1]

In this respect this dispute is connected to the machloket among poskim as to whether one may pray for Yirat Shamayim.  The Gemara (Berachot 33) teaches that all aspects of one’s life is b’yidei Shamayim, in the hands of G-d, with the exception of Yirat Shamayim.   It is therefore questionable if one is permitted to pray for increased levels of Yirat Shamayim.  Some maintain that such prayer is permitted because since man is praying, the consequent Yirat Shamayim is due to his actions[2].

Praying for Miracles

Philosophically many are bothered by the Ran’s approach.  Why does the Ran teach that we should daven for the person to expire.   Clearly, the omnipotent G-d is capable of healing the person.  Why then should we not aspire to greater heights and pray for the person to live?

Rav Hershel Schachter once explained that the reason we pray for the terminally ill person to die, rather than live, is because we must not pray for miracles.  This principle is asserted in the Gemara, Berachot 54a, which teaches that one may not beseech G-d that the fetus his wife is pregnant with should be a boy.  Changing the sex of the fetus is a miracle, and prayer is limited to ordinary Divine interventions, not miraculous ones. 

Despite the Gemara’s opposition to praying for miracles, Rama (Orach Chayim 187) rules that one who omits al hanisim on Chanukka or Purim should add a special harachaman at the end of birchat hamazon.  The text that should be inserted reads that just as G-d performed miracles for our fathers, He should perform miracles for us.  Shaarei Teshuva is bothered how it is possible to recite this harachaman in light of the Gemara’s prohibition to pray for miracles.  He quotes Bechor Shor who offers two explanations.  The first explanation is that it is forbidden to pray only for miracles that will benefit an individual.  However, one is allowed to daven for a miracle that will impact the entire tzibur.  The second explanation he offers is that it is forbidden to pray for a miracle that cannot come about through natural means, but one is permitted for a miracle that can be explained through natural means. 

It would seem that the reason Ran tells us to pray for a person to expire rather than for that same person to survive is because he considers the person surviving to be a miraculous occurrence for  which we may not pray.  Those who argue on Ran would maintain that since in the event the patient does survive, it will without doubt be attributed to medical, rational interventions, and therefore it is permitted to daven.  In short the question of whether we should daven for an ill person to recover or to perish seems to hinge on the two explanations offered by Bechor Shor.     



[1] This analysis was suggested by Rabbi Mordechai Carlebach in his Chavatzelet HaSharon, Beraishit, page 190. I am indebted to Rabbi Daniel Feldman for directing me to this source.

[2] See Maharsha in Berachot 10a on the story of Bruria.

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