Frequently Asked Questions about
Halachic aspects of Organ Donation
1. Does Judaism allow for organ donation?
That question can be broken down into two parts. First, does Judaism allow for a transplant surgeon to remove a body part to save a life? Pikuach nefesh, the commandment to save a life, overrides most other commandments. So even if there is priority to be buried whole, saving a life by organ donation is more important. Second, is a brain dead patient, where typically most organs come from, considered dead according to halacha? There is a debate with some rabbis saying yes and some saying no. We refer you to the Issues page on this website.
2. Does Judaism allow for autopsy?
In certain cases, where knowledge gleaned from the autopsy will immediately help to save a life, the autopsy should be done. Rabbi Yechezkel Landau, in his magnum opus the Nodah Be’Yehuda, enumerates the principle: Since saving a life is of utmost importance, it overrides the prohibitions about not cutting into or desecrating a cadaver. The sense of urgency, however, is necessary and therefore this permission would not extend to a general autopsy that would be done for general medical knowledge.
3. Do we need to be buried with our organs in order to be resurrected?
No. While being buried whole is a value in Judaism, there is no source in classical Jewish literature that says you need to be buried with your organs in order to be resurrected. In fact, a few months after your death, your organs will have disintegrated so you will not have your organs for resurrection.
Why does the belief persist that Jews are never allowed to permit an autopsy or donate organs ?
It is common knowledge that a Jew may eat non-kosher if he or she is starving to death and there is nothing else to eat. The ability to save a life by cutting into a dead body, however, is very recent. For more than 3,000 years, Jews have been taught that the body is sacrosanct and it is never to be violated because there never arose the thought that perhaps by doing so you could save someone else’s life. It will take much time to break this taboo that has been firmly entrenched in the collective Jewish awareness.
5. Does the HOD Society issue piskei halacha (religious rulings)?
No. While the HOD Society recognizes brain death as halachic death it also understands there is a plurality of halachic positions on this issue. HODS, therefore, offers a unique organ donor card that allows people to choose between different halachic options.
6. Can a corpse have a proper Tahara (ritual washing) upon death if the person was an organ donor?
The custom to wash a corpse upon death is to pour water over the corpse. This can be done to an organ donor as it can be done to a badly-injured car-accident victim or someone who died on the operating table during open-heart surgery.
Although we have many laws and minhagim (customs) surrounding burial, pikuach nefesh (saving a life) overshadows all of them. Jewish law clearly dictates that saving human lives is a greater mitzvah.
Yes. Nephrologist Benjamin Hippen notes in the scientific journal New Atlantis, "Life on dialysis is a fragile, vulnerable existence." Far too often, things do not go well, and people on dialysis are unable to work, experience multiple complications, and die.
The latest United States Renal Dialysis Statistics on life expectancy on dialysis (http://www.usrds.org/2009/ref/H_Ref_09.pdf) show that people live 14 more years after receiving a transplanted kidney than if they would have stayed on dialysis.
Many Jews (secular, Reform, and Conservative) do not feel comfortable donating organs because they feel it is not supported by traditional Orthodox halacha. The Halachic Organ Donor Society was created to counter this misconception. Since its mission is to show traditional Orthodox halachic support for organ donation, it highlights Orthodox rabbis.