Does Judaism approve of autopsies?

January 6, 2020 by Rabbi Raymond Apple
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Ask the rabbi…

Rabbi Raymond Apple


Q. What is the origin of rabbinic ordination?

A. Rabbinic ordination began with Moses, who “placed his hands” on Joshua (Num. 27:22-23) and the 70 elders (Num. 11:16). In every generation, their authority, in turn, passed down to their successors (Avot 1:1; Maimonides, Hilchot Sanhedrin 4:1).

During the period of the Second Temple, ordination became a set procedure which raised a person’s status from “talmid chacham” (“student of the wise” or “wise student”) to “zaken” (“elder”). At times ordination was denied, e.g. to keep the Sadducees out of the Sanhedrin.

The laying on of hands (“s’michah”) gave way to a proclamation of the name of the candidate by his teacher and later by the nasi, the head of the Sanhedrin. The candidate, wearing a special robe, was announced as “Rabbi” and his praises sung. To evidence his ability to make decisions, he would then give a learned discourse.

The ordination had to take place in the Land of Israel, though the rabbi could function in the Diaspora as well as in the Holy Land.

However, when the great Talmudic academies in Israel came to an end in the 4th century CE traditional ordination went into abeyance. In the 16th century, Jacob Berab attempted to revive it in Tz’fat (Safed) but the rabbis of Jerusalem objected and within a few years the innovation was abandoned.

Even without “s’michah” there have of course always been rabbis. The title “chacham” has often been used among Sephardim and some Ashkenazim.

Though the terms ordination and “s’michah” are colloquially employed, strictly speaking they are not appropriate and the authority the rabbi receives is “hattarat hora’ah”, “permission to teach”. Despite the popular view, the role of the rabbi is not so much as a minister and/or officiant but as a teacher.

Rabbinic training began to be structured in Germany in the 14th century and was professionalised with the establishment of rabbinic seminaries in the 19th century; in many such institutions, rabbinic studies went along with university courses.

For many decades, however, students of Jews’ College in London were awarded the title “Reverend”, not Rabbi, because the British Chief Rabbinate wished to concentrate rabbinic authority in itself. This changed as the 20th century progressed.

In Israel, a number of colleges train rabbis for Diaspora communities. They include Yad Avi HaYishuv (the Rothschild Foundation) and Touro College, which aims to produce rabbis “not only well versed in Torah and halachah, but with a broad vision of the Western humanistic tradition as well as the practical skills needed for a rabbi to function in modern society”.


Q. Does Judaism approve of autopsies?

A. Generally, Judaism opposes anything which would injure, mar or mutilate the human body, after death as well as in life.

However, in 1776 Rabbi Yechezkel Landau issued in his Noda Biy’hudah a now-famous statement that an autopsy could be performed if could benefit “choleh shelefanenu” – a sick person who was physically present and suffering from the same disease as the deceased.

In 1964 Rabbi Yitzchak Arieli in a paper to the 6th World Congress on the Oral Law said that hereditary disease is comparable to “choleh shelefanenu”.

Lord Jakobovits has stated that “in these days of rapid traffic and transportation, there are patients ‘lefanenu’ (actually present) in every place where one awaits the results of anatomic investigation, and what is found here today may serve as a cure tomorrow in New York”.

However, none of this implies that autopsies may be carried out routinely and indiscriminately: that would be an affront to human dignity and compromise the integrity of the body, which is God’s property. Every case must, therefore, be investigated and decided on its own merits.

Rabbi Raymond Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem where he answers interesting questions.

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