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In Yoreh Deah 339:1, the mechaber brings a variety of things that one is not permitted to do to a goses (a person on the brink of death), since each of these things causes the goses to die sooner. Since a goses is considered a living person in every respect (הגוסס הרי הוא כחי לכל דבריו) even one who closes their eyes as they are dying is a murderer (וכל המעמץ עם יציאת הנפש ה"ז שופך דמים).

Some of the examples that are given, concerning what may not be done, are of a curious nature, but the strangest (to my mind) is one brought by the Rema:

וכן אסור לגרום למת שימות מהרה כגון מי שהוא גוסס זמן ארוך ולא יוכל להפרד... אסור לשום מפתחות ב"ה תחת ראשו כדי שיפרד

Likewise, it is forbidden to cause the deceased to die quickly - for example, if he has been a goses for a long time and is unable to depart... It is forbidden to place the synagogue keys [or the keys of the bet hamidrash] underneath his head [the head of the goses] in order that he may depart.

Seeing as none of the nos'ei keilim appear to comment on this, and since I have never heard of such a thing anywhere else, I wonder if anybody here can shed light on it? For what reason was it believed in the 16th century that placing the keys of the synagogue (or bet hamidrash) underneath a sick person's head might cause them to expire? Does this have a basis in any older examples of rabbinic literature?

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How do you know what ב"ה stands for? – Double AA May 28 '13 at 6:02
@DoubleAA - I don't. I'm guessing, only because I'm used to seeing it as a reference to synagogues and batei midrashim. – Shimon bM May 28 '13 at 6:04
Perhaps you should include that uncertainty in the question. – Double AA May 28 '13 at 6:21

1 Answer 1

up vote 22 down vote accepted

Based on the Sefer ha-Hassidim there was a belief that the souls of the dead would pray in the synagogue at night when no one was around... based on that it appears that the belief arose in Eastern Europe that placing the key to the synagogue beneath the pillow of the goses would help his soul escape the body as it would be stirred to join up with the other souls praying in the synagogue. See p. 41-42 of this pdf.

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Thank you! That's exactly the sort of information I was looking for. – Shimon bM May 28 '13 at 7:29
@ShimonbM Sure thing - glad to be of assistance :) – Deuteronomy May 28 '13 at 7:41
It was so strongly believed that it managed to be codified by the RaM"A? – Seth J May 28 '13 at 15:38
Actually, @SethJ, it's not so strange! Much of this section (in the mechaber's language as well) is a codification of Sefer Hasidim §315. The primary source for this legislation is Semakhot 1:1-4, but that text only forbids actively euthanasing somebody. Sefer Hasidim is the oldest text to permit removing the impediments to death. – Shimon bM May 28 '13 at 23:17
@seth-j :) ba3zrath HaShem we will all follow holocho properly and will be righteous and beautiful in the eyes of HaShem as in the days of old. Omein. – MoriDoweedhYaa3qob May 29 '13 at 18:32

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