According to a recent NYTimes piece on the new organ donation law in Israel,

Most leading Orthodox rabbis -- as well as Israeli law -- agree that a person dies when his brain-stem stops functioning. A minority opinion, endorsed by Elyashiv, holds that as long as a person's heart beats he or she is alive and therefore the organs cannot be harvested.

Is this true, or is the "most" the result of wishful thinking on the part of the NY Times?

  • I think that besides for the question of "most", how the NYT defines "leading Rabbis" also will determine the truth or untruth of such an assertion!
    – Yahu
    Commented Jan 10, 2011 at 23:42
  • 1
    "Leading Orthodox Rabbis"? When a family member of mine was told to be brain dead but was already put on life support every Rov we spoke to said he is still alive and that taking him off life support would be no different then taking the life of a person walking down the street!
    – Yehoshua
    Commented Jan 16, 2014 at 21:17
  • @Yehoshua, I was surprised at this phrasing by NYT, too. That's why I posed the question. If they'd only interviewed the cross-section of rabbanim that you did and reported that "all Orthodox rabbis hold that as long as a person's heart beats he or she is alive and therefore the organs cannot be harvested," I'd've been similarly surprised. As is clear from the answers below, there are prominent rabbis on both sides of the issue, and it's hard to justify the NYT's summary that "most leading Orthodox rabbis" say brain death is death.
    – Isaac Moses
    Commented Jan 16, 2014 at 22:17
  • @IsaacMoses this is one of those issues that until you are faced with it you don't know how "real" it really is...I therefore take a strong stance on this...The person ended up passing away a day later so the decision wasn't so hard. One of the Rabbis even told us that in his experience based on the reports the doctors were given that it would be a matter of days or hours. However the hospitals will "very nicely" push to make a decision which is usually in the direction of taking off life support (this was outside of NY/NJ where the laws are different...)
    – Yehoshua
    Commented Jan 16, 2014 at 22:42
  • Interesting article on incentives to participate in organ donation programs in Israel: well.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/02/16/… Commented Mar 17, 2014 at 3:22

2 Answers 2


Excerpted from a statement Rabbi Breitowitz emailed to his congregants a few months ago:

A number of poskim-the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, Rabbi Moshe Tendler, and the official position of the Rabbinical Council of America (with many ,many dissenters in their ranks) consider ... to be halachically dead. As such, life support can certainly be terminated, and indeed organs can be harvested from brain dead patients whose heartbeat is maintained via oxygen supplied by respirators.

So gauge the wording for yourself. (Rabbi Hershel Shachter is among the dissenters, by the way.) The Halachic Organ Donor Society card offers either checkbox -- brain-stem death, or heart-function death.

UPDATE: the new RCA position is "each rabbi should decide for himself":

The RCA takes no official position as an organization on the issue of whether or not brain stem death meets the halachic criteria of death ... many halachic authorities of our day, including Rav Hershel Schachter, Rav Mordechai Willig, Rav J. David Bleich and others maintain that brain stem death does not satisfy the halachic criteria for the determination of death. ... [H]owever, many other halachic authorities, including Rav Gedalia Schwartz, Rav Moshe Tendler, and the Chief Rabbinate of Israel maintain that brain stem death does qualify for the determination of death in Jewish law. In light of this ... the RCA maintains that its membership is best served by allowing each Rabbi to determine for himself, based upon his own study, consultation with halachic authorities and his own conscience, which halachic position he will adopt.


I'll post the answer that I gave on Slashdot, particularly since the Israeli rabbis who I discuss are the ones who have real bearing on the issue in Israel (and therefore the article in question).

The Jews who define death as "when the heart stops beating" are hardly a small minority.

On one side of the dispute, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef (the leader of Sephardic jewry) has ruled that according to Jewish law a person is considered dead at the time brain stem activity ceases.

On the other side of the dispute, Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv (the leader of Lithuanian jewry) has ruled that according to Jewish law a person is considered dead when the heart stops beating.

It's also important to note that Israel has no requirement that the Chief Rabbinate agree to a bill in order for it to pass or become law. Israel's government is a secular parliamentary democracy (structured similarly to many European governments), and the Knesset (parliament) has unlimited legislating authority, without even the limitations or checks and balances provided by a written constitution. However becuase of the large population of religious Jews in Israel, it's good politics to listen to consider what their religious authorities have to say when drafting laws that may be affected by Jewish law.


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