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Some time ago, I listened to a talk about organ donation in halacha, and I wanted to present the main points here. You can get more information from the Halachic Organ Donor Society homepage. Note that this deals only with donation after brain-stem death and only with halachic concerns. I might do another post on other issues some other time.

Objections from halacha:

  • The prohibition of desecration of a dead body (nivul haMet).
  • The commandment not to delay burial (halanat haMet).
  • The prohibition against deriving any benefit from a dead body (hana’at haMet)

All these objections are overridden by the principal of pikuach nefesh, the obligation to save a life. This only applies to a situation where the organ is needed directly for a specific person, but this is virtually always the case today, as people are dying every day from lack of organs. The only exception would be donating for research. Details can be found in Is Organ Donation a Mitzva?.

That these halachic problems are not the main concern seems to be consensus with most rabbinic authorities.

Objections from mystics, kabbala, superstition:

  • Inviting the ayin haRa (the evil eye), this argument goes along the lines of "writing about death invites it". The answer is very simple: Do you have any insurance? With this reasoning you shouldn’t be able to have one. Also there is a very traditional document that "invites" negative things: The ketuba (marriage contract), which lists the conditions of a divorce (see Evil Eye).
  • You have to be buried with all your organs in order to be resurrected. This has absolutely no basis whatsoever in classic texts. Also, every person ultimately dies because of some organ failure (a shot in the heart destroys the heart just like a heart attack, even old people die because their organs just cannot function anymore). If G’d is able to heal this, he is certainly able to restore a missing organ. Also, do you really want to deny resurrection to any person that could not be buried whole by no fault of his own? (see Resurrection of the Dead)

I think we can agree that these "objections" are just excuses, superstition (which is forbidden by halacha) or people that are ill informed.

Objections stemming from the time of death:

If a person is dead, we saw that we can take organs. But we are not allowed to touch a terminately ill person for fear it may accelerate her dead (goses). So the question lies in the definition of "death". I am not a doctor, but this is what I understood: For organ donation, a person is defined as dead if the brain-stem has not received oxygen for some time and therefor has stopped working and started to disintegrate. There is no possibility that this person will come back to life. BUT it is possible (for a short time) to keep this person breathing and the heart beating with machines.

Is a person dead, if the heart is beating and this person is breathing? This is exactly the problem where the rabbis disagree. A detailed discussion of the sources can be found in Brain-stem death.

Halachically speaking, this is the main point to consider. But no matter what definition of death you chose, it is not a reason to categorically reject organ donation. A HODS donor card gives you the possibility to chose halachically acceptable definitions to determine the time of death. Of course, this is a very personal decision. But in my opinion, to give life to another person after your death (however you define it), is the greatest good deed we can do. Think about it.