Did you know that Jewish law frowns upon elective surgery? After all, as any doctor will tell you (or all those release forms will make you realize), there is no surgery that is totally risk-free.

However, the mitzvah of saving a life (pikuach nefesh) is so great that it precedes most other mitzvot. So what should one do if asked to donate a kidney or part of a liver — both forms of transplant surgery that can save a life without necessarily threatening the donor’s life?

As organ transplant procedures only began to meet with regular success in the middle of the 20th century, this is a fairly recent question for Jewish law. After ascertaining that transplant surgeries have a low rate of danger to the donor, most Jewish legal authorities determined that such procedures, while voluntary, are permissible.

Since a transplant is only done in dire circumstances, usually to save a person’s life, would one then be obligated to donate one’s organs if found compatible? The answer to this question is “No.” While the medical statistics have shown that transplant procedures usually present low risk to donors, they are not risk free and Jewish law does not, and will not, require it.

This Treat was originally posted on February 17, 2009.

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