Medical mystery thrillers–novels in which the mystery is often solved through autopsy–are very popular these days. But most autopsies do not set off thrilling adventures of sleuthing. They do, however, allow doctors to understand the many mysteries of the body and the fascinating world of diseases.
But what about respect for the dead, a fundamental concept in Judaism? The Jewish laws of death and burial are vast and intricate. With regard to autopsies, it is important to be aware that Jewish law requires that the deceased be buried as close to the time of death as possible and that the entire body (or as much as possible), including internal organs and blood, be buried together.
While the Talmud covers an incredible spectrum of information, only one actual autopsy is mentioned, and then only as a report that: “when he [Titus] died, they split open his skull and found something there like a sparrow, two selas (measures) in weight” (Gittin 56b). The reason for this is that autopsy was not a common procedure in the ancient world (although not unheard of either). The question of the halachic permissibility of autopsy only appears in printed responsa (question and answer correspondence) in the late Middle Ages.
Of the early responses to this question, the one most frequently cited even to this day is by Rabbi Yechezkel Landau (Poland 1713 – 1793). It was his opinion that an autopsy was allowed only if there was another person who could immediately benefit from the information gained. Saving the life of another may refer to a medical need or, in far less common cases, identifying the cause of a mysterious death.
If an autopsy must be performed, it is important to request that guidelines respecting Jewish law be followed (please consult a rabbinic authority in such cases).
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