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Misconceptions about Judaism & Organ Donation

The following 4 propositions are true:

  1. Judaism supports blood donation.  It saves lives.
  2. Judaism supports bone-marrow donation. It saves lives.
  3. Judaism supports live altruistic organ donation, such as kidneys.  It saves lives.
  4. Judaism supports posthumous organ donation.  It saves lives.

The common denominator: Judaism supports these actions that help save lives. They are viewed as grand mitzvot and deemed as great merits for the donors. 

While the first three propositions are today well-understood, the 4th proposition, regarding organ donation after a person has been declared dead under all of the criteria of Jewish law, remains misunderstood. This is because of a set of myths and misconceptions that make people think that Judaism does not permit posthumous organ donation, which tragically prevents many people from fulfilling this great mitzvah and saving many lives. 

5 Misconceptions and Facts

1) Resurrection of the Dead:  Classic Judaism believes in the ultimate physical resurrection of the dead (tehiyat ha-metim).  If a person donates their organs, they will not be included in the ultimate resurrection of the dead. 


a)  Classic rabbinic sources do not assert that an ‘incomplete’ body (such as a fire victim) will not get resurrected. 

b) Would anyone suggest that Holocaust martyrs whose corpses were cremated will not be included in such a resurrection?

c) All organs disintegrate, usually within a year of death. When the Almighty decides to miraculously resurrect the dead, He will assuredly have the power to do so regardless of the state of the body at the time of death. 

2) Evil Eye: Judaism believes in the concept of the ‘evil eye.’ If we talk about posthumous organ donation or sign an organ donor card, we may subject ourselves to a deadly accident.


a) Millions of people around the world discuss organ donation or carry an organ donor card, and no accident befalls them.

b) While the extent of traditional Jewish concern for an ‘evil eye’ is a matter of dispute, it certainly does not prevent us from buying health insurance, car insurance, fire insurance, theft insurance and flood insurance.

c) There is no prohibition of discussing death during one’s lifetime.  Jews historically purchased their own gravesite and, according to some sources, even dug their own graves. In fact, according to some traditions, purchasing a burial site while one is alive and healthy is a meritorious act that will grant one a long life!

3) Bodily Integrity: Jews are required to be buried whole, with all of their body parts intact, and may not desecrate or benefit from a corpse or body part. This stems from the Jewish belief that humans were created in the Divine image. 


a) Yes, Judaism forbids desecrating the body or discarding of body parts (nivul ha-met in Hebrew). Nonetheless, it believes that the ability to save lives (pikuach nefesh in Hebrew) trumps any requirements for body integrity. Saving a life is seen as the greatest mitzvah (commandment) which a person can fulfill. 

b) Judaism allows for the surgical removal of body parts (gallbladder, spleen, appendix, amputation, etc.) for the purpose of saving a patient’s life.  Judaism also considers live kidney/liver donation to be a mitzvah of the highest order.  This is in spite of the fact that in these cases, the person will be buried without the given organ. 

c) On a technical level, the prohibition of benefiting from a corpse (hana’at ha-met) only applies to body parts that have lost all vitality.  A transplanted organ has regained its vitality and may therefore not a part of this prohibition.  In any case, even if it might fall under this prohibition, saving a life will override any concern for inappropriate benefit. 

4) Delaying Burial: Judaism believes in burying the deceased as soon as possible (in Hebrew, halanat metim). Organ donation will greatly delay the funeral.


a) Jewish law allows delaying burial in order to prepare a dignified funeral for the deceased. There is no greater merit for the deceased than allowing him or her to fulfill one final mitzvah of saving lives.

b) The mitzvah of saving lives (pikuach nefesh) outweighs any concern for delaying burial.

c) In practice, the process of organ donation takes place within 12-48 hours of death and may not significantly hinder preparations for a funeral. 

5) Taharah and Burial Rites:  Organ donors do not receive full burial rites, including the traditional cleansing of the body (in Hebrew, tahara) by the Jewish burial society (in Hebrew, chevra kadisha).


a) Organ donors receive full burial rites. Nothing about the organ retrieval process will make it impossible to donate organs. (In fact, for organ donors from other religious traditions, they may still have open-casket funerals). 

b) Jewish burial societies are prepared to handle corpses in all physical conditions, including after car crashes and other destructive incidents. 

c) The bodies of organ donors are treated with great respect and handed over to burial societies in good condition. This process can be overseen by rabbinic advocates, including those of Ematai.  

d) All organs or even excess tissue not needed for transplant can be returned to the interior of the body before it is closed up.  When an organ is declined post-recovery, the family may request that organ be returned to the funeral home for burial with the body.

In light of these facts, Ematai offers an option on its advance healthcare directive to approve transplantation of any organs and tissues permissible under Jewish law and custom if death has been declared under Jewish legal criteria

Regarding the definition of death in Jewish law, see here