Orthodox Judaism

Organ & Tissue Donation

According to Jewish law (Halakha) and ethics, Pikuach Nefesh (saving a life) is the supreme Jewish value and greatest mitzvah, taking precedence over almost every other religious act or consideration, including Shabbat observance. Because a single organ donor can save up to eight lives, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, zt”l, (Igrot Moshe, Y”D II, 174) rules that organ donation is a sacred act of Pikuach Nefesh, which overrides the concern for being buried whole. This position has been embraced by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, Rabbi Dr. Avraham Steinberg, one of the world’s leading authorities on Jewish Medical Ethics & Law, as well as numerous Rashei Yeshiva (Rabbinical School Deans) and poskim (authorities on Jewish Law; see the list below).

"Donating an organ to save a life is a great mitzvah. Because restoring sight is considered lifesaving, this includes cornea donation." -Rabbi Dr. Moshe Tendler, Rosh Yeshiva, RIETS/YU

Why do some Orthodox Rabbis oppose organ donation?

The basis for disagreement is the definition of death. Jewish law (Talmud Yoma 85a, Shulchan Arukh O”C 329:4) defines death as the absence of autonomous respiration. Until the late 20th century, the cessation of autonomous breathing and the loss of heartbeat occurred almost simultaneously. As a result, death was determined by the absence of both. However, over the past 50 years, the universally accepted medical definition of death has been expanded to include “the irreversible cessation of all functions of the entire brain, including the brain-stem,” referred to as ‘neurological death’ or ‘brain death.’ According to Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (Igrot Moshe Y”D 3:132), because it is an established scientific fact that breathing is controlled directly by the brain stem, a patient declared dead by neurological criteria has irreversibly lost any ability to breathe and is considered dead according to Jewish Law. According to Rabbi Feinstein, in the absence of any brain stem activity “the ‘breathing’ and heartbeat that are sustained entirely by a mechanical ventilator are not considered an indication of life.” This ruling has been affirmed by Rav Moshe’s son, Rabbi Dovid Feinstein, and son-in-law, Rabbi Dr. Moshe Tendler, as well as Rabbi Dr. Avraham Steinberg, the Chief Rabbinate of Israel and other leading rabbis listed below. Other rabbis continue to maintain that the presence of a heartbeat is an indication of life, even if it has been medically demonstrated that the patient has irreversibly lost any possibility for autonomous respiration. Because those rabbis consider such a patient to still be alive, they forbid donation of the patient’s vital organs, even to save another person’s life.

The following is a partial list of other leading rabbis who accept brain death and encourage organ donation:

  • Former Sefardic Chief Rabbis Rav Hayim David Halevi, z”l & Rav Shlomo Amar
  • Former Ashkenazic Chief Rabbis Rav Shlomo Goren, z”l & Rav Meir Lau
  • Rav Zalman Nechemia Goldberg, z”l (Av Beit Din Yerushalayim)
  • Rav Yosef Carmel (Dean, Eretz Hemdah Institute)
  • Rav Yaakov Medan (Rosh Yeshivat Har Etzion)
  • Rav Eliezer Melamed (Rosh Yeshivat Har Bracha)
  • Rabbi Shlomo Riskin (Chief Rabbi of Efrat & Dean, Ohr Torah Stone)
  • Rav Yuval Cherlow (Rosh Yeshivat Orot Shaul)
  • Hakham Eliyahu Ben-Haim (Rosh Yeshiva, RIETS/YU & AB”D, Sephardic Bet Din of Queens)
  • Rav Nachum Rabinovitz, z"l (Rosh Yeshivat Birkat Moshe)
  • Rav Shaul Yisraeli, z"l (Rosh Yeshivat Mercaz HaRav)
  • Rav Chaim Druckman (Rosh Yeshivot Bnei Akiva)
  • Rav Shlomo Aviner (Rosh Yeshivat Ateret Cohanim)
  • Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm, z”l (President Emeritus, Yeshiva University)

Click here for a list of hundreds of orthodox rabbis who carry a HODS organ donor card

Click here for a list of orthodox women leaders who carry a HODS organ donor card


Video Resources:

Interview with Rav Dovid Feinstein on Brain Death & Organ Donation

Interview with Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, z”l on Brain Death & Organ Donation

Rabbi Dr. Avraham Steinberg on the halakhic validity of Brain Death and the mitzvah to Donate Organs

Understanding Brain Death from a medical standpoint (Dr. Paul Ratzker, Neurosurgeon)


Rabbinical Council of America Paper on Determination of Death & Organ Transplantation

A Critique of the RCA Position Paper by Dr. Noam Stadlan

A Defense of Brain Death as Halakhically Valid by Rabbi Dr. Edward Reichman

The Iniquity of Inequity – Why We Can’t Receive without Giving in Return