Thursday, July 20, 2006

When is "dead" really "dead?" Part III -by David Shabtai

When is "dead" really "dead"? Part III

I was curious to know why Dr. Avraham did not give the same answer we offered previously – a distinction between hutaz rosho and other signs of halakhic death (as per Shevut Ya'akov 1:13). I spoke with R. J. David Bleich who defended R. Moshe Feinstein's position. He claims that death means "cessation of vital motion." Motion refers to any movement that is useful for life; the heart is considered a muscle just like any other. He therefore requires cessation of all movement, including the heart muscle to declare death. The purpose of this definition (as per Hatam Sofer YD 338) is to approximate the case of Ohalot 1:6 – hutaz rosho; that is the prototypical definition of death and it is absolute. Any movement that occurs after that moment, the Mishnah defines as pirkus (death rattle) and is not considered vital motion (this is R. Bleich's source for a distinction amongst different types of motion). Therefore, once hutaz rosho a person is dead by definition. R. Bleich accepts the possibility of tehiyat ha-meitim (at
least in theory, it is not practical today) and believes that this is what R. Moshe Feinstein refers to in Iggerot Moshe YD 2:174:2.
One could argue therefore, that those who do not believe that "ordinary people" can engage in tehiyyat ha-meitim (as opposed to prophets who may do so) – the definition of death focuses on irreversibility. If a person were to return to natural life by any medical means – by definition, he could not have previously been dead. Therefore, hillul Shabbat is warranted and even obligated in any situation where a person will 'regain his life' regardless of his current condition or required treatment. Perhaps this is how one could
explain the challenge to R. Feinstein's position.
R. Bleich proceed to explain how he understood the concept of hashash illuf. A person who experiences the halakhic signs of death and then "comes back to life" has done so spontaneously. The doctors have only helped or assisted his inherent abilities of vital function. Performing cardiac massage, applying electric shock or administering pressers 'merely' help the body do what it is normally supposed to be doing – living. He argued that there is no difference between any of these procedures and opening up a patients mouth who is unable to do so and allowing oxygen to flow in.

Therefore, hashash illuf refers to a period where a person has within his own bodily function, the ability to live – he may just need some help. Hutaz rosho is definitionally different – it is the definition of cessation of vital force. Therefore, reconnecting the head (if it were possible) is different than any other procedure – it is not allowing a person's inherent functions to return, but rather giving the patient function that he was missing in his death.


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