Conception: The Death of a Fetus in Halacha

Dear Rabbi Fried,

Would it make sense to speak of death in halachic terms for an embryo (or developing fetus) before there is a circulatory system functioning? If so, what would be the principle for consideration?


Dear Fred,


Although at the end of life the definition of death is the cessation of the function of the circulatory system, i.e. heartbeat and breathing, the beginning of life is different. 

Although an embryo does not yet have a functioning circulatory system, “life” in halachic terms will have begun once the fetus is endowed with a soul. The Talmud relates that the soul is endowed at the fortieth day from conception. Hence, it is “alive” from that time forward, and to end that life when halachically impermissible, would be an act of murder according to Jewish law. 

[Maimonides and the later commentaries explain, based upon a complicated Talmudic discussion, that such a murder would not be subject to judgment in a Beis Din, or rabbinic court of law, but is considered murder in the “Heavenly court.”]

This perspective has profound implications in medical ethics from a Jewish standpoint and forces us to look at the question of “pro-life” from a different vantage point than that of popular culture. 

There are, however, times that from the standpoint of halacha, or Jewish law, that the cessation of the life of a fetus is permitted or even mandated, such as the mother’s life being in danger as a result of the pregnancy. The details of this obviously cannot be outlined in a column such as this and must be submitted to a competent halachic authority when such questions arise.


Rabbi Yerachmiel Fried

Subscribe To Our Newsletter

More To Explore

Jewish Law & Thought

Mourning After Kaddish

I have recently completed the year of mourning and kaddish for my father, and am left with a profound feeling of emptiness now that it’s finished. I know I can no longer say kaddish, but is there anything more that I can do or is that it?

Jewish History & Current Events


This time of the year, as I follow along with the readings of the weekly Torah portion, I have a lot of trouble studying the sections we are now reading that deal with the building of the Mishkan – tabernacle. First of all, I have a problem relating to it; how does a building they built thousands of years ago affect our lives. Secondly, why do these portions appear in the book of Exodus, which is the story of the Exodus from Egypt. Why are they not in the next book of Leviticus which deals with the sacrifices they brought in the tabernacle?