“Shaul said to his arms-bearer, “Draw your sword and run me through, so that the uncircumcised may not run me through and make sport of me.” But his arms-bearer, in his great awe, refused; whereupon Shaul grasped the sword and fell upon it.” (1 SAMUEL 31:4)
Normally, suicide is absolutely forbidden in Jewish law. However, there are rare exceptions. The Sages teach that King Shaul’s death is even greater than his life. Though he knows it will lead to his death, he and Yehonatan lead the army into battle. Rather than allow himself to be captured and killed, he falls on his sword, as he is well aware that the capture of a king of Israel would bring despair to the entire nation. Thus, Jewish law views King Shaul as a prime example of self-sacrifice, as he sanctifies the name of Hashem and the People of Israel through his death. True leaders know that they don’t represent themselves alone; they represent the entire nation, and are therefore willing to make the necessary sacrifices. While Shaul’s death serves in Jewish law as the model of a rare acceptable form of suicide, the most famous such act in Jewish history took place on the mountain of Masada. According to Josephus Flavius in The Jewish War, the 960 Jewish inhabitants of the fortress on Masada, the last Jewish stronghold against the Romans after the destruction of the second Temple, killed themselves rather than surrender to the Roman soldiers.