Dear Readers. The following post is written on an academic level. It assumes certain basic knowledge. For maximum benefit it is recommended that you read Rabbi Slifkin’s post here before perusing this blog entry.
In his most recent post, Rabbi Slifkin concludes – based on his examination of the gemara in Yoma – that when it comes to the matter of respiratory death "everyone is very clearly overruling Chazal". I found his statement highly curious. Surely Rabbi Slifkin must be aware that the interpretation of this sugya is fraught with controversy. In point of fact, his understanding is opposed by the vast majority of Torah authorities.
First of all, Rashi (ad loc.) comments that the person we are discussing looks entirely dead; he does not evince the standard signs of life which Rashi identifies as "movement of the limbs". Heartbeat and circulation could certainly be understood as "movement of the limbs".
Second, Rabbi Slifkin marginalizes the Chasam Sofer’s (CS) psak by subtly implying that his opinion reduces to nothing more than his unquestioning dedication to mesorah. As Rabbi Slifkin quotes the CS: "All the winds of the world will not move us from the standards established by our Torah." Rabbi Slifkin’s quote is correct but highly misleading.
The CS specifically paskens that we need both a cessation of heartbeat and a cessation of respiration and, in addition, a reasonable amount of time to determine that they’ve ceased irreversibly! He bases himself on the Rambam in Hilchos Avel 4:5. It would seem apparent that the CS learned the gemara in Yoma the same way as Rashi, i.e. we require a cessation of all movement (heart, blood flow, respiration etc.) before pronouncing death.
What is left to explain is why the gemara then goes on to quote an alternate shita i.e. that we can clear the rubble up to the chest. To my mind it would seem that the initial shita in the gemara maintains that respiration is a marker for heartbeat whereas the second shita enjoins empirical confirmation. But according to all shittos, he must be entirely lifeless meaning that he evinces no signs of life at all, including pulse.