polio vaccine illustrative 370.
(photo credit: REUTERS/Oswaldo Rivas)
Since February, health officials have found strains of the polio virus in many
parts of Israel and identified a couple of dozen carriers of the virus. To
prevent an outbreak, Israel launched a nationwide campaign to vaccinate all
children under the age of nine, raising the question of whether Halacha mandates
participation in this effort.
This question partly relates to the
obligation to administer preventive medicine. The Torah promises that God will
protect those who observe the commandments with complete fidelity.
Jewish sources have long recognized that no one can remain assured that they are
worthy of such providential protection, or rely on miracles to save them. The
Torah commands, “Be careful and watch yourselves,” which was understood as a
directive to avoid dangerous situations and activities. Jewish law requires us
to remove dangerous objects from our environs, ranging from shoddy ladders to
dangerous dogs to unprotected weapons.
The spirit of these norms derives
from the biblical obligation to place a guard railing around one’s roof. Both
Maimonides and Rabbi Yosef Karo list prohibited activities within their legal
codes, with Rabbi Moshe Isserles further adding that “one should avoid all
things which endanger oneself, as we treat physical dangers more stringently
than ritual prohibitions.”
The question remains how proactive a person
must be to avoid such scenarios. Generally speaking, Jewish law asserts that one
may undertake certain risks that most humans accept with equanimity. We ski,
drive cars and undergo elective surgery even as all those activities entail
certain risks. Yet in the case of vaccinations, one must also note that the goal
is to protect not only oneself but the entire community, the nation – and even
the world. Anyone familiar with the history of smallpox or rubella knows the
terrifying horrors that they cause.
The Torah commands us not to stand
idly over someone else’s blood, thereby imposing a responsibility to care for
In the late 18th century, doctors attempted to prevent the
continued onslaught from smallpox by inoculating healthy people with a low grade
of fluid taken from stricken patients.
The hope was that a mild,
controlled dose would allow the body to protect itself from a wild, spontaneous
outbreak, even as this imposed a risky level of exposure. As David Ruderman has
documented, Rabbi Abraham Nansich, himself mourning the death of two children,
published a pamphlet in 1785 urging Jews to participate in this initiative.
While one might not normally permit such risky inoculations, he argued that all
humans are at greater danger from a deadly outbreak, and therefore everyone must
accept the risks imposed by inoculation.
Edward Jenner’s invention of a
safer smallpox vaccine at the turn of the 19th century was celebrated by
scholars like rabbis Israel Lifshitz and Eliezer Fleckeles, who strongly
advocated vaccination and noted that this was a far superior alternative to the
solution mentioned in earlier halachic literature: to flee town. When
vaccinations were only available for a limited time in one’s area, many scholars
allowed people to desecrate Shabbat to receive the
Vaccinations are undoubtedly one of the greater inventions of
the modern era and have saved countless lives. This blessing sometimes leads to
complacency, as some individuals become immune to the phenomenon of mass
outbreaks and plagues. Others fear immunizing their families because of the
minimal risks associated with vaccines. In effect if not in intent, they rely
upon the so-called “herd immunity” that occurs when most other people get
vaccinated, thereby reducing the chance of contagion.
officials have strongly countered that vaccines present minimal risks
(especially relative to other health-care procedures) and that many of the
sensationalistic claims linking vaccines to autism and other terrible side
effects have been scientifically refuted. Furthermore, we must reserve the
protections of herd immunity for those who cannot get vaccinated because of
weaker immune systems. Nonetheless, certain people around the world continue to
avoid vaccinations, including limited elements of ultra-Orthodox communities in
America who have recently experienced tragic outbreaks of mumps and
As Rabbi Asher Bush has noted, Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv
argued that given the widespread contemporary medical consensus, parents are
obligated to vaccinate their children, and schools or camps may exclude those
who fail to take those preventive measures. Many Jewish decisors including Rabbi
Yehoshua Neuwirth argued that in the absence of an outbreak or national legal
mandate, schools should strongly encourage but cannot force the vaccination of
children, even as their parents remain negligent, since Jewish law decidedly
supports vaccination. This follows the health policies of many countries, which
allow conscientious objectors to avoid vaccinations.
Be that as it may,
all scholars agree that the effort to prevent the return of polio is a national
mission. We must support the call of Israel’s chief rabbis who declared that
Jewish law mandates all children to be vaccinated in accordance with Health
Ministry regulations. ■ The writer teaches at Yeshivat Hakotel and directs the
Tikvah Israel Seminars for Post-High School Students.
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