Vaccines and Jewish Law

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, December 4, 2020 / 18 Kislev 5781

Summary: This week’s Oasis Songs explains why Judaism requires us to get vaccinated against the novel coronavirus.


Yesterday, England approved the distribution of the Pfizer BioNTech vaccine against Covid19 as the first batch of the vaccine was sent to the UK from Belgium. Earlier in the week, a colleague reached out because one of their congregants had claimed that Judaism does not permit people to take vaccines because they are (often) derived from animals, and therefore are not kosher. What did I think of this claim, my colleague wanted to know?

This person’s congregant was clearly misinformed about Jewish law as it applies to medicine and kashrut. This therefore seems an appropriate time to explain Judaism’s take on vaccines and the positive mitzvah to protect life. The goal of this column is provide an overview as to why Judaism requires us to get vaccines, and at the end provide a link to a recent legal opinion on the subject, issued by David Golinkin. Rabbi Golinkin is one of the foremost poskim, or living experts on Jewish law. What is remarkable about his decisions is that they are examples of the best of Jewish thinking, in which all significant counter examples are brought forth. My conclusions are based on a careful reading of his perspective, and the Jewish sources he marshals. What follows is a summary of Golinkin’s conclusions.

Judaism and Medicine

Throughout the ages, countless Jews have chosen medicine as their career. This is practically a cultural decision, because Judaism believes that we are required by God to heal people. This is in contrast to some religions who believe that medicine goes against God’s will. Moreover, our tradition’s positive stance toward medicine extends to providing life-saving medicine to someone who doesn’t want to receive treatment. (This would not be the case for terminal cases, where treatment would extend suffering but not preserve life, but that’s a different topic).

Protecting the Health of the Body

During the current pandemic, many Jewish organizations have emphasized the Jewish value of pikuach nefesh, or saving a life. So important is this value, that many prohibitions are suspended when we are confronted with the positive commandment to preserve life. Thus my colleague’s congregant’s concern about the kashrut of vaccines is irrelevant for this reason (and several others).

There is a famous statement in our tradition that saving a life is the same as saving a world. This is more than a lovely utterance about the preciousness of life; it has real world consequences in Judaism.

The Body is God’s and Sakkanat Nefesh

One challenging Jewish belief is that we don’t ‘own’ our body. That’s not exactly an American notion, but it entails a set of obligations to take care of ourselves and to refrain from actions that might harm our bodies. In halakhah, this gets extended to the following case: if nine people were exposed to a given virus or illness and did not die, the tenth person still needs to get vaccinated, because the danger is real, and a low mortality or morbidity rate doesn’t exempt one from proper care.

Jews Don’t Rely on Miracles

There is a famous Talmudic story were a person is at a party where he is killed by a friend, and then God brings the person back to life. The next year, when the manslaughterer invites him to attend the yearly party, the first individual refuses, saying “we don’t rely on miracles.” Judaism is a practical religion, and we understand that in almost all cases, the world follows set scientific principles. We must rely on data and science. Thus, because it is clear that COVID19 causes death, we must inoculate ourselves when the vaccines become available.

As background, the smallpox vaccine was created in 1796; before that, 400,000 people a year died of smallpox. The death rate from those who get the vaccine comes out to about .7 per 100,000 individuals. That is a full order of magnitude safer than aspirin!

Over the past two centuries, vaccines have been proven to be extremely successful at saving lives. The minuscule death rate pales in comparison and therefore can never be used in Judaism as justification for not getting vaccinated. In fact, not doing so is considered to be negligent by very important Jewish experts. Indeed, getting inoculated has been standard halakhic practice for the past two centuries, starting with the scholar, Avraham ben Shlomo Nantzig, in 1785. These rulings span the Jewish world, from Ultra-Orthodox to Reform. Moreover, there is a compelling body of Jewish legal experts who declare that we can force people to be vaccinated, even against their will.

Our scientists, pharmaceutical companies and government agencies here and around the world have performed a herculean task in generating new vaccines against COVID19 in record time. Some will view the rapidity of development with suspicion and argue that they therefore should not have to be inoculated. Full scientific testing protocols have been implemented as these vaccines have been developed, and the newer method of vaccine creating is not so novel—scientists already had in place viral vectors to safely deliver bits of the coronavirus genetics to host cells. The virus is also a relatively easy one to target, and previous research on SARS and MERS provided a leg up to researchers. Moreover, Chinese scientists released the full genetic sequence of the virus to the world very early on, which also allowed accelerated development.

I am not in a high risk group, and most likely won’t have an opportunity to receive the vaccine early on. But if I were, I would get it as soon as possible. Not only do I have an obligation to care for my own body, but I am equally obligated to care for those around me.

Jews like to make the toast of “l’chayim.” Sometimes we do so at a simcha event. This moment demands that we say l’chayim to the vaccines created by some of our most dedicated human minds, who have worked non-stop to protect us all. We owe them our profound thanks.

To life!

Rav D

Shabbat Table Talk

  1. Will you get vaccinated? Why or why not?
  2. If you are in the small minority who will choose not to, what obligations do you have to protect the rest of society? Will you refrain from going to places where people congregate, like supermarkets?
  3. Do you have any family members whose lives where saved by a vaccine?
  4. What do you think of this notion that our bodies are on loan to us from God and that we are thus obligated to protect them?

Here is the link to the full legal opinion by Rabbi Golinkin.

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