Vaccinations

Question

Is there an obligation according to Judaism to be vaccinated?

8 months

Answers

  1. The basic answer is, “Yes,” although a person should certainly consult with his personal physician and local Rabbi before deciding what to do in any real-life scenario. In this reply, we can provide some basic information and insights that are relevant and hopefully helpful.

    One of the greatest advances in public health over the past hundred years has been the development of vaccines that trigger immunity to a whole host of infectious diseases that formerly produced epidemics that wiped out thousands of people a year.

    As a result, in most industrialized countries including the United States and Israel, children cannot be admitted to school unless they have received inoculations against a whole host of diseases. Most parents comply with these requirements with no questions asked. However, some parents do not and their numbers are perhaps growing. The reasons for noncompliance vary. Some parents are simply careless and inattentive, others harbor deep sinister conspiracy fears about any government-mandated program, but the most common reason is a health concern. Over the past several decades, some researchers and organizations have advocated the idea that vaccinations are actually dangerous to children, not only making them susceptible to virulent forms of the very disease from which they are supposed to be protected but in some cases causing other devastating conditions such as autism. New forms of media have spread and magnified these fears, and many parents have responded accordingly. The overwhelming consensus of medical research worldwide is that these fears are groundless. Indeed, the researcher who advocated the vaccination/autism link has been censured for intentional fraud in the presentation of his data and has actually lost his license to practice medicine. It is safe to say that most vaccinations do not have any significant negative effects on children other than temporary pain and swelling which can be avoided by a skillful nurse. (Note: as of now, the COVID-19 vaccines have not been approved for use under a certain teenage threshold.)

    The question is, are vaccinations mandatory according to Judaism? To fully understand this question, a bit more factual background is necessary. A complete treatment of the subject is beyond the scope of our forum, but here are a couple of essential principles that require consideration when making any decision regarding a vaccination.

    There are two related halachic principles that on their face would make vaccination mandatory. The first is that is forbidden for a Jew to place his life or health in unreasonable danger. The Talmud and the Codes mention a wide variety of activities that must be curtailed or avoided. These include 1) putting one’s mouth directly on a pipe in order to drink water; 2) drinking water drawn from a river at night when one is unable to inspect for parasites; 3) drinking liquids that have been left exposed and unattended where there is a possibility, albeit remote, that a snake may have deposited venom; 4) eating food that might be tainted or poisoned etc. It is similarly forbidden to wound or injure oneself.

    In a classic article Rabbi Shlomo Yosef Zevin discusses the halachic enforceability of Shylock’s agreement with Antonio in The Merchant of Venice. It will be recalled that Shylock stipulates that if Antonio does not pay his debt on time Shylock will be entitled to a pound of Antonio’s flesh. Rabbi Zevin demonstrates that such a clause would be absolutely unenforceable under Jewish law because (quoting Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the ‘Alter Rebbe’) “our bodies are not our own; they are the property of HaKadosh Baruch Hu.” In effect, the Torah teaches us that our bodies are not our own property but belong to God to be used in His service and to be protected and preserved until such time as He chooses to reclaim it. This is in sharp contrast to modern medical ethics and political theory which posit autonomy and self-determination as supreme values, and enshrine the attitude that “it is my body and I can do with it what I will” — including reckless endangerment.

    The second principle focuses on the duty that is owed to others. Just as we are commanded to preserve and protect our own lives, we are similarly commanded to remove impediments or stumbling blocks that cause dangers to others. This is derived from the mitzvah of erecting fences around flat roofs so that people who climb the roof should not fall down. Moreover, even if I am not the source of the danger I have a duty to do what I can to rescue someone from whatever peril they may be in, such as rescue someone from drowning etc. “Do not stand by idly over your friend’s blood” (Leviticus 19:16). Thus, we have duties owed to God not to expose ourselves, our children or others to hazards, risks or dangers. Since failure to vaccinate endangers society at large, both obligations would lead to the same result — a duty to minimize danger.

    (This reply owes great credit to the teachings and writings of Rabbi Yitzchak Breitowitz.)

    Best wishes from the AskTheRabbi.org Team