• The COVID-19 Vaccine: A Halachic Perspective

    Rabbi Yisrael Halperin, dayan in Kfar Chabad and member of Machon Halacha – Chabad, presents a point-by-point discussion on the halachic considerations in how we approach newly developed medications, based on guidelines set by the Rebbe Melech HaMoshiach regarding earlier vaccinations • By Beis Moshiach Magazine • Full Article

    Rabbi Yisrael Halperin, Beis Moshiach

    Lately, there have been many discussions about the success in developing a vaccine for corona. Some of the well-known drug companies announced that they have had great success with a 90-95% success rate.

    However, nobody disputes the fact that the development process for corona is unlike the process for drug development in normal times when it takes much longer and more trials and checking. Of course, this is because of the urgent need for a vaccine to stop the rapid spread of corona around the world.

    Lately, all sorts of conspiracy theories against vaccines  have been circulating, which people are more willing to listen to now due to the uncertainty about the development process for vaccines.

    In this article, I have no intention of dealing with the medical side of the vaccines in question, what is a legitimate medical concern and what isn’t, since this is not our department and we don’t have the means to verify or debunk the truth of these concerns.

    However, since on every subject there is the Torah’s view, the same is true here. The following article is an attempt to clarify the subject from a Torah-halachic perspective. We will focus on the practical question of whether it is permissible or even required to be vaccinated as per the directives of the relevant authorities.

    RISK VERSUS REWARD

    Before tackling vaccinating for corona, let us discuss the topic of vaccinating in general, from a halachic perspective.

    When taking a vaccine there are two sides to the issue. On the one hand, there are concerns about side effects resulting from injecting active agents into the body. This is an act of putting oneself into a situation where there is some degree of risk of danger. On the other hand, experience has shown that by Hashem, the Borei Refuos (Creator of cures), providing wisdom to doctors to invent vaccinations, diseases that were contagious, dangerous and fatal in the past are practically eradicated from the world.

    According to Torah, the consideration in this case is weighing the danger in a medical treatment versus the danger in not taking it, with doctors that are expert in that given field being the ones to decide this. According to Torah, when it comes to medicine, you need to listen to expert doctors in the field. As the Rebbe writes in a letter, “The instruction of our Torah, the Torah of life, is known on the verse, ‘v’rapo yerapei,’ that permission is given to a doctor to heal and consequently, one needs to follow the instructions of an expert doctor in this field.” And there are many such letters.

    [It should be noted in connection to this what the Aruch HaShulchan says that the heter nowadays to practice medicine is only for one who is “authorized by the government that he has been granted permission to dispense medicines for illnesses, and also that there not be someone who is greater than him present.” The Chasam Sofer also wrote that a doctor who is considered a public expert has a greater authority and responsibility than an ordinary doctor, and from there is derived the total reliance on him.]

    Therefore, when most doctors maintain that the danger in a given vaccine (if there is any) is minimal and the danger in a child or adult who is not vaccinated, for himself and those around him, is many percentages greater than the danger of side effects, then being vaccinated is the proper “kli” according to Torah to prevent the disease for which the vaccine is taken.

    In this situation, the poskim say it is certainly permissible and even very proper to take these vaccinations and they are part of making a natural “kli” for health, as was decided by all the known poskim upon whom all the Jewish people relied in previous generations in all areas of halacha, that it is permissible and required that one be vaccinated.

    MINORITY OF A MINORITY

    The concerns about side effects and the dangers in vaccines are so minuscule that according to halacha they are disregarded.

    As was paskened in halacha, the danger of one in a thousand is not considered danger. Even though when it comes to danger to life we don’t follow the majority and we are concerned even about a minority, still, there is no concern for such a minority of a minority, all the more so when speaking about danger which is one in several thousand.

    Furthermore, even if the common vaccines taken routinely entail higher percentages of danger and they do not fall into the category of “minority of a minority” still, since they are taken by hundreds of thousands of people (and even more than that) around the world, the fact that it is such common practice itself cancels the concerns in taking it.

    This is based on the fact that in Chazal there appear two instructions that are seemingly contradictory. On the one hand, Chazal speak at length about not putting oneself in danger; on the other hand, we find several times in Chazal that they were not concerned about danger because “shomer pesa’im Hashem” (Hashem watches over simpletons).

    The path of resolution between the two is: in places and situations in which many people do a certain thing and nobody fears the danger involved, “the many have trampled on this,” anybody can do this thing since this is common practice. Therefore, even if before many did this, it was forbidden, once many have disregarded the danger and it has become common practice, there is no concern. The Rebbe referred to this in one of his letters, “Since the many have trampled on this, Hashem watches over simpletons (as Chazal say in Shabbos 129b) and in the places cited in the responsa of the Tzemach Tzedek, Even HaEzer, end of siman 11.”

    In another letter, the Rebbe writes, “About matters such as this, one can say that since the many have trampled on this, Hashem watches over simpletons and this protection also extends to those who know about the danger as in the psak of the Tzemach Tzedek.”

    This principle applies to vaccinations too. Since vaccinations were tested by very many people around the world, they certainly fall into the category of “the many have trampled on this,” and therefore, even if there is something to the claims of the side effects, certainly it is permissible and even required to be vaccinated. The grounds that “the many have trampled on this” and therefore “Hashem protects simpletons” are also factored in to remove this concern.

    THE REBBE’S OPINION ABOUT VACCINATIONS

    Generally speaking, the Rebbe’s view is categorically in favor of taking vaccines as explicated explicitly in many letters.

    In one letter, the Rebbe writes: In reply to your letter in which you ask my opinion about the injections that are commonly given to young children, how he should conduct himself in this matter. It is with regard to matters such as these that the axiom “do not set yourself apart from the community” applies. You should act according to that which is done by [the parents of] the majority of children who are in your children’s classes . . .

    Elsewhere, the Rebbe writes: In reply to your letter … in which you ask, 1) whether it is only permissible for a doctor to heal someone and use medications after a person is ill, or whether it is permissible to use those medications that prevent illness, e.g., inoculating against disease [and other forms of preventive medicine]. Preventive medicine has been employed by distinguished Jewish greats and leaders on a regular basis. See also chapter 4 of Rambam Hilchos Deios. Moreover, there is an explicit verse, “No illness shall befall you, for I am G-d your healer,” [which is to say,] that preventive medicine is also a legitimate form of healing.

    … 3) Regarding your question as to the use of the Salk vaccine with which children are now beginning to be inoculated [in Eretz Yisrael]. For many months now individuals here [in the United States] have been doing so, and this includes those who belong to the most G-d-fearing and pious segments of the community. This is to say that there is no question as to the kashrus [of the vaccine] and the like. Understandably, however, one should first ascertain that the vaccine was produced by an upstanding and reliable manufacturer.

    Elsewhere, the Rebbe writes: Regarding your question about inoculations against disease and that which unfortunately transpired in the United States some time back. The event that occurred in the United States was at the beginning of the use of these vaccines, before the [exact] medical compound was definitively established. This is not the case at present after months of experience with the vaccine. Therefore once a vaccine’s reliability is firmly established, there should be no hesitation in giving these inoculations. To the contrary, [their use should be encouraged].

    In another letter, the Rebbe writes, “.. I received your letter of 11 Shevat (and the preceding one) and I am rushing to respond to it out of order… because of the matter of vaccinations. I am surprised by your question, since so many individuals from Eretz Yisrael have asked me about this and I have answered them in the affirmative, since the overwhelming majority of individuals do so successfully. Understandably, if there are inoculations that are produced by various drug-manufacturing companies, you should use the ones whose safety is tried and proven.”

    CLEAR CRITERIA

    From these letters, we see clear principles and conditions based on Torah guidance of how to establish whether it is worthwhile and proper to be vaccinated. First, the expertise of the doctors and manufacturers is decisive. If there are a number of manufacturers of medications and vaccinations, one should use the most professional, tested and with the longest track record. The likely reasoning for this is based on the halachic principle mentioned above that when it comes to matters related to healing, one should listen to expert doctors.

    In addition to this condition the Rebbe writes an additional detail: actual experience of several months in which people who were vaccinated were not harmed lowers the concern of risks.

    Aside from the principles upon which we decide whether it is proper and right to be vaccinated or not, the Rebbe adds additional principles which serve as additional reasons to take the vaccines:

    The act of vaccination is an everyday occurrence practiced by the greats and leaders of the Jewish people and one can rely on their conduct, “maaseh rav.” Since this is how the great poskim ruled and acted, it shows that this is proper and right according to Torah.

    In addition, if most of the people in the immediate environment take the vaccine, everyone else should take them also because of the principle of “do not separate from the community.” Since the community is doing so, since “the many have trampled on this,” aside from this negating any concern there is a positive aspect [seemingly one which obligates] to do what the community is doing.

    THE TORAH IS ETERNAL

    It should be noted: the quality and reliability of the manufacturers of the vaccines is something the Rebbe refers to in nearly every letter on the subject. Therefore, if there is a choice and an individual can decide which type of vaccination he will take, obviously he should opt for the vaccine about which more is known as far as the quality of the laboratory and that it is the most professional and experienced.

    [It seems sensible that the more the company publicizes reports about the results of its research and development of the vaccine in a transparent, detailed and open manner, the more this testifies to its quality and effectiveness.]

    Since the laws of the Torah are eternal, as is the Rebbe’s guidance, it is not acceptable to differentiate between different time periods and vaccinations. As long as the principles the Rebbe laid out are present we need to be vaccinated and this is a “kli” to prevent illness.

    ADVICE OF AN EXPERT DOCTOR

    Everything that was mentioned above pertains to vaccinations that have already been accepted and tested by many people around the world. When it comes to the corona vaccine, which has hardly been tested, which is why there are greater concerns considering its rushed development, it would seem that most of the above cited reasons do not apply.

    However, since the authority to make medical decisions (as mentioned above, regarding healing and preventing illness) is given over by the Torah to expert doctors, if expert doctors in the field agree that the corona vaccine is reliable based on tests and research that were actually carried out and the known existing risks (after several months have gone by in which they were tested by the study participants) are minuscule, then according to the rules of Torah, there is no reason not to take it.

    In any case, if a person is afraid to take it now and wants to wait several months to see the ramifications of vaccinating for corona, he can wait and one cannot obligate him to be vaccinated right away.

    If a person is in the high-risk group and getting corona can endanger him, and quarantining at home is hard on him and yet, he is afraid of being vaccinated, the right thing is to do as the Rebbe says to do when in doubt and consult with an expert doctor in the field, even better with a doctor-friend, who can weigh the dangers and decide what he should do.

    THE OBLIGATION TO SAVE A LIFE

    All the above is when discussing the matter from the perspective of the individual. However, in this situation, the matter has to be looked at from a communal perspective. According to the natural way of things, when every person is vaccinated this is the best way to stop the spread of the virus and to prevent the great damage it is wreaking on the health of humanity.

    If this entails saving the life of a person without it endangering the life of the rescuer, there is no question that it is obligatory according to Torah for every Jew who has the ability to save a Jew from danger to do so. There are a number of positive and negative mitzvos of the Torah regarding this.

    In the case of being vaccinated in order to prevent other people getting sick, we have the question: Should a person or, to what extent is a person obligated to, endanger himself even so far as a possible risk for another Jew or for the community at large?

    Most poskim including the Alter Rebbe rule that the halacha in this area is divided into three categories:

    1) When a person can save his fellow from danger (even a doubtful one) but the rescuer must put himself into a painful situation, he must do so;

    2) If by rescuing he endangers one of his limbs, he has no obligation to do so, but it is middas chassidus to do so;

    3) If, in order to save someone the rescuer enters into a possible danger to his own life he has no obligation to do so. However, as long as the danger is less than 50%, if he does so, it is Midas Chassidus. According to some opinions, if the danger is higher there are situations in which it is still Midas Chassidus.

    IS BEING VACCINATED INCLUDED IN THIS?

    Aside from it being impossible to obligate someone to risk danger to his body, being vaccinated to save someone else does not entail a direct action to save someone who is presently in danger. Vaccinating only indirectly prevents another person from being endangered (through what is called “herd immunity”). In such a case, it is hard to impose such an obligation outright.

    In any case, since every person who is vaccinated lowers the harm to society at large, certainly by doing so one is fulfilling the mitzva of Ahavas Yisrael, not just toward an individual but toward society.

    Since as mentioned there is no halachic impediment to one who wants to take a vaccine recommended by doctors who are expert in the field, and after the experimental research they conducted (by way of a large number of people who participated in the experimental study) for the protection of the person himself, by taking into account the protection offered to larger society there is certainly the reward for the mitzva of Ahavas Yisrael.

    SUMMARY

    According to Torah, in all medical matters one must listen to doctors who are experts in the medical field that requires treatment.

    Routine inoculations (childhood vaccinations and others that are clearly and categorically recommended by most doctors) have been declared permissible and desirable by most poskim.

    The Rebbe provided a number of reasons and criteria to permit l’chatchila taking common vaccinations.

    Side effects and risks whose degree of risk is one in a thousand, and certainly results which are even rarer, one in many thousands, are defined by halacha as literally “a minority of a minority,” and according to Torah one need not be concerned about them.

    One has no obligation to enter a possibly dangerous situation in order to save someone else from certain danger, but permission is given to anyone to do so (as long as the danger to the rescuer is not very significant) and one who puts himself at possible risk has the reward of the mitzva and fortunate is his lot.

    Regarding the new corona vaccines, at the time this article was written, there was not enough clear information about possible side effects and what is the actual degree of risk in taking them. Therefore, it is not possible to compel anyone to take these vaccinations. However, the fact that these vaccinations received approval from top epidemiologists, removes – according to Torah – the impediment from taking them.

    One who wants to wait a few months to see how people around the world react to the vaccine can certainly do so. Obviously, several months of proven experience with hundreds of thousands of people, without risks and harm, would be an additional support for taking the vaccine.

    There is no halachic obligation for anyone to take this vaccine himself. Even if the purpose is to protect other people, one who is vaccinated under the condition where it is permitted for his own protection also has the reward for the mitzva of taking part (through natural means) in protecting other Jews.

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