Posted on October 28, 2021
Does halakhah require vaccination against dangerous diseases?
Short answer: Yes.
Details: I will share just a few of the many reasons that Jewish law requires vaccination for those who are medically eligible. For greater depth, see the teshuvot of the Conservative Movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards linked below.
פיקוח נפש/ preservation of life is a major principle of Jewish law. Preserving life supersedes other Jewish laws. To save a life one is not only permitted to violate shabbat, one is required to violate shabbat. A person who is seriously ill is permitted (and sometimes required) to eat on Yom Kippur. A woman who risks her health is permitted (and sometimes required) to abort her fetus. Vaccination saves lives and thus fits under the category of פיקוח נפש.
Prohibition of endangering life. The Torah tells us that “When you build a new house, you shall make a parapet for your roof, so that you do not bring bloodguilt on your house if anyone should fall from it.” (Deuteronomy 22:8). The Rambam expands on this principle:
There is no difference between a roof or anything else that is dangerous and likely to cause death to a person who might stumble. If, for instance, if one has a well or a pit in his courtyard, he must build an enclosing ring ten handbreadths high, or put a cover over it, so that a person should not fall into it and die. So too, any obstruction that is a danger to life must be removed as a matter of positive duty and extremely necessary caution.
The sages have prohibited many things because they are dangerous to life. If anyone disregards them and says : “What claim have others on me if I risk my own life?” or: “I do not mind this,” he should be whipped for disobedience. (emphasis mine)
Mishneh Torah, Murderer and the Preservation of Life 11:5
In other words, the Rambam maintains that those who endanger their lives or the lives of others are guilty of breaking Jewish law. Allowing oneself to remain completely unprotected against dangerous disease by refusing to vaccinate when one is medically able to do so is an example of endangering one’s life and the lives of others and thus is prohibited.
Communal responsibility. As Americans, we often think in terms of rights, especially individual rights. Judaism stresses responsibility over rights. We have a responsibility to minimize communal danger. “A ship was full of passengers when one of them took a drill and began boring a hole under his seat. The other passengers yelled: “Stop! What do you think you are doing?” The first passenger calmly said: “What do you care? I am only drilling under my own seat. I am not going to drill under your seat.” They said to him: “Moron! The waters will rise up and flood all of us.” (Leviticus Rabbah 4:6)
The parable is clear. When we drill a hole under our own seat, it does not only impact us. The water comes in and drowns everyone. Similarly, when we are medically able to be vaccinated and we choose not to be, we are not only putting ourselves in danger, we are risking the entire ship. It is not about what I choose to do with my own body; it is about what we must do to protect each other. Here at Temple Israel we are strongly encouraging Covid-19 vaccination for everyone for whom it is medically advised. Jewish law requires it. We are all in this together. Vaccination protects all of us. We can stop this disease.
Rabbi Miriam T. Spitzer, October 2021