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What Does Jewish Law Say About Vaccination?

What Does Jewish Law Say About Vaccination?

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Question:

Recently there’s been is a lot of debate and discussion on the issue of vaccinations. As a parent, I’m curious what Jewish law has to say on the topic.

Informed Citizen

Answer:

Dear Informed Citizen,

Thank you for your question! Or perhaps I should say questions, because the topic of vaccinations has many sub-topics and issues that need to be addressed. What makes your question even more complex is the fact that the term vaccination is very broad—there are some vaccinations that are for life-threatening diseases, and others for non-life-threatening ailments. Also, different segments of the population might have different risks based on their age and location, and so on.

However, before we address the question of vaccination specifically, we first need to understand the Torah’s take on the importance of guarding your health in general.

The Halachic Mandate to Take Precautions

Guarding your own health doesn’t only make sense, it’s actually a mitzvah. That means that even if you don’t want to do it, for whatever reason, you are still obligated to do so. The Torah is teaching us that our body is a gift from G‑d, and we are therefore not the owners of it and we can’t cause it any damage.1

It is not enough to deal with health issues as they arise; we must take precautions to avoid danger. The final chapter of the Code of Jewish Law emphasizes that “just as there is a positive commandment to build a guardrail around the perimeter of a rooftop lest someone fall, so too are we obligated to guard ourselves from anything that would endanger our lives, as the verse states,2 ‘Only guard yourself and greatly guard your soul . . .’”3

As an example of this ruling, Rabbi Moshe Isserles (known as the Rema), one of Judaism’s outstanding halachic decisors, writes that when a plague breaks out in a city, the inhabitants of that city should not wait for the plague to spread. Rather, they (with some exceptions4) are obligated to try and flee the city at the onset of the outbreak.5

When there is an epidemic, not only is it your obligation to flee, but as a parent you have the obligation to secure the safety of your children. Rabbi Yeshayah ha-Levi Horowitz, known as the Shelah, writes that any parent who doesn’t move his children out of a city plagued by an epidemic is held responsible for their fate.6

We have established that one must do whatever is in their power to save oneself, one’s children, and others as well from possible life-threatening dangers. and it would seem that there is no difference between vaccinating and having to flee a city when there is an epidemic.

However, the question of general vaccinations when there is no current epidemic seems to be a bit more complex.

Vaccinations

The directives found in the Code of Jewish Law for avoiding danger don’t really carry any risks of their own (e.g., fleeing the city, not eating meat and fish together, or not putting coins into your mouth). Vaccinations, however, may have certain risks, however minuscule they may be. Thus presenting us with the question of whether one may take a small risk now in order to perhaps avoid a bigger risk later.

In grappling with this issue, one of the leading authorities at the time of the discovery of the smallpox vaccine during the 19th century, Rabbi Yisroel Lipschutz (famed for his commentary on the Mishnah entitled Tiferet Yisrael), ruled that despite the risk of death from the smallpox vaccine (at that time 1/1000), one should still get vaccinated.7

Yet some have postulated that since nowadays the risk of contracting many of these diseases has been largely eliminated—or at the very least, is significantly less than during the smallpox epidemics—therefore, even if the risk of damaging side effects is also very low, what we are left with is two opposing risks, and the Talmudic dictum of shev v’al taaseh adif8—“in some cases of doubt, better to sit and do nothing”—applies, and one shouldn’t vaccinate.9

When the polio vaccine was being implemented in Israel, there were those who turned to the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, for his opinion. The following is a sampling of his replies.

In the winter of 1957 the Rebbe wrote a reply, pointing out that he was hurrying to do so because of the prime importance of the issue at hand:

. . Regarding your question about inoculations against disease:

I am surprised by your question, since so many individuals from the Land of Israel have asked me about this and I have answered them in the affirmative, since the overwhelming majority of individuals do so here [in the United States] successfully.

Understandably, if there are inoculations that are produced by multiple pharmaceutical companies, you should use the ones whose product has been safely tried and proven.10

In the spring of 1956 the Rebbe wrote:

. . In reply to your letter in which you ask my opinion about the injections that are commonly given to young children:

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 . . .11

Even as the polio vaccine effectively eliminated the dreaded disease, there were instances where faulty shots actually brought about illness. In a letter from the winter of 1957, the Rebbe addressed this issue:

. . 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 is no worry. To the contrary . . .12

In a similar vein, Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, one of the preeminent rabbis of the past century, rules that if one has reasonable concern of the dangers of not being vaccinated, and the only chance to be immunized is on Shabbat (or the person would have to wait 4 or 5 years for the next chance to be immunized), then immunization would be permitted on Shabbat.13

Mandating Vaccinations

Assuming that vaccinating when there is a high risk of catching a disease is similar to fleeing from an epidemic, then it’s mandatory for you to do it, and others can be compelled to do so as well. The question that still needs to be addressed is whether, from a purely halachic perspective, we can mandate it even when there is no current epidemic.

Some hold that since vaccinations have become the accepted and standard practice, it is incumbent upon all parents to provide them for their children. Thus, it would be right to mandate vaccination.14 Others, however, are of the opinion that while we can at times force someone to receive medical treatment, we cannot, from a purely halachic perspective, compel a healthy person or a parent to vaccinate, even if his or her refusal is based on an “irrational fear.”15

Obviously, as in all cases, especially in regard to the health of children, one should consult one’s personal physician, a licensed medical doctor. If your personal physician advises you not to vaccinate due to specific concerns, then you should not vaccinate.

Food for Thought

Having discussed the Torah’s approach to vaccines in a general, it should be noted that not all vaccines are necessarily equal, and some pose unique questions of their own. For example, chickenpox (varicella), while inconvenient, is relatively benign and very rarely fatal in children. On the other hand, while adults are less susceptible to varicella infection, they are more likely to die of chickenpox. Perhaps, some argue, it would be better for the child to actually get chickenpox than be vaccinated?16

Another potential question rises with the polio vaccine. Strains of polio have been found in parts of Israel which can affect unvaccinated people. To remedy this, there is a campaign to introduce a weakened live strain of the virus into children who have already been inoculated but can still transmit the virus to others. Having received the live virus, the child will not get sick, but will fight the virus and not be a carrier, thus helping to eradicate the virus completely. However, at the same time, this child cannot come into close contact with immune-deficient people, who will contract the disease even from a weakened live virus. The question then is: do we compromise the health of some immuno-deficient people with whom one may come in contact, for the greater good?

In summary, as with many other issues in Jewish law, open and educated debate based on Torah principles and the opinions of our sages is vital to reaching a consensus. As the Rebbe writes, it is with regards to matters such as these that the axiom “Do not set yourself apart from the community” applies.

Vaccination as a Life Lesson

Let’s conclude with the following incident related by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory.

A Jew visited me recently, and we discussed education. He told me that statistics have shown that a bad education harms only 5 percent of children.

I asked him if he vaccinated his children for measles, polio, etc. He replied: “Of course! We are parents!”

“Do you know what percentage of children who do not receive the vaccine actually contract the disease?” I asked. He happened to know the statistic—less than 3 or 4 percent. In other words, even for a possibility of 4 percent, and especially in these countries where these diseases are even more rare, it is still worthwhile to vaccinate, with all of the pain, etc., that it causes. Why?

“Who cares about those minor inconveniences, as compared to what possibly could happen without vaccinating?” he responded.

I said to him: “If for a doubt of 4 percent it is worth causing the child pain, enduring the child’s screaming and all the other effects of the vaccination, just to avoid the disease—even though for the most part there is not even a possibility of any life danger, but rather just severe discomfort for some time—how much more so is it worthwhile to ensure the health of the child’s soul, where the doubt is 5 percent, and where the vaccine does not cause any pain. All that is required is to sign the child up for studies in a Torah-true educational facility! This action will affect his entire life!”

Footnotes
1.
Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Rotzeach 1:4; Shulchan Aruch ha-Rav, Choshen Mishpat, Nizkei HaGuf 4.
3.
Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 427.
4.
One exception to this rule would be any healthcare worker needed to stem the tide of the plague. For more on that, see Does Jewish Law Allow a Nurse to Treat an Ebola Patient?
5.
Glosses of Rema on Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De’ah 116:5.
6.
See commentaries of Ba’er Heitev and Mishnah Berurah on Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 576:7.
7.
Tiferet Yisrael, Yoma 8:3.
8.
Talmud, Eruvin 100a.
9.
From our research, it does not appear that this opinion has been adopted by any of the leading halachic decisors.
10.
Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, Igrot Kodesh, vol. 14, p. 357.
11.
Ibid., vol. 11, p. 137.
12.
Ibid., vol. 14, p. 343.
13.
Minchat Shlomo 2:29:4.
14.
Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, cited by Rabbi Akiva Tatz, Dangerous Disease & Dangerous Therapy, p. 48.
15.
See Nishmat Avraham, Choshen Mishpat 426b and 427a.
16.
See The New York Times, “Chickenpox Vaccine Loses Effectiveness in Study” (March 15, 2007), retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2007/03/15/health/15pox.html?_r=0.
Rabbi Yehuda Shurpin responds to questions for Chabad.org's Ask the Rabbi service.
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Yehuda Shurpin (Author) May 30, 2017

Non-Kosher ingredients With regards to injections of medicines that contain non-kosher ingredients, the general rule is that as long as it is not eaten orally, it is permitted. The exception would be if it contained a mixture of milk and meat since the prohibition is to derive benefit from such a mixture not just about eating it. Of course, if it were a matter of life and death, then saving a life would supersede this prohibition as well. Reply

Yehuda Shurpin (author) March 2, 2017

Re: Vaccines allowed, what about the Maccabees? Without getting into the question of the science behind vaccines, which I will leave for the doctors and experts, I will just try and address the underlying question.

The prohibition is not to eat non-kosher, one is, however, generally allowed to derive benefit, including internalizing it not through eating, such as through a shot.

As for the Maccabees, it is true that in general, saving life supersedes almost all Mitzvot, and thus, one would be allowed to eat non-kosher (even pork) if it were literally a question of life and death.

There are however exceptions to this rule. In addition to the three cardinal sins that one needs to be prepared to give their life for. One of them is a Sha’at Hashemad (A Time of Religious Persecution) i.e. If an oppressive government arises and sets for itself the goal of eradicating Judaism and Torah, we are commanded to sacrifice our lives rather than deviate one iota from Jewish law or custom. This is what happened at the time of the Maccabees.

For more on this see Is a Jew required to die rather than disobey a Torah command? Reply

Etienne SA February 27, 2017

Vaccines allowed, what about the Maccabees? I'd like to say i'm very shocked!
If saving your life is a Mitzvah, why are the Jews celebrating Chanukah?
The Maccabees died because they did not want to or were allowed to eat pork? Would it not have been better just to eat the pork and save their own lives?
The sages say that eating a bug is worse than eating milk and meat together yet there are parts of bugs used in vaccines?
I'm sorry where do we draw the line, because in many cases taking a vaccine can endanger a person's life! (Many vaccine death cases)
Deut 7:15, I shall keep sickness from you.
Because we keep the Mitzvah of Hashem!

Yes I agree you should keep your kids safe, and in this case I say that I am keeping them safe.
My kids have not been sick as I was during my childhood because they have not received any of these poisonous vaccines.
Also part of this was because of eating non kosher! Injecting non kosher vaccines also enters the bloodstream yet it's allowed to be done to Orthodox Jews? Reply

Shannon North Carolina May 15, 2016

Unkosher ingredients According to the CDC (you will have to google "CDC vaccine ingredients" to get the link- this page won't allow me to post it here):
DTaP has Monkey Kidney cells
Hep A contains aborted fetal cells (from baby MRC-5)
HPV has insect cells
Flu Vaccine has Canine cells
FluMist has pork gelatin
MMR has pork gelatin and aborted fetal cells (from baby WI-38)
Polio has Monkey cells
Rotavirus has Pig DNA
Smallpox has pork glycerine and Monkey cells
Varicella (Chicken Pox) has pig gelatin, aborted fetal cells (from both babies MRC-5 and WI-38) and Guinea Pig cells

My own "Food for thought": Can we truly justify injecting these unclean elements into our bodies when we would never put them into our mouths? Reply

Beniamin May 2, 2017
in response to Shannon:

Notice the Author did not respond to this question or others like it, in regards to aborted fetal tissue and pork used in vaccines. Think about that, aborted fetal tissue.
Interesting. Reply

Jenny Israel January 31, 2016

I think most people are more concerned about the action itself. To stick a meddle in so fair skin. And then to cooperate with the nurse, holding him. He doesn't know anything about vaccinations. He only know someone is hurting him and his parent are in on it and not protecting him. That is not protecting him from danger. He will get fever and get over it. But the whole set up. The action. Really is no good. I want to now what risk is more dangerous. The action of the vaccine or not taking precaution for a illness I am not sure exist anymore, not in my environment for sure. Thanks for answer. Reply

Concerned mother Ohio December 14, 2015

What about the vaccines grown in animal intestines? Surely this is not kosher. My husband is a pharmacist and he says most vaccines are grown in pig and dog intestinal tracts. I cannot believe that this is acceptable. Reply

Anonymous October 18, 2015

Herd Immunity There is no such thing as herd immunity! Most adults are walking around unvaccinated. When is the last time any adult received their booster shots? Most don't. Reply

Yehuda Shurpin (author) October 14, 2015

Re: Not convinced I'm not sure what you are referring to, but nowhere does the article imply that the Lubavitcher Rebbe came out against vaccines. On the contrary...As for the statement regarding the axiom “Do not set yourself apart from the community.” It should be read in context together with the rest of the paragraph that first mentions that axiom i.e. about what the rest of the class is doing. Additionally, it should be kept in mind that with vaccines there is a concept of "herd immunity."

As for why ask the Rabbi, it is true that Rabbis aren't doctors. But at the same time doctors aren't Rabbis... There are many sensitive medical questions that have a moral, ethical and halachik components to them as well. Reply

Kathy Scholz Queensland October 9, 2015

Vaccines My question to this is would God give us a disease to heal a disease. In the Bible I know God is our healer, and there is one who counterfeits this and that is the devil, God came to give us life, the devil is out to kill, steal and destroy. My child was given MMR and within a week had severe reactions, how is pumping our children with mercy and aluminium good for us I thought our bodies are the temple of God so why don't we look after our bodies? We have been deceived that is what I believe.
Reply

Bentseyon Morton, PA August 26, 2015

BH
This should be a scientific discussion. We shouldn't assume the government is interested in our health more then money. I am opposed to all vaccines. The evidence is overwhelming for my opposition to them. I believe it is an aveirah to get them. Unfortunately, the average person isn't equipped to make a scientific descision. Niether are the Rabbis. Reply

Anonymous Canada August 3, 2015

Couldn't agree more...with the comments If what is presented above as fact were actually true, I would agree with your analysis. However, there is much left out about the risks vaccines present. In fact, many doctors, researchers and scientists have proven vaccines pose more of a risk than not being vaccinated. As risk is at the basis of Yehuda's argument, I propose, vaccinations, to in fact, be against Halicha as they poses the greater risk of harm. This has been proven time and time again, but people choose to believe mainstream rhetoric. In fact, recently it was brought to the US House that statistically significant findings (related to known vaccine injuries) have been left out of major CDC vaccine reports.

I'm not going to say G-d, in His infinite might will protect us from harm. After all, we have free will & need to take precautions against disease. However, vaccines, at least in their current form, are not the answer.

Educate yourself more and don't just take the CDCs word. As we see they have been known to lie. Reply

Lynda The Ozarks July 20, 2015

Some vaccines contain porcine serum. How do handle that? On one hand, do as the majority of the community does (here in Arkansas, being Jewish is hardly a majority) or do you follow Jewish law regarding pork? Reply

Anonymous May 15, 2015

Please Research Vaccines Further I would like Yehuda to research this topic further by learning about the associated risks of vaccinations and then re-visit his response above. The rhetoric out there is that vaccines are "safe and effective". I have been researching this topic for six years and the more I find out, the more horrific I find vaccinations to be. There is a growing body of professionals, including credible medical professionals and researchers, who are speaking out about problems with the conventional thinking on immunizations. There is a valid vaccine controversy. If you believe vaccination is for the "greater good" of society, I urge you to reconsider your position. Deciding one child's life is more important than another child's life is wrong. There have been many children injured and killed by vaccines. In fact, the U.S. government has paid out $3 billion in damages to families of those injured/killed by vaccines. Reply

Kathryn May 1, 2015

Vaccines I agree with Jonathan from Africa. Not only that, but our Creator Himself gave us free will. Why is any government given that power to force someone else's will? I don't recall anyone in scripture running to the nearest doctor to stay the plague. Our best prevention is to obey His instruction!
Blessings any way. Reply

Jonathan Pompies Africa April 8, 2015

Vaccines are not Kosher! What would you do if you had to find out that vaccines are filled with heavy metal contaminants like Mercury & Chrome and other contents like gelatin, sorbitol, sodium chloride, bovine cow serum, egg protein and human albumin, formaldehyde, phenoxyethanol and aluminum phosphate.

Your Creator gave you a strong immune system which you have to maintain. You are NOT to put foreign stuff in your body!!!

Repent!!! Reply