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Vaccination: A Halachic Perspective

From Rav Yosef Fund, Senior Posek, Medical Halacha Center, a division of the Bais HaVaad

The poskim discuss vaccinations from a halachic perspective. In earlier times, when vaccines were less safe, we find the poskim expressing some hesitancy in sanctioning vaccinations, but most later seforim write that this earlier hesitancy is no longer relevant.

It should be noted that for the sake of simplicity, the following discussion will not distinguish between different vaccines. The efficacy and safety of different vaccines obviously vary, as does the severity of various diseases.

Rav Yishmael HaKohein of Modena, Italy (1743-1811), in his work, Shu”t Zera Emes (2:32) has a multi-letter exchange discussing whether “inoculazione” (inoculation) is halachically proper. It seems that the discussion relates to the widespread practice of that time to deliberately introduce pus from a smallpox sufferer into the skin of a healthy person, who would then develop a relatively mild case of pox, and thus develop immunity to full-blown smallpox. The responsum discusses whether it is proper to actively infect oneself with an illness with a very low fatality rate to prevent a disease with a high fatality rate, but which is min haShamayim — from Heaven — and is not generated by one’s own intervention. After an extended discussion, he concludes that while he understands the position of the rabbis who permit inoculation, he is personally fearful to offer a ruling.

Rav Abdullah Somech (1813-1889, of Baghdad) in Zivchei Zeddek (Yoreh Deiah 116:41) writes that although Zera Emes abstained from ruling one way or the other, “we, praise G-d, have expert physicians who perform inoculations daily and no one has been harmed.” His disciple, Rav Yakov Sofer (Kaf Hachayim, Yoreh Deiah 116:60) quotes Zivche Zedek, and then adds, “Medicine has since progressed and the physicians now use a needle to inject [the vaccine] into the arms of children, which protects them from contracting smallpox.” It seems that Kaf Hachayim is relating that the vaccination performed in his times did not cause smallpox, as opposed to earlier methods of inoculation, which did cause the recipient to develop some relatively mild form of the disease.

This writer has heard from a great gaon that Rav Aharon Kotler encouraged parents to inoculate their children with the polio vaccine. Similarly, Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach and Rav Elyashiv are quoted as directing that children should be given routine childhood vaccination (Asia 113, pg. 35). The Klausenburger Rebbe, author of Divrei Yatziv, also encouraged vaccination with the caveat that “one should not be from the first 100 people to try a vaccine” (Asia ibid, pg. 38). Mori Hagaon Rav Shlomo Miller (Mayanei Shlomo, Yoreh Deiah 145-147) writes regarding common, childhood vaccinations, that since the overwhelming majority of medical experts believe that one ought to vaccinate, therefore, from a Torah perspective, it is proper to follow their advice. However, absent a governmental mandate, those who believe that vaccinations present a danger ought not to be forced to vaccinate their children if failing to vaccinate does not present a clear and present danger.

Other poskim seem to have different views. Rav Shmuel Kamenetsky (in a letter printed in Bigdei Chamudos Yoreh Deiah 42) describes vaccinating as permitted but not required. Rav Moshe Sternbuch (in a responsum dated 18 Kislev 5779), however, addresses a case in which an area was experiencing a measles epidemic. He rules that one must follow the overwhelming majority of medical authorities who mandate vaccinations. He may not choose to follow the minority opinion who advise against taking measles vaccine, since by abstaining he is endangering others. Obviously, all of the above are just general pointers, and for halachic guidance in our present situation concerning the COVID-19 vaccine, we look to our contemporary poskim.

It should be noted that in a just-released video clip, Rav Chaim Kanievsky was asked whether one should vaccinate with the recently released COVID-19 vaccination, and he said one must. Similarly, rulings in favor of vaccination have been expressed by Rav Asher Weiss and the OU poskim in an official statement. Rav Shmuel Kamenetsky released a letter stating that he has not ruled either way, but rather, “each person should ask his doctor to act in accordance with his personal need.” (Mishpacha's Rabbinic Board)

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 841)

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