The Halakhic Ramifications of a Coronavirus Vaccine

October 28, 2020 | Sharon Galper Grossman and Shamai Grossman
About the author:

Last week, a participant in a trial for an experimental inoculation against COVID-19 died, although likely for unrelated reasons. Still, the incident raises the very real issue that, before being fully tested and studied, new vaccines can pose unknown dangers, and people may have to weigh these dangers against the risks of the virus itself. Sharon Galper Grossman and Shamai Grossman examine this problem from the standpoint of Jewish law, beginning with the opinions of 18th- and 19th-century rabbis who addressed medicine’s first efforts at inoculation, which were far more dangerous than their present-day equivalents:

In 1785, eleven years before Edward Jenner introduced the smallpox vaccine, Rabbi Abraham Nanzig, who had lost two children to the disease, permitted variolation. A precursor to vaccination, this intervention involved the deliberate infection of a healthy individual with smallpox or cowpox, causing a mild form of the disease that then created immunity. Though the procedure was associated with a one-in-1,000 risk of death, he dismissed this danger because the risk of death from smallpox was far greater; he considered the treatment a mitzvah.

Nanzig cited the precedent of bloodletting, which was permitted although it caused fainting, but rarely death. He also cited [the 11th-century Algerian scholar] Rabbi Isaac Alfasi, who allowed a more primitive form of variolation in which a child who had survived smallpox was given raisins to warm in his hand. A healthy child would then eat them, experiencing a mild infection and subsequent immunity.

Following Jenner’s introduction of the smallpox vaccination, Tiferet Yisrael [the talmudic commentary of Israel Lipschitz, who lived in Germany from 1782 to 1860], permitted a healthy individual to be vaccinated and achieve long-term immunity from the virus, despite the risk. He wrote, “It appears that one may be vaccinated against smallpox even though one in 1,000 people will die from the vaccination. The reason for this is that if one were to be struck by a natural case of smallpox the danger would be even greater, and one may subject himself to something that rarely leads to danger in order to avoid a more likely danger.”

After raising various reason why such rationale might not apply to an experimental coronavirus vaccine, the Grossmans conclude that rabbinic opinion favors seeing any vaccination recommended by the majority of physicians as an obligatory.

Read more on Tradition:

Welcome to Mosaic

Create a free account to continue reading and you'll get two months of unlimited access to the best in Jewish thought, culture, and politics

Register Already a subscriber? Sign in now