Jewish insights into the COVID-19 vaccine

Dear Rabbi Fried,

I am very confused what to do about the
COVID-19 vaccination. On one hand, it is being given out by the highest-ranking government-mandated medical institutions, proclaiming it is safe and effective. On the other hand, I am constantly inundated by well-meaning friends and family, sharing with me all types of reports from either doctors or others, with anything from conspiracy theories to medical claims that it’s downright dangerous. What is one to do? Is there an answer in Judaism to this conundrum? 

Mark L. 

Dear Mark,

I’m not able or qualified to advise you on a medical question. I’ll just tell you what my own thought process was that led me to make my personal decision to be vaccinated. 

The Torah exhorts us to “do much to guard our lives” (Deuteronomy 4:9,15). Although the verse seems to be referring only to spiritual matters, the Talmud, in numerous places, also interprets it to mean in physical matters as well, that we need to be very careful not to put our lives in danger (see, for example, Talmud Berachos, end of pp. 22a). 

We do, however, constantly take part in everyday situations which carry with them a certain degree of danger to our lives. Take, for example, driving in a car on the highway. There are numerous people who die daily on the highway. What allows us to do so? How does this not transgress the above verse to guard ourselves from danger?

Our Talmudic sages answer this with the following concept. There is a verse which says, “G-d guards over the simple ones” (Psalms 116:6). This is referring to those who partake in activities which are “dashu bei rabim,” or, performed by the multitudes. When something becomes accepted by society as a normal activity and it is routinely performed by the multitudes, even if it carries a small but significant statistical danger (and is not an outright dangerous activity), then we invoke the concept of “G-d guards the simple ones” and it is permitted. (See Talmud, Shabbos 129b, Yevamos 12b, for example.)

The authorities of Jewish law apply this principle with regard to types of surgery which have become commonplace, even when the surgery is not necessary to save life or limb, when important. Although even the most simple surgery carries a certain level of risk, it is permitted for the above reason. (See, for example, Igros Moshe, Choshen Mishpat 2:76, also R’ Dr. Akiva Tatz in “Dangerous Disease & Dangerous Therapy,” in numerous places.)

According to this idea, although there is, perhaps, a certain amount of risk carried by this vaccine, as with all vaccines and maybe even a bit more, it is certainly something which society has accepted throughout the world and would clearly qualify as “dashu bei rabim,” an act performed by the multitudes, and we have the protection of “G-d protects the simple ones.” 

Furthermore, and perhaps my primary motivation that I felt that since the leading Torah sages of our generation have unequivocally and strongly recommended that all be vaccinated, I try to heed their rulings for everything else and why should this be different? Besides, their recommendation carries with it their blessings and, I feel, the protection that that affords. So my wife and I proudly were vaccinated to do our part in protecting ourselves and our community, and to heed the request of our sages. 

Again, I can’t recommend to you what to do; I am simply letting you know how I and my family made our decision. 

May you and all the readers make the right decision for you and may G-d redeem us swiftly from this terrible pandemic and all the fallout which comes with it!

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