How to talk about vaccines with someone who is Jewish, when you aren’t Jewish
Judaism is based on the relationship between God and the children of Israel. Judaism considers itself the religion of Jacob (alternately Yisrael or Israel), grandson of Abraham. The first five books (Torah) of the Hebrew Bible date to around 1200 BCE. The basis of Judaic teaching is the Hebrew Bible (Tanakh or Miqra), expounded in later texts such as the Talmud.
Support for Vaccination Within Judaism
Judaism expects its believers to be proactive in maintaining health. Pikuach nefesh, acting to save a life, is a positive commandment (mitzvah aseh). Judaic principles emphasize the community benefits of preventing disease that overshadow individual preference. For example, Leviticus 19:16 counsels believers not to stand idly by while a neighbor is in trouble. Jewish scholars applied this directive to encourage smallpox vaccination in previous eras. Indeed, in settings where vaccination services were available only intermittently, several scholars stated it was permissible to set aside Sabbath restrictions on activity to enable vaccination. In a recent YouTube video, Rabbi Pini Dunner explains pikuach nefesh as it relates to COVID-19.
With contagious diseases such as COVID-19, the responsibility of one person to avoid transmitting the virus to another person resonates with the “Am I my brother’s keeper?” aspects of the Cain and Abel story (Genesis 4:9). One’s decision regarding whether or not to be vaccinated is not solely a personal decision, as it directly changes the likelihood that household members and neighbors will contract a contagious disease that could kill them.
The Talmud encourages parents to teach their children to swim to prevent drowning in the future (an anticipatable hazard, like contagious diseases). Maimonides wrote about prevention: “One must avoid those things which have a deleterious effect on the body, and accustom oneself to things which heal and fortify it.”
The kashrut is the collection of Jewish dietary laws. Food considered fit for consumption is termed “kosher” in English. In contrast to dietary laws, medical issues are judged based on concepts of Jewish law known as halakhah or halachic codes. Multiple Jewish authorities concur that limitations on medications with porcine components are an issue only with oral administration, not products given by injection. Thus, the teachings to avoid pork products do not apply to injectable medications. Regarding COVID-19 vaccines, none contain components of porcine origin and each is given by injection.
Rabbi Abraham Nanzig, writing in London in 1785 during the era of smallpox outbreaks, described the halachic basis for inducing immunity against smallpox: “One who undergoes this treatment while still healthy, God will not consider it a sin. Rather, it is an act of eager religious devotion, and reflects the Commandment to ‘be particularly careful of your well-being’” (Deuteronomy 4:15).
Maybe Your Religious Patient’s Vaccine Concerns Don’t Really Involve Religion
As you interact with people who express concerns about vaccination, listen to the words they use. Are they expressing a concern along religious or theological lines? Or are they commenting about safety or matters related to clinical trials or the approval process?
You may wish to ask questions or offer comments related to how contagious diseases spread, how vaccines are tested, or the components used in vaccines. People who decline vaccination may benefit from encouragement not to act as a vector enabling COVID-19 viruses to spread to others. Each unvaccinated person adds to the vulnerability of a household or group.
Additional details and primary literature are cited in: Grabenstein JD. What the world’s religions teach, applied to vaccines and immune globulins. Vaccine. 2013;31(16):2011-2023. doi:10.1016/j.vaccine.2013.02.026