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medical ethics


Do we vaccinate — and what about non-kosher meds?

By Rabbi Ari Enkin, Rabbinic Director, United with Israel

This week’s Torah portion is “Tazria” (Leviticus 12:1-13:59) and in it we read about a mysterious skin disease known as “tza’arat.”

We are told that tza’arat would befall a person who committed certain sins, primary among them, the sin of slander and forbidden speech. The High Priest would be the one to diagnose and treat the “condition.”

Based on this idea, let’s explore some issues in medicine and medical ethics from the perspective of Jewish law. And boy are there lots of issues to discuss!


The first hot topic, to which Jewish medical ethics is not “immune” these days, is the issue of vaccinations.

Should we vaccinate? This, of course, has been one of the number one conversation topics for the last 2+ years. Let’s see what we can derive from Jewish sources.

The Torah requires us to guard are health. Our body is a gift from God, and we are obligated to take good care of it. In fact, it is not enough to merely avoid danger or deal with health issues as they arise, but rather, we must actively and continuously do anything that can promote our health.

Some have opposed vaccinations arguing that they have certain risks, albeit small ones. This leads to the question of whether one may take a small risk in order to possibly avoid a bigger risk later.

One of the more famous rabbis to deal with this was Rabbi Yisroel Lipschutz, a famous and authoritative 18th century rabbi who discussed the smallpox vaccine. He ruled that despite the risk of death from the smallpox vaccine (which at that time was 1/1000), one should still get vaccinated. The same was true for the polio vaccine.

In more recent times, Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, one of the preeminent rabbis of the past century, ruled that getting vaccinated is so important that it is permitted to do so on Shabbat if there is no other opportunity. And receiving injection on Shabbat is an especially severe Shabbat violation!

There is also a view, somewhat more controversial, that one should follow the majority and social/societal norms when it comes to vaccines. In other words, if most people are doing it, do it, and God will take care of the rest. Others, however, argue that while we can at times force someone to receive medical treatment, we cannot compel a healthy person or a parent to vaccinate, even if his or her refusal is based on an “irrational fear.”

According to this rabbi, one should consult one’s personal physician. If your personal physician advises you not to vaccinate due to specific concerns relevant to you, then you should not vaccinate. If he recommends it, then one should surely listen just as one would listen to most other recommendations of one’s doctor.

Kosher and Not-So-Kosher Medicine

Next question: Is there a problem with vaccines that contain non-kosher ingredients?

As a general rule, the ban on consuming non-kosher ingredients is limited to ingesting them orally. There is also no prohibition against benefiting from non-kosher items.

As such, even if a vaccine is made from pig, or other non-kosher animal components, there would be no prohibition in using it. Indeed, insulin often contains pork products and even observant Jews who are diabetics don’t hesitate to use it since it is not taken orally.

Similarly, it is permissible to consume non-kosher products via suppository, enema, medicated bandage, and the like.

The only exception to benefiting from non-kosher foods is the ban on benefiting from mixtures of milk and meat, from benefiting from chametz, leaven products, during Passover.

The prohibitions on milk/meat mixtures and chametz during Passover are especially stringent — benefitting from them is forbidden.

Sometimes, creative solutions, such as a Passover-friendly version of a certain medicine, can be found. If this is an issue, consult your your doctor and rabbi.

Doctors Treating Parents

Jewish parents sometimes boast about “my son, the doctor.” That raises a different question. Is it acceptable for a doctor to treat his or her parents?

The potential problem with treating a parent is the verse in the Torah that says, “Anyone who wounds their father or mother is to be put to death.” (Ex 21:15). While this verse is obviously referring to wounding a parent with evil intent, our sages extend this verse to include any form of wounding a parent – in virtually any manner whatsoever. In this context, “wounding” is defined as causing bleeding in a parent.

In the course of medical procedures, it is not uncommon for blood to emerge. This is certainly true at a lab when we go for blood tests and blood is drawn.

Dental work almost always includes some form of bleeding. Indeed, the Talmud tells us of various sages who did not allow their children to even remove a splinter from them lest bleeding occur. By the same token, it seems that a child who is a doctor should not perform any procedure on a parent that may involve drawing blood.

So…can a child treat his parents as a doctor, dentist or lab technician?

Most authorities rules that it is outright forbidden if there is someone else who can do the job. If, however, there is no one else, and the parent is in pain, the child-doctor may do whatever is necessary, as long as the parent consents. Some authorities are even more lenient and permit doing so if the child-doctor is the most qualified and his parents would simply prefer him over another doctor.