By Rabbi Yair Hoffman

Last year, five children in New York City died from the flu.

Yesterday, New York State’s highest court did something about it.

The Court of Appeals ruled that the city Board of Health and the Health Department can make annual flu vaccines mandatory for children in city-regulated daycares and preschools. The Court of Appeals consists of seven judges: the chief judge and six associate judges. They are appointed by the governor and confirmed by the New York Senate to 14-year terms.

This unanimous decision reverses previous lower court rulings which were sought by five anti-vaccine activists.

In December of 2013, New York City’s Board of Health adopted a rule that all children from six months to the age of five must get a flu shot before December 31 each year and that the parents (or guardians) must show proof of administration.

Associate Judge Leslie Stein wrote the 25-page opinion for the court.

Court of Appeals Chief Judge Janet DiFiore also joined in the ruling, as did associate judges Jenny Rivera, Eugene Fahey, Michael Garcia, Rowan Wilson, and Paul Feinman.

City Health Commissioner Dr. Mary Bassett hailed the decision for improving the safety of the 150,000 children who would be affected. The Health Department said the mandate would be effective immediately.

“Vaccines save lives and are an effective public health tool to prevent the spread of disease,” Dr. Bassett remarked in a statement she released. “The severity of this past influenza season reminds us of how deadly influenza can be.”

The Halachah

Gedolei ha’poskim have encouraged vaccinations and have even labeled them obligatory (see p’sak of Rav Zalman Nechemia Goldberg, shlita, the son-in-law of Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, zt’l). Rav Elyashiv, zt’l, had labeled this along with the alternative-medicine movement dangerous to Klal Yisrael. Gedolim have written that where there is concern for an epidemic, vaccination is obligatory (see Minchas Tzvi, siman 9; Rabbi Eliezer Yehudah Waldenberg, zt’l, in Tzitz Eliezer; and Rav Yitzchok Zilberstein, shlita).

In Teves of 5745 (winter 1984–1985), the Steipler Gaon was asked about a case where the measles vaccine was apparently problematic. He advised people to make sure that the next batch was problem-free and instructed them to take the vaccine after confirming that (Orchos Rabbeinu, p. 350).

Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, zt’l, (Shulchan Shlomo 329:1, 2) writes that if, from a sociological perspective, people are not rushing to get a vaccination as soon as possible, it is not considered enough of a danger to warrant Shabbos violation to get the vaccine. This is the case even if there is an actual danger. We see clearly that his view is that one should definitely be vaccinated. This was also the view of Rav Shmuel Auerbach, zt’l.

The Mitzvos Involved In Vaccinating

The overwhelming percentage of rabbanim and poskim would tell you (but check yourself) that vaccinations involve the fulfillment of a number of Torah mitzvos, aside from the basic mitzvah of v’nishmartem me’od b’nafshoseichem. We should also make our best efforts not to allow misinformation and fraud to affect crucial decisions in our lives.

Hashavas Aveidah. The verse in Parashas Ki Seitzei (Devarim 22:2) discusses the mitzvah of hashavas aveidah, returning a lost object, with the words, “V’hasheivoso lo,” and you shall return it to him. The Gemara in Sanhedrin (73a), however, includes within its understanding of these words the obligation of returning “his own life to him as well.” For example, if thieves are threatening to pounce upon him, there is an obligation of “V’hasheivoso lo.” In other words, this verse is the source for the mitzvah of saving someone’s life. It is highly probable that it is this general mitzvah that the Shulchan Aruch refers to in Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 325. This is certainly the case with vaccinations, because vaccinations save lives.

Dam Rei’acha. There is a negative mitzvah of not standing idly by your brother’s blood—“Lo sa’amod al dam rei’acha” (Vayikra 19:16). This is mentioned in Shulchan Aruch (C.M. 426:1) and in the Rambam. When people get sick and chance death because of our inaction, we are violating the commandment of “Lo sa’amod al dam rei’acha.”

Lo Suchal L’hisalem. There is yet another negative commandment associated with the positive commandment of hashavas aveidah, and that is the verse in Devarim (22:3), “You cannot shut your eyes to it.” This verse comes directly after the mitzvah of hashavas aveidah. The Netziv, Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, in his HeEmek She’eilah, refers to this mitzvah as well.

V’chai Achicha Imach. The She’iltos (She’ilta #37), based upon the Gemara in Bava Metzia 62a, understands the words in Vayikra (25:36), “V’chai achicha imach,” and your brother shall live with you, to indicate an obligation to save others with you. The Netziv understands it as a full-fledged obligation according to all opinions. He writes that one must exert every effort to save his friend’s life, until it becomes a matter of pikuach nefesh for himself. The Netziv’s position would certainly advocate that vaccinations are obligatory, even if it involves a slight danger—which in modern times has been virtually eliminated.

V’ahavta L’rei’acha Kamocha. The Ramban, in Toras HaAdam Sha’ar HaSakanah (pp. 42–43), understands the verse of “And love thy neighbor as yourself” as a directive to save our peers from medical danger as well.

We thus have a total of six Torah mitzvos involved in vaccinating our children.

Opposing Views

What about the rabbinic views that there may be substance to the anti-vaxxer view? Carefully researching the data behind a halachic question can be daunting at times. Occasionally, though rarely, the background information behind a question may not be sufficiently researched because the posek relied upon someone else who did not properly weigh the issue or evidence. This is clearly the case regarding vaccinations.

Our leading gedolim in Eretz Yisrael have supported vaccinations, and even if some rabbis negate this idea, we must still follow the opinions of gedolei Torah (speak to Rav Dovid Morgenstern, shlita, about Rav Elyashiv’s unequivocal view), particularly when their view concurs with that of the medical world.

Leading gedolim with whom this author has consulted in recent months—Rav Chaim Kanievsky, shlita, and a prominent gadol in the United States—have said that when someone has done the research and is sure that the background information behind a p’sak is faulty, there is an obligation to respectfully publicize the correct information, which is what is being attempted in this article.

How Did This Begin?

A few months ago, a group of parents began to form a coalition that would attempt to force Lakewood schools to enroll children whose parents refuse to vaccinate their children. The e-mail that went out stated that the coalition “will also be available to help non-vaccinating parents in Lakewood in any area we feel we can, as well as to provide support of ‘strength in numbers…’”

The very existence of this e-mail points to the inroads of cultural influences that the worldwide anti-vaccination movement has made even in some of our Torah communities.

How did all of this madness begin?

In 1998, a now de-licensed British physician named Andrew Wakefield released a paper claiming to have linked the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine to the onset of autism. Later it was revealed that he had secretly received over $700,000 in fees for his views from a lawyer wishing to file lawsuits.

Since then, no other scientist was ever able to match Wakefield’s findings. In 2010, an ethics review board found that Wakefield had falsified the data in his report. The paper was retracted and Wakefield’s medical license was revoked.

Conclusion

The Torah community and its organizations should welcome this ruling as one that saves lives. Chief Judge Janet DiFiore has saved the lives of our children from those who unwittingly have tried to harm them. We should thank the court of appeals for its wisdom in enforcing this lifesaving measure.

The author can be reached at Yairhoffman2@gmail.com.

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