Image: A flu virus under an electron microscope (NIAID/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
It’s flu season right now.
Symptoms of the flu include fever, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, muscle or body aches, headaches and fatigue.
While our ancestors did not know about viruses, they knew and respected the threat of disease. Our tradition teaches that caring for the body is a mitzvah, a positive commandment.
Furthermore, we must be attentive to the safety of other people’s bodies, to preventing illness and injury whenever we can.
When you build a new house, you shall make a parapet for your roof, so that you do not bring bloodguilt on your house if anyone should fall from it. –Deuteronomy 22:8
Our teachers applied this rule not only to the roofs of houses, but to anything that might damage another person’s body. In his code of law, the Mishneh Torah, Maimonides has an entire volume titled, Hilchot Rotzeach uShmirat Nefesh, “The Laws of Murderers and the Protection of Life.” He is clear, and later scholars agree, that we are responsible for guarding ourselves and others against dangers in the world:
Both the roof and any other object of potential danger, by which it is likely that a person could be fatally injured, require that the owner take action… just as the Torah commands us to make a fence on the roof… and so, too, regarding any obstacle which could cause mortal danger, one, not just the owner, has a positive commandment to remove it… if one does not remove it but leaves those obstacles constituting potential danger, one transgresses a positive commandment and negates a negative commandment ‘Thou shall not spill blood’ – Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Rozeach uShmirat Nefesh, 11:4t
What does this have to do with the flu? Influenza is not a minor illness. The flu can and does kill. Therefore, it is exactly the kind of danger Torah charges us to monitor and to guard against for both ourselves and for others.
First, we should protect ourselves from the flu.
- That means it is a mitzvah to get a flu shot if our doctor recommends it.
- It means washing our hands whenever they have come in contact with others, or with surfaces that may not be clean (for instance, handrails, doorknobs, bathroom surfaces.)
- It means doing things that will keep our immune systems in the best possible order (getting enough sleep, eating well, avoiding sugar.)
Some people say that the vaccine is less effective against some strains of the flu. That is true, but doctors tell us that those who get the vaccine suffer less even if they get a different strain of flu.
Secondly, we should protect others from the flu.
Some people are more vulnerable to flu, including the very young, the very old, and the sick. They and those who cannot get a flu shot are dependent on the rest of us getting vaccinated. First, because the people with whom they come in contact are less likely to be carrying the virus, but secondly because of “herd immunity,” a concept that means the more people are vaccinated, the less flu will be going around. We each have a responsibility to do what we can to protect the vulnerable.
More things we can do to protect others:
- Wash hands often. Avoid spreading the flu virus through touch.
- Stay home when we are sick. Stay home until symptoms have been gone 24 hours.
- Keep sick children at home.
- Cover coughs and sneezes with tissue, or with cloth, or in the curve of your elbow. Coughing into a fist or a hand is likely to spread germs.
- We can refrain from penalizing or teasing others for taking sick leave.
- We can advocate for better sick leave policies, in the interest of public health.
Some people won’t be able to do some of these things. Some may be forced to work or to walk around sick. That makes it much more important for the rest of us do what we can to avoid spreading the flu.
It is a mitzvah to keep our bodies safe. It is a mitzvah to protect the bodies of others.