Flu Vaccination is a Mitzvah

Image: Sick child in bed, looking miserable. (Shutterstock, 1621894310)

Have you had a flu vaccination this year?

You might ask, What does that have to do with Basic Judaism?

Getting a flu vaccination if we are able is a mitzvah. It is in fact one of the most urgent commandments, the one known as the preservation of life.

The flu kills. It kills little children and old people. It kills people with compromised immune systems. It kills little babies who are too young to get the vaccine, and people who are too sick to get the vaccine.

It sickens people with whom we may have had only the slightest contact, who are unlucky enough to touch a railing after we have touched it, if we are carrying the flu.

Don’t spread the flu.

The best way we can avoid spreading the flu during flu season is to do two things:

  1. Get a flu vaccination.
  2. Wash your hands often and thoroughly.

I’m getting my vaccination tomorrow. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends we get a flu shot during October, well before flu season, so that our bodies have a chance to produce protection against the flu.

The nasal spray vaccine will be available this year, according to the CDC. If needles give you the heebeejeebees, ask if it is an option for you. As for me, I’ll be getting a shot. I hate the flu, and I hate the thought of killing someone with it even more.

Please, please join me in this mitzvah, if your health permits! If your budget and/or insurance do not make allowance for it, read this article and learn where to get a FREE flu vaccination in the USA.



The Torah of Flu

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.



Have You Had Your Flu Shot?

V0016569 Mr. Punch wrapped up in blankets in front of the fire, eatin

Image: 19th c cartoon by John Leech, “Mr. Punch has the Flu.”Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.”

4,605 people died of flu in the United States in 2014 but less than half of the adults in the U.S. were vaccinated against the infection, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Some will say, “It’s a personal choice.” You doctor will likely say that it’s a personal choice. Your local conspiracy buff may tell you it’s all a plot.

However, under Jewish tradition, it’s a mitzvah – a commandment – that we get a flu shot unless there are strong reasons against it, such as an egg allergy.

“Where are flu shots in the Torah?” I imagine someone asking indignantly. Well, here are some places:

You shall watch your lives very well. – Deuteronomy 4:15

Torah insists that we care for our bodies, that they are gifts of God. Flu is more likely to kill infants, old people, and people with suppressed immune systems, but has also killed people in otherwise good health. Flu is mostly preventable.

When you build a new house, then you shall make a railing for your roof, so that you bring not blood upon your house, if anyone fall from there. – Deuteronomy 22:8

We are commanded not only to preserve our own lives, but to prevent death or injury to others. While this commandment specifically has to do with a roof hazard, the rabbis interpreted it to mean that anytime we become aware of a risk associated with our home or our persons, we have to do something about it. Think about the people you contact every day: are any of them very young, very old, or immunity compromised? Are any of them caretakers or visitors to such persons? Then your case of mild flu could put someone vulnerable at risk of serious illness or death.

I once worked as a chaplain in a nursing home. Someone – we never knew who – came to visit while they contagious with a slight flu. (It had to be slight, because the nurses were ferocious about visitors who looked sick.) Over the next few days, it was as if the Angel of Death flew down the hallways; resident after resident sickened and died. Likely the person who brought the bug in never knew what they had done.

I get my flu shot every year. I strongly recommend that you get yours, unless there is a very good medical reason against it. We never know whose life, whose family we might preserve.