Around the world, the race is on to find a vaccine for COVID-19. Billions of dollars are being invested as scientists explore different options to stop this horrific pandemic. Once it becomes available, inevitable questions will be emerge about mandating all citizens to take the vaccine, raising the question of whether halakha mandates participation in this undertaking, even to the point where we may force parents to inoculate their children. This issue has come up in recent public health campaigns against the resurgence of polio and measles.
This question partly relates to the obligation to administer preventative medicine. The Torah promises that God will protect those who observe the commandments with complete fidelity. Yet Jewish sources have long recognized that no one can remain assured that they are worthy of such Providential protection or rely on miracles to save them. The Torah commands, “Be Careful and Watch Yourselves” (Deuteronomy 4:9), which was understood as a directive to avoid dangerous situations and activities. Jewish law requires us to remove dangerous objects from our environs, ranging from shoddy ladders to dangerous dogs to unprotected weapons. The spirit of these norms derives from the Biblical obligation to place a guard railing around one’s roof. Both Maimonides and Rabbi Yosef Karo list prohibited activities within their legal codes with Rabbi Moshe Isserles further adding that “one should avoid all things which endanger oneself as we treat physical dangers more stringently than ritual prohibitions.”