Health minister wants 24/7 vaccinations but top rabbis said to oppose on Shabbat

Yuli Edelstein says ‘the vaccines will save all of us,’ believes this trumps religious rules; chief Sephardic rabbi denies request was made to approve vaccinations on weekends

A man receives a COVID-19 vaccine at a Maccabi Healthcare Services vaccination center in Modiin, on December 24, 2020. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)
A man receives a COVID-19 vaccine at a Maccabi Healthcare Services vaccination center in Modiin, on December 24, 2020. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein called Thursday to increase the number of coronavirus vaccines administered per day to 100,000, and to keep the operation going 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, including on Shabbat.

A statement from Edelstein’s office said he instructed the ministry’s director-general to work toward that target.

“The coronavirus endangers all of us, the vaccines will save all of us,” Edelstein was quoted saying in the statement.

Regarding the push to carry out vaccinations on Shabbat, Edelstein, who is Orthodox, cited the Jewish legal principle of saving a life, or “pikuah nefesh,” which trumps nearly all other religious requirements.

Edelstein also invoked a new, more transmissible coronavirus strain that health officials fear is spreading in Israel, saying Israel was “in a race against time” to vaccinate the population against COVID-19.

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein receives a coronavirus vaccine at Sheba Medical Center in Ramat Gan, on December 19, 2020. (Amir Cohen/Pool/AFP)

Despite Edelstein’s call for Israelis to be vaccinated throughout the week, reports indicated senior rabbis opposed vaccinations on Shabbat.

According to Channel 13 news, Edelstein asked the chief rabbis to approve the measure, saying it would save lives, but Rabbis David Lau and Yitzhak Yosef refused to do so.

Yosef, who is the chief Sephardic rabbi, denied the report.

“There was no request made regarding an approval to vaccinate on Shabbat,” his office said.

A separate report from Channel 12 news said a number of leading rabbis were seeking to prevent vaccinations on Shabbat, but didn’t name them.

Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau, left, and Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef attending a Jewish New Year’s ceremony at the national headquarters of the Israel Police in Jerusalem, September 7, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Earlier Thursday, the director-general of the Health Ministry said 180,000 Israelis had been vaccinated against the coronavirus over the past five days.

“The goal is to vaccinate at least four million people during the first quarter of 2021,” Chezy Levy said, according to the Ynet news website. “We have enough vaccines to do it, and I hope we’ll fulfill that goal.”

Levy also said Israelis won’t be prevented from getting inoculated during a national lockdown aimed at curbing rising infections, which will take force Sunday evening.

The national vaccination program began on Sunday, with medical workers getting the first injections. Starting Monday, vaccinations were opened up to those aged 60 and up, as well as those in risk groups.

The government has not yet specified when the vaccines will be made available to the wider public.

According to the Oxford University-based Our World in Data website, Israel is second in the world in the number of people per capita to receive the vaccine so far, trailing only Bahrain.

The Health Ministry said Wednesday that hospitals would begin administering vaccines to the public next week, joining the country’s health maintenance organizations, which are leading the effort. A ministry statement said the move was aimed at “significantly” increasing the pace of the vaccine drive.

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