Does concept of 'saving life' apply to preventive medicine?

MK warns of spiritual side effects as vaccination drive continues on Shabbat

All 4 HMOs vaccinate over-60s on sabbath; rabbis say clinics’ computers violate rules, and they’re unlikely to give approval if there isn’t 24-hour effort on weekdays

Nathan Jeffay is The Times of Israel's health and science correspondent

Deputy Transportation Minister Uri Maklev holds a face mask during a press conference at the Transportation Ministry in Jerusalem on July 8, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/ Flash90)
Deputy Transportation Minister Uri Maklev holds a face mask during a press conference at the Transportation Ministry in Jerusalem on July 8, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/ Flash90)

Ignoring rabbis’ objections, and prompting fury from religious politicians, Israel vaccinated thousands of citizens on Shabbat.

The Health Ministry views all-week-long vaccination as key to achieving quick coronavirus protection — part of a plan, which also involves 24-hour clinics, to vaccinate more than 150,000 a day.

This past Saturday, the first of the vaccination drive, all four healthcare providers carried on giving shots to the 60-plus public, albeit at significantly reduced capacity, they told The Times of Israel.

MK Uri Maklev of United Torah Judaism slammed the Health Ministry for encouraging it. “How will there be a blessing for the work of their hands, when they harm Shabbat and the [religious] public in such a serious manner?” he asked rhetorically in a Haredi newspaper on Sunday.

A woman receives a coronavirus vaccine at a clinic run by the Meuchedet healthcare provider. (courtesy of Meuchedet)

The politician claimed that Health Minister Yuli Edelstein had promised him that there would not be Shabbat vaccinations, and attacked the justification given to administer them.

Edelstein said it was done so that the country can quickly deliver COVID-19 protection, and invoked the Jewish legal principle of saving a life, or “pikuah nefesh,” which trumps nearly all other religious requirements, including Shabbat. “The coronavirus endangers all of us, the vaccines will save all of us,” he said.

Hospital workers in protective gear are seen in the coronavirus ward at Ziv Medical Center in the northern city of Safed on October 7, 2020. (David Cohen/Flash90)

But many Orthodox Jews say that “pikuah nefesh” does not normally extend to preventative medicine. “They put everything in the category of pikuah nefesh,” Maklev said of Health Ministry leaders. “We have seen in the past that many of their instructions did not stand up to scrutiny.”

There is no prohibition on administering or receiving a vaccine on Shabbat, according to most rabbis, but they say clinics should stay shut because their operation involves other actions considered to desecrate the holy day of rest, like logging patient information on computers and operating other electrical items that are needed. They also express concern that people are made to break the religious rule against driving on Shabbat to make their appointments.

The chief rabbis have refused to back operation of vaccine centers on Shabbat for now. Currently, “there is no permission to violate Shabbat” for the sake of vaccination, Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau said on Thursday, according to Orthodox media.

Israel’s Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau at the Western Wall, in the Old City of Jerusalem, July 21, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

He stressed  that he supports vaccination, but argued that so long as clinics are not operating during every hour of every other day, working on Shabbat is not justified. For now, they should ramp up capacity without working Saturdays, he argued.

If and when clinics are vaccinating 24/6, “it will be possible to consider also vaccinations on Shabbat,” Lau said.

Even if the chief rabbinate eventually gives its blessing to Shabbat shots, there are indications that some influential ultra-Orthodox rabbis will remain steadfast in their objection to them.

The massively influential ultra-Orthodox halachic authority Rabbi Asher Weiss wrote that the situation is not urgent enough to consider vaccination an act of pikuah nefesh.

Rabbi Asher Weiss. (Gershon Ellinson/Flash90)

He was responding to questions from the UK and the US, so it is possible that he will issue another ruling regarding Israel. If he does not, Shabbat vaccination, even if part of a 24/7 campaign, is likely to remain taboo for a large part of the Israeli Haredi community, including politicians from Maklev’s party, who revere the rabbi.

The one proviso in Weiss’s position was for people in high-risk categories, or who risk infecting people who are high-risk. If they have Shabbat appointments that cannot be moved without incurring delays, in some circumstances, he would allow them to be treated — and even driven to the vaccination station in certain cases, though by a non-Jewish person, and not by a Jewish person who, in his estimation, is supposed to be observing Shabbat.

Religious objections are not stopping healthcare providers. A spokeswoman for Maccabi Healthcare Services told The Times of Israel that her nurses vaccinated 7,000 people on Shabbat, some of whom had appointments for next month and were offered to vaccinate earlier if they took Saturday appointments. Opposition from rabbis would not stop them during future weekends, she said.

Meuhedet gave 1,500 injections, mostly in Netanya and Tel Aviv. Leumit gave 2,000, mostly in central Israel. Clalit only operated in the Arab Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah.

Weiss and Lau both hail from the ultra-Orthodox community. But while religious Zionist rabbis are often thought to take more lenient approaches than their Haredi counterparts, when it comes to this issue, they have not done so.

Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, head of the Ateret Cohanim yeshiva in Jerusalem (photo credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash90)
Rabbi Shlomo Aviner (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

“If they aren’t working at night, it’s serious but not urgent,” leading religious Zionist Rabbi Shlomo Aviner told The Times of Israel on Sunday, saying no to Shabbat vaccinations. Like Lau, he said that if Israel were providing vaccinations 24/6, the answer might be different.

Aviner, one of the stricter rabbis of religious Zionism, said: “The vaccine itself does not involve Shabbat desecration, but the actions around it are,” giving examples of logging patient data on computers.

His observation that the injection itself does not transgress Shabbat reflects the laws as they are found in the book, Shemirat Shabbat Kehilchatah, widely viewed as the authoritative Orthodox layman’s guide for Sabbath observance.

The Hebrew text from the religious guide, Shemirat Shabbat Kehilchatah, which says that there is no Torah prohibition on taking a regular vaccine on Shabbat. (Zak Jeffay)

Rabbi David Stav, chairman of the moderate Orthodox rabbinic alliance Tzohar, also said he cannot justify Shabbat vaccinations for now, apart from “very high risk” populations, but added that he hopes this will change.

“I urge the government to decide how important it is to keep centers open, and if they are open 24/6, I’m almost positive that rabbis would allow vaccination on the seventh day as well.”

read more:
Never miss breaking news on Israel
Get notifications to stay updated
You're subscribed
Register for free
and continue reading
Registering also lets you comment on articles and helps us improve your experience. It takes just a few seconds.
Already registered? Enter your email to sign in.
Please use the following structure: [email protected]
Or Continue with
By registering you agree to the terms and conditions. Once registered, you’ll receive our Daily Edition email for free.
Register to continue
Or Continue with
Log in to continue
Sign in or Register
Or Continue with
check your email
Check your email
We sent an email to you at .
It has a link that will sign you in.