The concept of שומר פתאים השם is being touted as a reason to take the experimental vaccine and not worry. We are being told that because "most experts and the greatest experts" have decided that the risks are minimal, and the dangers of not taking the vaccine are severe, we must listen to them and vaccinate.
Unfortunately this ruling is based on fundamentally flawed reasoning and a complete distortion of the concept of שומר פתאים השם. Here are links to two excellent in-depth treatments of the concept in Halacha, the main principles of which I will summarize below.
There are two opposing principles in Halacha which must be reconciled in all situations so that we can live healthy, balanced lives.
1) We have an obligation to protect our lives and wellbeing from danger.
2) We must trust in Hashem to protect us.
If we take extreme, abnormal measures to protect ourselves from danger, we demonstrate a lack of trust in Hashem. Such measures have unintended consequences that compromise one's mental health and ability to live a normal, productive life. We are not supposed to be hypochondriacs or live with paranoia.
Indeed, such fear is a sign that one is a sinner (see Berachos 60A). The righteous live with purpose and confidence, and put their trust in God.
On the other hand, we are not allowed to expect God to protect us without taking reasonable measures according to the situation. Behaving in such a fashion requires miracles (of the more open variety) to be protected, and we are not allowed to rely on such miracles. Even if a reckless person is protected, it detracts from his merits.
The shiurim I provided above illustrate these fundamental principles through a variety of halachic sources. According to the poskim, the following variables all impact the balance between what are considered reasonable risks to take, what is considered dangerous enough to avoid, and when to rely on God:
1. Is it a definite and immediate danger?
2. Is the behavior one that all of society has accepted as normal?
3. What is the likelihood of being harmed?
4. What are the benefits of the behavior?
These criteria must be weighed to determine the proper balance of appropriate risk, appropriate protective measures, and trusting in God.
A few examples will help illustrate this and provide clarity for our situation.
1. It is more dangerous to ride a car or fly in a plane than to go for a walk or stay at home. However, the dangers are extremely remote, all of society has accepted these modes of transportation as normal, the likelihood of being harmed is close to zero, and the benefits of these modes of transportation are great. Therefore, these risks are entirely acceptable and one should rely upon שומר פתאים השם.
2. One is more likely to suffer an injury from playing sports or riding a bike than other forms of exercise. Some sports, like tackle football and boxing, have an extremely high risk of injury, including serious injuries, and are not advisable. Others have less risk of injury and extremely low risk of serious injuries. Bike riders, for example, have a greater risk of being hit by a car or suffering a head injury even with a helmet, but overall, with proper precautions, these risks are minimal.
At the same time, these activities have important health benefits, they provide a recreational and social outlet, and in the case of bike riding an inexpensive mode of transportation as well. The risks involved are low and entirely acceptable, and therefore here too one should exercise caution but otherwise rely upon שומר פתאים השם .
When it comes to activities with greater danger, the benefits must also be greater to justify the risk. For example, one should not go into a jungle to hunt wild animals, for the danger is great and the benefits are minimal at best. However, one may hunt animals for the sake of his livelihood or the performance of a mitzvah. These primary benefits justify additional risks.
Similarly, we know that some workers will die during the construction of roads, bridges, tunnels, and other critical infrastructure. However, the benefits to society far outweigh the risk to any individual worker, and therefore one is allowed to work in construction and rely upon שומר פתאים השם.
With these examples in mind, let us consider the current situation. The coronavirus is real; we know quite well by now that it can cause long-term health problems and even death. We would be wise to take reasonable precautions to protect ourselves from it, as we would with any illness. At the same time, we must avoid measures that are extreme and unduly harmful in their own right. We must find a reasonable balance, and then rely on שומר פתאים השם.
Some noted rabbis have urged people to take the experimental vaccine. They claim that the risks of the vaccine are minimal, the risks are accepted by society, the benefits are great, and the dangers of not taking it are severe. Therefore, one should take it and rely upon שומר פתאים השם.
Unfortunately this is a faulty application of the concept. The risks of the vaccine are largely unknown and cannot possibly be fully known for many years. Many thousands of doctors all over the world have raised serious red flags about it, and their opinions cannot be cavalierly disregarded. Not only are they being disregarded, those who express concerns are being mocked, censored, and punished. That is hardly reassuring, nor the manner in which new drugs and treatments should be introduced under any circumstances.
In fact, governments are threatening to restrict the basic human rights of people who refuse to take the vaccine. This should be considered far more scary and dangerous than the coronavirus itself.
The benefits of the vaccine are hardly overwhelming. At best they reduce the chance of developing a severe case of coronavirus if one is infected. The same benefits can be achieved by boosting one's immune system and other treatments that have proven to be highly effective and safe.
The risk of coronavirus cannot be compared to smallpox, which killed as high as 20 percent of some populations, nor can the benefits of this vaccine – which are minimal and achievable through other means – be compared to the smallpox vaccine, where there was no alternative.
Indeed, considering the low likelihood of developing a serious case of coronavirus without any intervention, the ease with which one can reduce the likelihood through safe and proven means, and the many unknowns and possible dangers of the vaccine, one cannot in good conscience urge people to take the vaccine and rely on שומר פתאים השם.
Just the opposite! One should boost his immune system, demand that safer, proven treatments be readily provided as the primary option, then live with normalcy and confidence, and trust God to protect him.
If, down the road, one or more vaccines are truly proven to have tremendous benefits that far outweigh the risks, and are far superior to alternatives, they should be recommended. We are not there yet. Not even close.
In the meantime, compelling people in any way to take this vaccine, or restricting their basic human rights for choosing not to, is extremely unethical and must be challenged. The restrictions that have been imposed upon us to this point are tyrannical and have caused overwhelming suffering and even death in a variety of ways.
We must be allowed to earn a living, spend time with our loved ones, socialize, and live our lives without hysteria and paranoia. No political leader or rabbi has the right to take this away from us.
I will conclude with two particularly interesting sources that I stumbled upon just yesterday in my regular learning purely by "coincidence". They come from Yerushalmi Terumos Chapter 8.
There is a lengthy discussion about the dangers of leaving wine, water, and certain foods exposed. It begins with the Mishna on page 42A, and I encourage those who are capable to look it up.
At the time there was a clear and present danger of snakes poisoning their liquids in particular, and the Gemara outlines the balance between reasonable precautions and risks in different situations. Although poisonous snakes are not a concern for us today in most places, the principles are extremely relevant.
The Gemara on page 42A relates that Rabbi Ami had guests, and apologized for not serving them the pasteurized wine he had, for he had left it uncovered. Rav Bibi said "Bring it and I will drink it." Rabbi Ami replied "One who wishes to die should go die in his own house."
Rabbi Ami had both scientific and halachic cause for concern, and considered his wine forbidden to drink. Rav Bibi was not concerned, and considered the small benefit of drinking the wine worth the risk that it had been poisoned. The flow of the sugya indicates that the halacha was with Rabbi Ami; the dangers were serious enough and likely enough to outweigh the benefit.
Significantly, Rabbi Ami allows Rav Bibi the right to take inappropriate risks, just not under his roof. This too is illustrated throughout the sugya. Chazal outline the boundaries of Halacha in these areas, but do not impose societal restrictions or limit people's right to take chances – even inappropriate chances. People are left with the right to decide for themselves what risks to take. One's freedom and independence to make such decisions must remain sacred. (For those who wish to split hairs, according to the Torah we are allowed to leave our homes without a mask even if there is an infinitesimal chance that we might be carrying an infectious illness.)
An even more remarkable source appears on page 43B. The Gemara relates as follows: "Rabbi Yanai was extremely afraid of snakes, and he would raise his bed atop four buckets of water (to prevent snakes from climbing onto his bed). One time he stretched out his hand and found a snake by him. He said 'Remove them from me, שומר פתאים השם.'"
The Penei Moshe explains that Rabbi Yanai cried out for someone to remove the snake, and that God had watched over him. (This is in fact cited in one of the shiurim linked above.)
The other commentaries, including Rav Eliyahu from Polda, Rabbi Shimon Sirilio, and Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky all explain as follows: "Remove the buckets of water, for I might as well just trust in God."
Rabbi Yanai had taken extreme measures to protect himself from snakes, measures that were considered by others to be over-the-top. Despite these measures, he could not completely eliminate the danger, and Hashem showed him that the benefits of taking extreme measures do not justify the effort, expense, and other costs. One should use normal measures to mitigate the risk – measures that do not upend his life and mental condition – then focus on living his life and rely on God.
This is what we should all be doing, and this is what we should be demanding our elected officials allow us to do. We should not be taking experimental drugs to lower our risk of catching a serious case of coronavirus from 0.0001 percent to 0.00001 percent. We should not be plunging one third of society into poverty. We should not be restricting people's basic rights to leave their homes, see their loved ones, socialize, pray, learn, and live their lives.
It is immoral – it is downright cruel and a violation of human rights – and it is completely against the Torah and our tradition.
We must take reasonable, proven precautions whose benefits are fully justified, then we must live our lives like normal people and rely on God to protect us.
If you believe this is correct, please share these words as widely as possible, organize, stand up, speak out, avoid unnecessary experimental drugs, and take back your life.