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Mr. Spock, Chicken Heads, and Herd Immunity

01/16/2020 11:39:01 AM


Maimonides describes a situation where a dad wants to give his son a toy to keep him distracted. He looks around, and all he sees is a chicken. So, he cuts off the chicken’s head and gives it to his son to play with. 

What’s the problem Maimonides is illustrating in this case of premeditated decapitation? Shabbat. Although the Talmud sees nothing inherently wrong with cutting off animal heads on Shabbat, assuming the animal is yours, it is forbidden to kill an animal on Shabbat. Thus is born the Talmudic principle of: p’sik reisha v’lo yamut? (Can you cut off the head and it not die?)

Acts have consequences. When the consequences are inevitable, even if the acts are permitted, Jewish law holds you liable for the act. The problem isn’t burning coal or eating meat, the problem is the inevitable consequences of those actions to our global environment. Choosing to leave your children unvaccinated to avoid their personal risk of exposure to live antibodies might be permissible. But if too many parents opt out of vaccinations, we will lose herd immunity. Then all kids will be at risk. It is unavoidable, like the chicken dying once its head is cut off.

In a collection of rugged individualists, personal choice might be tolerated regardless of its consequences. But Jewish ethics requires us to be responsible for our brothers and sisters — All Israel is responsible for one another (b. Shevuot 39a). If the consequences of our individual acts will be to the detriment of others, those acts are forbidden. Mr. Spock (and John Stuart Mill [1806-73]) had a similar principle: the good of the many outweighs the good of the few.

Fri, March 1 2024 21 Adar I 5784