Contact Tracing, Civil Liberties and Public Health (sources only)

Framing: How do we arrive at contemporary Jewish ethics?

Elliot N. Dorff, “A Methodology for Jewish Medical Ethics.”
If… we judge that innovations in medical practice have made conditions relatively different from what they had previously been, we will have to stretch some halakhic and aggadic sources beyond their original meanings. We should do this in order to retain clear connections to the tradition… at the same time, we should openly state what we are doing- namely, that we are choosing both the texts to apply and the interpretations of those texts in order to develop a Jewish medical ethic which carries tradition, Jewish concerns effectively into the contemporary setting.1

Rabbi Mira Wasserman, Center for Jewish Ethics

Jewish Values and the Coronavirus
Video courtesy of Reconstructing Judaism

Values for Considering Contact Tracing: Health, Privacy and Community

1. Preserving Life

נענה רבי אלעזר ואמר ומה מילה שהיא אחד ממאתים וארבעים ושמונה איברים שבאדם דוחה את השבת קל וחומר לכל גופו שדוחה את השבת

רבי יוסי בר' יהודה אומר (שמות לא, יג) את שבתותי תשמורו יכול לכל ת"ל אך חלק

רבי יונתן בן יוסף אומר (שמות לא, יד) כי קודש היא לכם היא מסורה בידכם ולא אתם מסורים בידה

ר' שמעון בן מנסיא אומר (שמות לא, טז) ושמרו בני ישראל את השבת אמרה תורה חלל עליו שבת אחת כדי שישמור שבתות הרבה א"ר יהודה אמר שמואל אי הואי התם הוה אמינא דידי עדיפא מדידהו (ויקרא יח, ה) וחי בהם ולא שימות בהם

Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya answered and said: Just as the mitzva of circumcision, which rectifies only one of the 248 limbs of the body, overrides Shabbat, so too, a fortiori, saving one’s whole body, which is entirely involved in mitzvot, overrides Shabbat. Other tanna’im debated this same issue.

Rabbi Yosei, son of Rabbi Yehuda, says that it is stated: “But keep my Shabbatot (Exodus 31:13). One might have thought that this applies to everyone in all circumstances; therefore, the verse states “but,” a term that restricts and qualifies. It implies that there are circumstances where one must keep Shabbat and circumstances where one must desecrate it, i.e., to save a life.

Rabbi Yonatan ben Yosef says that it is stated: “For it is sacred to you” (Exodus 31:14). This implies that Shabbat is given into your hands, and you are not given to it to die on account of Shabbat.

Rabbi Shimon ben Menasya said: It is stated: “And the children of Israel shall keep Shabbat, to observe Shabbat” (Exodus 31:16).The Torah said: Desecrate one Shabbat on his behalf so he will observe many Shabbatot. Rav Yehuda said that Shmuel said: If I would have been there among those Sages who debated this question, I would have said that my proof is preferable to theirs, as it states: “You shall keep My statutes and My ordinances, which a person shall do and live by them” (Leviticus 18:5), and not that he should die by them.

Rabbi Aryeh Klapper, A Teshuvah Regarding Pikuach Nefesh in a Time of Pandemic

CMTL Shavuot Reader 2020 Edition

[The concept of] Shomer petaim Hashem [literally, “the Lord preserves the simple”] allows people to engage in at least some forms of dangerous but remunerative employment, so long as the risks involved are considered negligible by one’s society. Similarly, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein zt”l would ask when teaching Bava Kamma, which assigns compensation for all the various destructive things that bulls can do: Why didn’t the Torah just ban owning bulls? Rabbi Dr. Moshe Tendler asks the same question on the societal level...If pikuach nefesh overrides everything, why is it permitted for a state to build parks, rather than spending its entire GDP on healthcare?

The answer is not that jobs, bulls and parks are more important than pikuach nefesh. Rather, we need to recognize that “most important” values should not become “exclusive values.” Preserving life is an enormous value, but other values are what makes life worth preserving. Shomer petaim is just one of the 17 principles halakhah used to hedge pikuach nefesh about and ensure that it does not utterly dominate the halakhic scene.

ותניא כל עיר שאין בה עשרה דברים הללו אין תלמיד חכם רשאי לדור בתוכה בית דין מכין ועונשין וקופה של צדקה נגבית בשנים ומתחלקת בשלשה ובית הכנסת ובית המרחץ וביהכ"ס רופא ואומן ולבלר (וטבח) ומלמד תינוקות משום ר' עקיבא אמרו אף מיני פירא מפני שמיני פירא מאירין את העינים:
And it is taught in a baraita: A Torah scholar is not permitted to reside in any city that does not have these ten things: A court that has the authority to flog and punish transgressors; and a charity fund for which monies are collected by two people and distributed by three, as required by halakha. This leads to a requirement for another three people in the city. And a synagogue; and a bathhouse; and a public bathroom; a doctor; and a bloodletter; and a scribe [velavlar] to write sacred scrolls and necessary documents; and a ritual slaughterer; and a teacher of young children. With these additional requirements there are a minimum of 120 men who must be residents of the city. They said in the name of Rabbi Akiva: The city must also have varieties of fruit, because varieties of fruit illuminate the eyes.
במומחה - יש בו כח לחזור ולא מצי למימר ליה בעל דין אנא כי טעמא קמא דידך עבדינא אבל בשאינו מומחה מצי אמר ליה מי יימר דטעמא בתרא דידך עיקר דילמא קמא עיקר ובהאי הוא דטעית:

“An expert [judge]:” He has the power to retry, as the litigant cannot say to him: I [prefer to] follow your first ruling. But with regards to a non-expert [judge] he (the litigant) can say to him (the non-expert judge): who is to say that your later ruling is the true one?! Perhaps your first is correct and the second is in error!?

2. On Privacy

(י) כִּֽי־תַשֶּׁ֥ה בְרֵֽעֲךָ מַשַּׁ֣את מְא֑וּמָה לֹא־תָבֹ֥א אֶל־בֵּית֖וֹ לַעֲבֹ֥ט עֲבֹטֽוֹ׃ (יא) בַּח֖וּץ תַּעֲמֹ֑ד וְהָאִ֗ישׁ אֲשֶׁ֤ר אַתָּה֙ נֹשֶׁ֣ה ב֔וֹ יוֹצִ֥יא אֵלֶ֛יךָ אֶֽת־הַעֲב֖וֹט הַחֽוּצָה׃
(10) When you make a loan of any sort to your countryman, you must not enter his house to seize his pledge. (11) You must remain outside, while the man to whom you made the loan brings the pledge out to you.

א"ר יוחנן דאמר קרא (במדבר כד, ב) וישא בלעם את עיניו וירא את ישראל שוכן לשבטיו מה ראה ראה שאין פתחי אהליהם מכוונין זה לזה אמר ראוין הללו שתשרה עליהם שכינה:

Rabbi Yoḥanan says that the verse states: “And Balaam lifted up his eyes, and he saw Israel dwelling tribe by tribe; and the spirit of God came upon him” (Numbers 24:2). The Gemara explains: What was it that Balaam saw that so inspired him? He saw that the entrances of their tents were not aligned with each other, ensuring that each family enjoyed a measure of privacy. And he said: If this is the case, these people are worthy of having the Divine Presence rest on them.

אמר ר' (מוסיא בר בריה דרבי מסיא משמיה דר' מוסיא) רבה מניין לאומר דבר לחבירו שהוא בבל יאמר עד שיאמר לו לך אמור שנאמר (ויקרא א, א) וידבר ה' אליו מאהל מועד לאמר

Rabbi Musya, grandson of Rabbi Masya, said in the name of Rabbi Musya the Great: From where is it derived with regard to one who tells another some matter, that it is incumbent upon the latter not to say it to others until the former explicitly says to him: Go and tell others? As it is stated: “And the Lord spoke to him from within the Tent of Meeting, saying [lemor].” Lemor is a contraction of lo emor, meaning: Do not say. One must be given permission before transmitting information.

3. The Necessity of Community Trust

(יב) כִּ֣י תִשָּׂ֞א אֶת־רֹ֥אשׁ בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֘ל לִפְקֻדֵיהֶם֒ וְנָ֨תְנ֜וּ אִ֣ישׁ כֹּ֧פֶר נַפְשׁ֛וֹ לַיהוָ֖ה בִּפְקֹ֣ד אֹתָ֑ם וְלֹא־יִהְיֶ֥ה בָהֶ֛ם נֶ֖גֶף בִּפְקֹ֥ד אֹתָֽם׃
(12) When you take a census of the Israelite people according to their enrollment, each shall pay the LORD a ransom for himself on being enrolled, that no plague may come upon them through their being enrolled.
ולא יהיה בהם נגף. שֶׁהַמִּנְיָן שׁוֹלֵט בּוֹ עַיִן הָרָע, וְהַדֶּבֶר בָּא עֲלֵיהֶם, כְּמוֹ שֶׁמָּצִינוּ בִימֵי דָּוִד (שמואל ב כ"ד):
ולא יהיה בהם נגף THAT THERE BE NO CALAMITY AMONG THEM — for numbers (i. e. things that have been numbered) are subject to the influence of the “evil eye”, and therefore if you count them by their polls pestilence may befall them, as we find happened, in the days of David (II Samuel 24:10 and 15).

(א) וַיֹּ֙סֶף֙ אַף־יְהוָ֔ה לַחֲר֖וֹת בְּיִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל וַיָּ֨סֶת אֶת־דָּוִ֤ד בָּהֶם֙ לֵאמֹ֔ר לֵ֛ךְ מְנֵ֥ה אֶת־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל וְאֶת־יְהוּדָֽה׃ (ב) וַיֹּ֨אמֶר הַמֶּ֜לֶךְ אֶל־יוֹאָ֣ב ׀ שַׂר־הַחַ֣יִל אֲשֶׁר־אִתּ֗וֹ שֽׁוּט־נָ֞א בְּכָל־שִׁבְטֵ֤י יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ מִדָּן֙ וְעַד־בְּאֵ֣ר שֶׁ֔בַע וּפִקְד֖וּ אֶת־הָעָ֑ם וְיָ֣דַעְתִּ֔י אֵ֖ת מִסְפַּ֥ר הָעָֽם׃ (ס) (ג) וַיֹּ֨אמֶר יוֹאָ֜ב אֶל־הַמֶּ֗לֶךְ וְיוֹסֵ֣ף יְהוָה֩ אֱלֹהֶ֨יךָ אֶל־הָעָ֜ם כָּהֵ֤ם ׀ וְכָהֵם֙ מֵאָ֣ה פְעָמִ֔ים וְעֵינֵ֥י אֲדֹנִֽי־הַמֶּ֖לֶךְ רֹא֑וֹת וַאדֹנִ֣י הַמֶּ֔לֶךְ לָ֥מָּה חָפֵ֖ץ בַּדָּבָ֥ר הַזֶּֽה׃ (ד) וַיֶּחֱזַ֤ק דְּבַר־הַמֶּ֙לֶךְ֙ אֶל־יוֹאָ֔ב וְעַ֖ל שָׂרֵ֣י הֶחָ֑יִל וַיֵּצֵ֨א יוֹאָ֜ב וְשָׂרֵ֤י הַחַ֙יִל֙ לִפְנֵ֣י הַמֶּ֔לֶךְ לִפְקֹ֥ד אֶת־הָעָ֖ם אֶת־יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃ [...] (ט) וַיִּתֵּ֥ן יוֹאָ֛ב אֶת־מִסְפַּ֥ר מִפְקַד־הָעָ֖ם אֶל־הַמֶּ֑לֶךְ וַתְּהִ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֡ל שְׁמֹנֶה֩ מֵא֨וֹת אֶ֤לֶף אִֽישׁ־חַ֙יִל֙ שֹׁ֣לֵֽף חֶ֔רֶב וְאִ֣ישׁ יְהוּדָ֔ה חֲמֵשׁ־מֵא֥וֹת אֶ֖לֶף אִֽישׁ׃ (י) וַיַּ֤ךְ לֵב־דָּוִד֙ אֹת֔וֹ אַחֲרֵי־כֵ֖ן סָפַ֣ר אֶת־הָעָ֑ם (ס) וַיֹּ֨אמֶר דָּוִ֜ד אֶל־יְהוָ֗ה חָטָ֤אתִי מְאֹד֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר עָשִׂ֔יתִי וְעַתָּ֣ה יְהוָ֔ה הַֽעֲבֶר־נָא֙ אֶת־עֲוֺ֣ן עַבְדְּךָ֔ כִּ֥י נִסְכַּ֖לְתִּי מְאֹֽד׃ (יא) וַיָּ֥קָם דָּוִ֖ד בַּבֹּ֑קֶר (פ) וּדְבַר־יְהוָ֗ה הָיָה֙ אֶל־גָּ֣ד הַנָּבִ֔יא חֹזֵ֥ה דָוִ֖ד לֵאמֹֽר׃ (יב) הָל֞וֹךְ וְדִבַּרְתָּ֣ אֶל־דָּוִ֗ד כֹּ֚ה אָמַ֣ר יְהוָ֔ה שָׁלֹ֕שׁ אָנֹכִ֖י נוֹטֵ֣ל עָלֶ֑יךָ בְּחַר־לְךָ֥ אַֽחַת־מֵהֶ֖ם וְאֶֽעֱשֶׂה־לָּֽךְ׃ (יג) וַיָּבֹא־גָ֥ד אֶל־דָּוִ֖ד וַיַּגֶּד־ל֑וֹ וַיֹּ֣אמֶר ל֡וֹ הֲתָב֣וֹא לְךָ֣ שֶֽׁבַע שָׁנִ֣ים ׀ רָעָ֣ב ׀ בְּאַרְצֶ֡ךָ אִם־שְׁלֹשָׁ֣ה חֳ֠דָשִׁים נֻסְךָ֨ לִפְנֵֽי־צָרֶ֜יךָ וְה֣וּא רֹדְפֶ֗ךָ וְאִם־הֱ֠יוֹת שְׁלֹ֨שֶׁת יָמִ֥ים דֶּ֙בֶר֙ בְּאַרְצֶ֔ךָ עַתָּה֙ דַּ֣ע וּרְאֵ֔ה מָה־אָשִׁ֥יב שֹׁלְחִ֖י דָּבָֽר׃ (ס) (יד) וַיֹּ֧אמֶר דָּוִ֛ד אֶל־גָּ֖ד צַר־לִ֣י מְאֹ֑ד נִפְּלָה־נָּ֤א בְיַד־יְהוָה֙ כִּֽי־רַבִּ֣ים רחמו [רַֽחֲמָ֔יו] וּבְיַד־אָדָ֖ם אַל־אֶפֹּֽלָה׃ (טו) וַיִּתֵּ֨ן יְהוָ֥ה דֶּ֙בֶר֙ בְּיִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל מֵהַבֹּ֖קֶר וְעַד־עֵ֣ת מוֹעֵ֑ד וַיָּ֣מָת מִן־הָעָ֗ם מִדָּן֙ וְעַד־בְּאֵ֣ר שֶׁ֔בַע שִׁבְעִ֥ים אֶ֖לֶף אִֽישׁ׃

(1) The anger of the LORD again flared up against Israel; and He incited David against them, saying, “Go and number Israel and Judah.” (2) The king said to Joab, -his army commander, “Make the rounds of all the tribes of Israel, from Dan to Beer-sheba, and take a census of the people, so that I may know the size of the population.” (3) Joab answered the king, “May the LORD your God increase the number of the people a hundredfold, while your own eyes see it! But why should my lord king want this?” (4) However, the king’s command to Joab and to the officers of the army remained firm; and Joab and the officers of the army set out, at the instance of the king, to take a census of the people of Israel. [...] (9) Joab reported to the king the number of the people that had been recorded: in Israel there were 800,000 soldiers ready to draw the sword, and the men of Judah numbered 500,000. (10) But afterward David reproached himself for having numbered the people. And David said to the LORD, “I have sinned grievously in what I have done. Please, O LORD, remit the guilt of Your servant, for I have acted foolishly.” (11) When David rose in the morning, the word of the LORD had come to the prophet Gad, David’s seer: (12) “Go and tell David, ‘Thus said the LORD: I hold three things over you; choose one of them, and I will bring it upon you.’” (13) Gad came to David and told him; he asked, “Shall a seven-year famine come upon you in the land, or shall you be in flight from your adversaries for three months while they pursue you, or shall there be three days of pestilence in your land? Now consider carefully what reply I shall take back to Him who sent me.” (14) David said to Gad, “I am in great distress. Let us fall into the hands of the LORD, for His compassion is great; and let me not fall into the hands of men.” (15) The LORD sent a pestilence upon Israel from morning until the set time; and 70,000 of the people died, from Dan to Beer-sheba.

Alan M. Kraut, “Immigration, Ethnicity, and the Pandemic.”

At times, native-born Americans' fear of disease from abroad became a rationale for an equally great and preexisting prejudice, fear of the foreign-born, or nativism… At the end of the 19th century, tuberculosis was dubbed the “Jewish disease” or the “tailor's disease… Not surprisingly, the Spanish influenza epidemic of 1918 aroused fears of anti-Semitism within the Jewish immigrant community. History had taught Jewish spokespeople that they must at all costs deflect blame for the pandemic away from Jewish immigrants lest they trigger the sort of medicalized anti-Semitism they had left Eastern Europe to escape. At the same time, the health and safety of the people had to be protected by discussing disease prevention in every available public forum... Foreign-born physicians, ethnic community leaders, and the foreign-language press were important mediators between public health officials and immigrants. They labored to diminish fears of the native-born that newcomers might be responsible for the epidemic. Institutions organized by the ethnic groups to which the newcomers belonged provided much-needed assistance to their own and to others during the crisis...The foreign-born needed information and assistance in coping with influenza. Among the two largest immigrant groups, Southern Italians and Eastern European Jews, immigrant physicians, community spokespeople, newspapers, and religious and fraternal groups shouldered the burden. They disseminated public health information to their respective communities in culturally sensitive manners and in the languages the newcomers understood, offering crucial services to immigrants and American public health officials.2

Jacobson v. Massachusetts, 197 U.S. 11 (Justice Harlan, 1905)

Upon the principle of self-defense, of paramount necessity, a community has the right to protect itself against an epidemic of disease which threatens the safety of its members (197, 27).But the liberty secured by the Constitution of the United States to every person within its jurisdiction does not import an absolute right in each person to be, at all times and in all circumstances, wholly freed from restraint. There are manifold restraints to which every person is necessarily subject for the common good. On any other basis, organized society could not exist with safety to its members. Society based on the rule that each one is a law unto himself would soon be confronted with disorder and anarchy. Real liberty for all could not exist under the operation of a principle which recognizes the right of each individual person to use his own, whether in respect of his person or his property, regardless of the injury that may be done to others. This court has more than once recognized it as a fundamental principle that… “Even liberty itself, the greatest of all rights, is not unrestricted license to act according to one's own will. It is only freedom from restraint under conditions essential to the equal enjoyment of the same right by others. It is then liberty regulated by law.”(197, 26).3


  1. Elliot N. Dorff “A Methodology for Jewish Medical Ethics,” in Contemporary Jewish Ethcis and Morality: A Reader, edited by Elliot N. Dorff & Louis E. Newman, 166. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.
  2. Alan M. Kraut, “Immigration, Ethnicity and the pandemic,” Public Health Reports 123 Suppl 3 (2010): 123-33, doi:10.1177/00333549101250S315
  3. Jacobson v. Massachusetts,