Hagaon HaRav Aharon Kotler ZATZAL and Vaccines: A History

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(By Rabbi Yair Hoffman for 5TJT.com)

Those who grew up in the nineteen fifties remember it well. The fear throughout the country was palpable. True, polio epidemics had been in the United States since 1894, but the epidemic was never so virulent. In 1952, there were 57,879 cases.  In that year there were also 3145 deaths from that disease, rachmana litzlan.

And then on March 22, 1953, at 10:45 PM, Dr. Jonas Salk, a Jewish researcher from Brooklyn, announced on a CBS radio program that tremendous progress was being made.  He said that clinical trials were optimistic but that there was still no vaccine available.  Finally, on April 12th, 1955, Salk announced that a safe and effective vaccine was now available. The entire country let out a collective sigh of relief and Dr. Salk became a national hero.

Soon, the U.S. government went into action in regard to the Salk vaccine. On August 12th, The Poliomyelitis Vaccination Assistance Act of 1955 was passed. This established a temporary federal aid program that would help each state carry out mass inoculations with the Salk vaccine. On February 15, 1956 more funding was made available and the free vaccines were also made available to more people.

New Jersey’s then governor, the Honorable Robert Mayner, took New Jersey’s allocation and distributed the vaccine at no charge to as many New Jersey residents as he could.

One institution that received the vaccines was Beth Midrash Gavoha of Lakewood – then located at 617 7th Street at the corner of Forest Avenue. There were about 80 bochurim in the Yeshiva and a fledgling Kollel that numbered about one dozen.

A nurse was dispatched to the Yeshiva to administer the vaccines, paid for by the state of New Jersey.  At the time, there were both questions and dissent. “Is it safe?”  “Should we take this injection?”  There were a number of people that were not supportive of the vaccine. But soon enough, the dissent was rapidly dispelled.

One of the very first people to get the vaccine, was none other than BMG’s own Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Aharon zt”l himself.

“I remember being right outside his office at the time,”  recalled Rav Yaakov Schnaidman, the current Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshiva Beis Moshe in Scranton. “There were a few other bochurim there. Rav Aharon rolled up his sleeve and received the injection. After that, there was just no more dissent.”

Rav Aharon’s office was an outside porch that was covered and glass panes were put up around so everyone could see inside. His office door was always open. Aside from the Bais Medrash there was a room outside and Rav Aharon’s office was adjacent to it.

Rav Yechiel Perr, Shlita, added, “Rav Aharon [zt”l], was very meticulous in listening to doctors. If a doctor instructed him to take his medication every four hours – he would look at his watch and take it every four hours – on the dot.”

In the 1950’s there were approximately 12,000 deaths from Polio and almost a quarter million Polio cases. Taking into account the population of the United States at the time this means that about 1 in 600 people were stricken by it. In the 1960’s, on account of the polio vaccines, In the 1960’s there were less than 2500 cases, and in the entire 1970’s there were only 171 total cases. This was on account of the vaccinations. In the 1980’s there were only 100 cases. In the 1990’s there were 59 cases and in the 2000’s there only two cases.

“The Polio vaccines were essential in virtually eliminating this disease from the country,” remarks Breindy Koschitzki a Nurse Practioner who specializes in Internal Medicine. “Nowadays, his vaccine is the only one in use in this country.”  Rav Aharon Kotler zt”l’s initiative had, Boruch Hashem, set the tone that was necessary to ensure compliance with the vaccination program that saved so many lives.

The author can be reached at yairhoffman2@gmail.com

(YWN World Headquarters – NYC)




16 COMMENTS

  1. Are you really trying to infer what Rav Aharan would say from information he had over 60 years ago versus the information available today?

  2. What’s the point of the story? Many Torah leaders received polio vaccinations during those early years.
    And it’s nice to hear that Reb Aaron was meticulous in listening to doctors, but so are most people. I know I am.
    Sometimes Gedolim stories, assuming they’re true, have a point. Am I missing something?

  3. I heard a quote from rabbi moshe wolfson “those that have bitachon in Hashem follow halacha and listen to doctors.those that think they know better have bitachon only in themselves.”

  4. Not clear what the point is other than Rav Aaron, Ztl, was smart enough to know that he himself was NOT smart enough to decide issues of public health and he should rely upon the doctors and other experts at the time. If his actions and personal endorsements of vaccinations saved lives them, kal v’chomer today yidden should rely upon the advice of medical experts and ignore the tiny minority of any askanim or even rabbonim in the anti-vaxer crowd.

  5. I continue to observe, in utter dismay, how anti-vaxxers and their sympathizers believe they are pushing a religious agenda. To date, there has never been any reputable posek that paskened to not vaccinate. Quite to the contrary, the greatest and most reputable poskim have stated clearly to follow the government’s public health requirements.

    There have always been conspiracy theorists that like such positions as the Bush-Mossad destroying the WTC on 9/11, the world being flat, various theories about the Kennedy assassination, theatric staging of the moon landing, and many others. In today’s age, it is popular to brand entire industries as conspiratory, such as tobacco, big oil, and others. So the anti-vaxx movement has its precedents in seeing the Big Pharm as the monster that bought off the government and nearly entire medical and allied science fields. But if one were to build life on such foundation, life would be utter chaos, while odd and trivial matters would provide reason to trust or distrust virtually everyone.

    Whatever this anti-vaxx business is, it ain’t anywhere close to a psak halacha to not vaccinate. How this gets rebranded as a “religious exemption” is completely nonsensical. And how anyone can justify putting others at risk is undoubtedly never justifiable according to Torah.

  6. My grandfather a”h contracted polio a century ago, when he was 10 years old. Polio so twisted his spine, that it turned a normal, healthy child into a hunchbacked dwarf. What my great-grandparents would have given for a vaccine!

    Our generation doesn’t remember the incredible damage done by contagious diseases in the past. Hashem sent us vaccines as a matanah. To turn our back upon them, is worse than insanity – it’s a lack of hakaras hatov, and so is utter rishus.

  7. Times have changed we have information today that was not always available back then.

    IN 1952 there was over 57,000 cases of polio in the U.S.
    In 1955 there was a little under 29,000 cases.
    CAN SOMEONE PLEASE CHECK THE NUMBERS

    LIke any disease there are years when it spreads more and years when it is in decline. Polio is not different!
    For anyone that cared to look at some real data before commenting. The disease was in decline 3 years before the vaccine was introduced to the market!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    EDITOR’S NOTE: YES IT WAS IN DECLINE, BUT IT WAS STILL WELL ABOVE 13,000 CASES. IN 1937 IT WAS 10,0000, IN 1941 IT WAS 10,000. AFTER THE INTRODUCTION OF THE VACCINE ONLY A HANDFUL OF CASES EMERGED. READERS ARE URGED TO LOOK AT THE CHARTS FROM 1937. THE NUMBERS WERE HUGE. AFTER THE VACCINE THE NUMBERS WERE MINISCULE – 5 OR 10 A YEAR. “ANTI-VAX THINKING” HAS CAUSED UNTOLD SUFFERING AND CHILLUL HASHEM.

    If anyone wants to invent a vaccine for the black Death and claim the credit the door is still open (but not for long soon the vacc companies will create a vaccine for it and at it to the list of junk they inject in our kids) WE MUST NOT DENY HAKARAS HATOV TO COMPANIES THAT CREATE LIFE SAVING MEDICATIONS AND VACCINES.

  8. techeles, there is no such thing as a vaccine for a bacteria. Just cleanliness and removing the rats that carry it from being around humans. Viruses, on the other hand, can be handled by the white blood cells.

    I can’t believe Gadolhadorah said something with a little seichel…..

  9. “I can’t believe Gadolhadorah said something with a little seichel…..”
    Saying that a gedol hador “wasn’t smart?” Yeah, seems like classic Gadolhadorah kefira to me.

    For those wondering, the reason for the article is that Rav Kotler’s son is popularly used as a rayah for anti-vaxxers. The article is implying heavily that he does not represent his dad’s view.