By Rabbi Yosef Fund
The most recent outbreak of the Zika virus began in April 2015 in Brazil, and subsequently spread to other countries in South America, Central America, and the Caribbean. The virus has been linked to many cases of severe birth defects, including microcephaly and Guillain–Barré syndrome (GBS).
Recently, World Health Organization has declared the Zika virus a Public Health Emergency of International Concern. As many as four million people could be infected by the end of the year. Officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have urged pregnant women against travel to about two dozen countries, mostly in the Caribbean and Latin America, where the outbreak is growing.
Does the Torah allow a person travel to a country which has been infected by the virus? Are there any prohibitions against potentially endangering an unborn child?
Business or Pleasure?
The general rule is that one is permitted to travel to a dangerous country in order to earn a livelihood1 . One may expose themselves to a country with dangerous animals in order to conduct business, but not for a pleasure trip. Some Rabbis go further, by saying that one may expose one’s self tosignificant danger, in order to earn a livelihood 2.
There is a further directive, regarding dangerous travel for business, issued to those who have a very strong faith in Hashem.
The Gemara warns against traveling to a dangerous place. “Always, one ought not stand in a place of danger and say they will perform for me a miracle, since perhaps they will not do for him a miracle, and if they do a miracle for him they lessen his merits.”3 There are Torah sources that state that is it not necessary for a person of strong faith to travel to dangerous places. A person who has full faith in Hashem does not need to go over salty seas or dangerous deserts in order to increase his wealth. It may not even be permitted for him to risk his life and travel these distances, unless he is fleeing persecution. 4
When traveling for pleasure, it may be permitted to place one’s self in mild danger. The Shulchan Aruch discusses a pleasure trip across the ocean or desert 5 which would require the recitation of the blessing of gomel.6 The trip may be risky enough to require the gomel blessing, but it is still permitted to travel this way for recreational purposes. 7
When deciding to travel in countries infected by the Zika virus, one would need to determine if the trip is necessary for business or a pleasure outing, and how significant is the risk.
Protecting the Children
Aside from the question of putting one’s self in danger, is it permitted for a parent to put their child in a situation where they may become ill or otherwise endangered?
This question was discussed among the Rabbis in 16th century Poland, in reference to the dangerous plagues of the time, such as smallpox. The main halachic authority ruled that one ought to flee when there is plague in the city 8. This ruling was applied to any plague or communicable disease which could possibly have a fatal outcome9 . Taking precaution against dangerous diseases falls under the halacha of guarding the body. “But beware and watch yourself very well. 10” It is also an obligation to take care of the body, which serves as a repository for the soul.
Furthermore, the Rabbis warned against the fathers who did not flee the city to protect their children from harm. “Certainly the fathers will be judged on the death of the sucklings who have not sinned, and the weaned who have not erred, who die from this illness, and their fathers were not concerned to flee them11 .”
A Danger to Unborn Children
The Zika virus presents a particular danger to a fetus. What is the halachic responsibility of an expectant mother? How far must she go to protect her unborn child?
The Gemara does issue lifestyle guidelines with lists of foods which are recommended and foods which should be avoided 12. (It is interesting to note that the Esrog is included in the list of recommended foods.) Some commentaries explain that these recommendations are directives for expectant women 13. It is clear that a pregnant woman is directed to act in a way that is beneficial for her future child.
However, there are cases where a pregnant or nursing woman has a craving for foods which may be harmful to her child.
There is a halachic debate regarding a woman who is pregnant or is nursing a baby, whether she is required to deny herself if the food that she craves may have a negative outcome on the child. For example, the Shulchan Aruch discusses a case where a husband sets aside appropriate foods for his wife, who was a nursing mother14 . Meanwhile, the wife was craving the food that was not necessarily healthy for the child. There is a dispute among the Poskim if the husband is allowed to stop his wife from eating those foods, in order to protect the child.
One ruling explains that if a nursing woman eats foods which may affect her milk flow, this is still permitted.15 Since the child could have other forms of nutrition through supplements, the mother does not have to deny herself. Some understand this discussion as applied to a pregnant woman; these Poskim do not require a woman to suffer discomfort in order to protect her unborn child.16
The question remains how this ruling applies to a pleasure trip which may endanger a fetus. The denial of a pleasure trip does not generally create the same discomfort as food deprivation. Still, it stands to reason that a pregnant woman is not halachically required to guard her unborn child to a greater degree than she is responsible to guard her own health.
Nonetheless, it is worthwhile to note that the Gemara does suggest that an expectant woman partake of a diet beneficial to her child. This is written as a suggestion, not a requirement. The same suggestion may apply to travel which has a risk of causing harm to the child.
These Halachos are complex and this article is not intended to provide a definitive ruling. Please consult your Posek for individual rulings: and in this case, relevant health authorities.