Originally published in The Jewish Chronicle.
The members of a certain religious sect refuse to have blood transfusions. As a fundamental tenet of their creed, they maintain that, according to the Bible, blood should not be taken. Where does the Bible imply this prohibition and what is the Jewish position regarding life-saving by blood transfusions?
So far as I know, the sect to which you refer base their theory on the verse: “Only be sure that thou eat not the blood: for the blood is the life; and thou mayest not eat the life with the flesh” (Deuteronomy 12: 23).
The verse means that the blood of an animal that has been slaughtered must not be “eaten”, which is why meat is salted in order to drain off the blood. It does not refer at all to human blood: who but a vampire would dream of imbibing human blood?
Again, the verse speaks of “eating” the blood, not of “taking” it. Blood transfusions do not fall under this heading so that, even where there is no real danger to life, such transfusions are permitted in Jewish law where they are beneficial to health.
In any event, most prohibitions (murder, for instance, is an exception) are set aside, according to Jewish teaching, where it is for the purpose of saving life. This is why, when blood transfusions became possible in modern times, no Jewish teacher ever thought these forbidden by religious law. On the contrary, Judaism considers it meritorious to be a blood donor.
9 July 1971:
In view of the Biblical and Talmudic prohibition against inflicting self-injury, should the rabbinate assist the campaign against smoking?
There is no doubt at all that Judaism frowns on inflicting self-injury and that anything dangerous to life is strictly forbidden. Even where there is doubt whether danger is present the possibility is enough to establish the prohibition. For instance, the reason given in the Talmud for washing the hands after meals is that a certain salt used in those days could have a harmful effect on the eyes if brought into close proximity with them. Similarly, it was forbidden to drink liquid that had been left uncovered in case a snake had injected its venom into it, and this applied even where the risk was remote.
The expression used in the Talmud in this connection is: “Greater care and strictness has to be exercised in avoiding anything dangerous to life than in avoiding things religiously prohibited.” For instance, the principle of probability operates to permit doubtful cases of forbidden food but not to take risks where there is a possible danger to life.
You are right in your implications and I feel guilty about it as I am pretty sure do many of my rabbinic colleagues. A year or two ago there appeared an article on the subject in the journal “Tradition,” published in the USA, in which a powerful plea was made to the rabbinate to do something about the problem.