All the Pfizer to heal you with: a vaccine special

As soon as I heard Boris Johnson say, “The United Kingdom has ordered enough doses of the vaccine to vaccinate a third of the population,” I started wondering exactly how he could mess this up despite the wonderful news.

Could he have accidentally had the order sent to his old address? Did he mistakenly order the vaccine that was only compatible with the socket in his old ’phone? Will they all arrive safely stored at -80°C and then he’ll leave them next to the radiator? (Although at least we finally have a use for those 5,000 Brexit fridges5,000 Brexit fridges!)

And then it came to me. This is what will happen with this most significant of orders:

Vax evasion

I was wondering whether the covid sceptics’ brigade would – now that an end to the crisis is in sight – suddenly switch sides and insist that the lockdown continue throughout 2021 just to be as pointlessly contrary as they have been up to this point.

But no, instead we’ve been treated to the usual range of sensible arguments against vaccination such as:

  • “The virus doesn’t exist, and also I’m not having a vaccine because that involves you injecting me with a virus.”
  • “Covid has a 99.9% survival rate – and if it’s so safe then why’s it worth the risk involved in you putting a deadly disease into my body?”
  • “Until this vaccine has been researched for a good 5-10 years, we can’t be sure it doesn’t cause dangerous after-effects that far down the line. So I’d rather get covid instead because we know that’s mild.”
  • “It’s not all about data! My life is more important than data!”

I was very fortunate to be able to interview one of the leaders of the anti-vax movement, over Zoom from his bunker in Arizona, and here’s what he said (well, sang):


In which Bernard Woolley turns in his grave

The government’s chief scientific advisor, Professor Jonathan Van-Tam (pictured), has the rare distinction of a surname that sounds like a drug: ‘Get me 200mg of van-tam in an IV, stat!’

He also gave a press conference on Monday from a breaker’s yard in Ipswich. At that press conference, he was very clear on what the transition from now until a vaccine is ready will be. It will be:

Like getting to the end of the play-off final, it’s gone to penalties, the first player goes up and scores goal. You haven’t won the cup yet, but what it does is it tells you that the goalkeeper can be beaten.

He was also quick to warn, however, that:

We’ve seen the swallow but this is very much not the summer.

And, because this was a slightly obscure comment, he followed it up with the helpful clarification that:

This, to me, is like a train journey where you’re standing on the station – it’s wet, windy, it’s horrible – and two miles down the tracks, two lights appear and it’s the train. And it’s a long way off. We’re at that point at the moment. That’s the efficacy result. Then we hope the train slows down safely to get in to the station. That’s the safety data. And then the train stops. And at that point the doors don’t open. The guard has to make sure it’s safe to open the doors. That’s the regulator. And, when the doors open, I hope there’s not an unholy scramble for the seats.

And then the whole ship goes off the rails…

That helpful list of vaccine analogies in full:

  • A millipede on a skateboard (because it will take a lot of leg-work for it to be rolled out)
  • The Radio Times (because there’s a schedule and it doesn’t happen all at once)
  • A hypothetical haystack (because it entails a lot of needles)
  • Trying for a baby (because it takes multiple doses in order to be effective)
  • Erm…
  • That’s it.


I’ve been very remiss in blogging but you can still find my growing collection of sermons and other Jewishy bits and bobs on the Jewish resources page.

Research credits

So, as the RNA sequence of time is forcibly injected into the resistant sceptic destiny, and as the cold ch ain of fate is breached by the accidental car heater of eternity, it appears to be the end of the blog post.
In this week’s episode, the music was written by Murray Gold and arranged by Stephen Willis. The parcel was mis-delivered by Royal Mail and the vaccine was analogised by Jonathan Van-Tam-200mg. This was an Gabrielquotes production.

This isn’t the first socially-distanced High Holy Days

This is not the first socially-distanced High Holy Days.

In the first third of the 19th century, a massive cholera pandemic swept across the world, killing hundreds of thousands. By the summer of 1831, it reached eastern Europe and ravaged its Jewish communities. The despairing rabbi of Poznań, in Poland, wrote to his teacher to ask for advice. And Rabbi Akiva Eiger (pictured) wrote back:

With regard to prayer in synagogue, in my opinion it is honestly not right to gather in a confined space. But it should be possible to pray in very small groups, 15 people only. They should begin at dawn, then another group, and each person should be given a specific time to come and pray.

And to make sure that more people than this maximum do not push their way in, you should station a police officer to enforce the rules [the first covid marshal?]. Whenever there are already this number inside, this guard must not allow anybody else in until after the existing group has left.

And be careful to stay warm, and everyone should wear clothes of flannel tied tightly around the waist. And do not eat bad food, especially gherkins.

Limiting attendance at Shabbat services, and calling on the secular authorities to help enforce this, was radical enough. (Not to mention imposing a boycott of Mrs Elswood.) But of course, the High Holy Days were just around the corner. Rosh Hashanah that year, 5592, fell on 8 September, and plans had to be made. In a follow-up letter, Rabbi Eiger was clear that social distancing was more important than celebrating the new year in its full glory. He was equally clear, though, that this must be done in the fairest and most inclusive way possible:

In every synagogue, in both the men’s section and the women’s section, it is only permitted to fill half of the seats on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur – so that, next to every occupied seat, the seat adjacent to it should be empty.

Given this, only half of the members will be able to enter the synagogue on these holy days. And given that all the members have an equal right to attend, the half who attend on the two days of Rosh Hashanah should give way to the half who attend on the evening and day of Yom Kippur, and vice versa.

In order to achieve the goal that half of the seats will be empty, and in order to decide who will attend on Rosh Hashanah and who on Yom Kippur, behold, the av beit din will draw lots. All the seats are to be numbered 1 or 2. Anyone who draws a number 1 will attend on Rosh Hashanah, and anyone who draws a number 2 will attend on Yom Kippur.

The synagogue administrators shall take care of printing tickets, in a different shape for each festival. For the maintenance of order, a military guard will be stationed at every entrance to the synagogue. Attendees must show him their tickets. Furthermore, police community support officers [yes really] will take care of order inside the synagogue.

Because those who are not attending synagogue will need to form minyanim in private houses, those organising said minyanim must ensure that the number of participants is limited in the same way, consistent with the area of the venue. Supervision with this directive will be enforced by the health police [again, yes really].

Now, if Rabbi Eiger were around in 2020, he might have drawn the line at using Zoom – or he might have embraced it. Who can tell? Still, enough for us to know that we are not the first generation of Jews struggling to reconcile our communal activities with the demands of a pandemic.

We do what we can to preserve both life and Judaism, trusting in science and in our own creativity. We willingly make a temporary sacrifice of our usual High Holy Day gatherings in the service of God, who brings life and sometimes death.

And in honour of the medico-halachic pioneering of Rabbi Akiva Eiger, we enter the year 5781 in his footsteps – gherkin free.

Shanah tovah.


The two responsa excerpted above were published separately:

  • Igrot Rabbi Akiva Eiger 71 (also appears in Sefer Igrot Sofrim 29)
  • P’sakim v’Takkanot Rabbi Akiva Eiger 20

See also this excellent compendium of halachic responses to pandemics (compiled by Rabbi Professor Abraham Steinberg), and this article by Rabbi Elli Fischer primarily because it has the truly wonderful title Rav in a Time of Cholera.