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The Jewish Ethicist: Coughing on the Bus

The Jewish Ethicist: Coughing on the Bus

Flu victims should be careful in public places.


Q. I have the flu, but I have a meeting I just can't miss. Is it wrong for me to ride the bus?

A. Your concern for your fellow passengers is well placed. Flu is a disease which is spread by close contact with other victims, and health authorities have declared that crowded public areas such as schools or public transportation have a high potential for contagion.

We find many passages in the Talmud teaching caution for contagious diseases. One passage refers to a disease called "raatan"; the sages were concerned that it could be spread by an insect or by close contact:

Rebbe Yochanan declared: Be wary of the flies [surrounding] one afflicted with raatan. Rebbe Zeira wouldn't sit on one's wind. Rebbe Elazar wouldn't enter one's tent. (1)

In another passage, we find that when there is a plague in the city a person should try not to venture out, and preferably close his windows.

The Rabbis taught: When there is plague in the city, stay inside, as it is written (Exodus 12:22): And you, let no man go out of the door of his house until morning. . . Rava at the time of a [plague] affliction would close his windows, as it is written (Jeremiah 9:20) "For death has approached our windows". (2)

Later authorities acknowledge that spreading a contagious disease can sometimes be considered a type of damage or tort, which would require anyone having such a disease to exercise proper precaution. (3)

In the case of any kind of risk, there is always the question to what extent the burden is on the source of risk to avoid harm to others and to what extent on the potential victim to protect himself from harm. Indeed, the second chapter of Talmudic tractate Bava Batra is focused on this question. The answer depends largely on the known degree of risk and on convention.

To the best of my knowledge, health authorities have not directed flu victims to avoid public transportation; rather, they are directed to take appropriate precautions: to sneeze or cough only into a garment or mask, to keep the hands clean, and so on.

I think first of all that this is an appropriate balance between the need of flu victims to normal activities and the need to protect potential victims. I also think that public health authorities are the properly constituted bodies to determine the best balance. If they do in the future or in special cases decide the situation warrants sick people staying home, their directives should be respected.

Flu, including the swine flu, is not usually a deadly disease and there is no reason right now to quarantine victims as if they are a major public health risk. On the other hand, any flu and especially the current strain is at the least an annoyance and in many cases a real danger, so contagious individuals should think twice before mingling in public places and should take all reasonable precautions when they do.

SOURCES: (1) Babylonian Talmud Ketubot 77b (2) Babylonian Talmud Bava Kama 60b. See also Vayikra Rabba chapter 16:3. (3) See Responsa Beit Shlomo Choshen Mishpat 126, cited in Pitchei Choshen Damages 5:(28).

Send your queries about ethics in the workplace to

The Jewish Ethicist presents some general principles of Jewish law. For specific questions and direct application, please consult a qualified Rabbi.

November 7, 2009

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Visitor Comments: 5

(5) Mohammad, November 12, 2009 8:15 AM

using own arm and a garment

Couughing and sneezinginto in own arm is a good conduct. Using a garment is a civilized way too. It's amazing and very nice to read anti contagion directives in talmudic and other Jewish old books. G-d bless.

(4) Rachel, November 11, 2009 4:57 PM

Arm vs. Hand

It's hard to remember to cough/sneeze into one's arm. When I was a child, we were told NOT to do that (I think the theory was that it was easier to wash your hands afterward than your arm or your shirt) -- and after a lifetime of covering up with my hand, it's hard to teach this old dog the new trick. And I am pretty zealous about handwashing after sneezing.

(3) hannah, November 11, 2009 2:56 AM


I see people coughing and sneezing into their hands and then they go open a door and all those germs they were trying to contain are all over the doorknob now... and on the people who touch it next!! Pointless. Cough or sneeze INTO YOUR ELBOW/ARM and you can wash your shirt at the end of the day. Thanks for allowing me to write my opinion.

(2) Anonymous, November 10, 2009 11:30 PM

Avoid public contact

In the state agency next to where I work, the directive is to stay home if you have the flu so as not to spread it. People who were just coughing have been sent home.

(1) lisa, November 8, 2009 11:39 PM

G-d Bless You...& please stay home..or take a private car!!!

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