Medications on Shabbos - Part 1
Courtesy of Ohr Olam Mishnah Berurah
One of several rabbinic decrees that our Sages enacted to guard the sanctity of Shabbos concerns the use of medications. In the opinion and experience of the Rabbis, easy access to medicine could lead to the transgression of certain Shabbos labors. While issuing the decree, however, the Rabbis were bound by the halachic principle of being as lenient as possible with those suffering pain or distress. Thus, they established guidelines for determining when it is permitted to take medication on Shabbos and when it is not. Towards the end of this discussion, we will list many common conditions which normally require medication and how they are dealt with on Shabbos.
Explanation of the rabbinic prohibition
To determine when one can take medicine on Shabbos for non-life-threatening conditions, we must focus on two separate halachic considerations. First, we must ascertain that none of the thirty-nine Shabbos labors is being transgressed in any way, either Biblical or rabbinic. For instance, we cannot prepare medication by either grinding raw material or mixing it; we cannot drive to a drug store to buy medication; we cannot put on a light to see where medication was stored, and so on. These actions are Biblically forbidden on Shabbos, and they may not be overridden for the sake of taking medication for non-life-threatening situations.
However, the prohibition against using medication on Shabbos is also governed by a rabbinic decree against using medication on Shabbos even when no forbidden Shabbos labor is performed. The Rabbis prohibited unrestricted use of medication on Shabbos for fear that it would lead to the violation of one of the thirty-nine Shabbos labors. The labor which concerned the Rabbis most was grinding, since grinding some substance is a prerequisite for almost every medicinal preparation.72
Once the Rabbis prohibited using medicine on Shabbos, they included in this prohibition any kind of treatment or procedure which could involve the use of medicine–even if medicine was not actually being used. The classic example in the Shulchan Aruch is the prohibition against the old-time remedy of sweating for medicinal purposes.73 Sweating can be induced in one of two ways: 1) by taking certain medicines which are prepared by grinding, and 2) by performing certain types of exercises. Even though exercise is totally unrelated to taking medicine and cannot possibly lead to grinding, it is still forbidden to induce sweating through exercise on Shabbos74 since one could also induce sweating by the first method – taking certain medicines which are prepared by grinding.75
If, however, the goal of the treatment or procedure can only be achieved without the use of medicine, then it is permitted to avail oneself of that treatment or procedure. For example, it is permitted to press on a bump with a knife, since the goal, which is to reduce or prevent swelling, cannot be achieved by taking medicine76. Similarly, braces may be worn on Shabbos because there is no medicine for aligning teeth properly77.
Included in the rabbinic prohibition are only actions which heal a wound or alleviate pain. If the action merely serves to protect a wound from infection78 or to shield a healed wound from being re-injured,79 it is allowed. It is permitted, therefore, to clean and bandage a wound or to pour hydrogen peroxide over it.
The rabbinic prohibition includes medications only. Food and drink, however, are permitted even when they are being consumed for medicinal purposes. It is permitted, therefore, to drink tea for a sore throat, to eat almonds to relieve heartburn and to chew vitamins which serve as a food supplement.80
72. Mishnah Berurah 327:1.
73. O.C. 328:42 and Beiur Halachah, s.v. kedei.
74. If the purpose of the exercise is to work up an appetite, it is questionable if it is permitted; see Sha’ar ha-Tziyun 301:9. If the exercise is for pure enjoyment, it may be permitted according to the basic halachah, although it may be considered uvda d’chol, “a weekday activity”; see Shulchan Shelomo 328, note 110, and Chut Shani, vol. 4. 89:52. Physical therapy, when necessary, is permitted; Shulchan Shelomo, 328:66-2; Ohr l’Tziyon 2:36-12.
75. Mishnah Berurah 328:130.
76. Mishnah Berurah 328:144
77. Rav S.Z. Auerbach (Shemiras Shabbos K’hilchasah 34, note 113).
78. O.C. 328:23, as explained by Rav S.Z. Auerbach (Shemiras Shabbos K’hilchasah 35, note 20). [See Tzitz Eliezer 11:37, who permits drinking certain oils (like castor oil) to aid in the elimination process.]
79. O.C. 328:27. See Igros Moshe, O.C. 3:54.
80. Note, however, that the purpose of many vitamins is not to serve as a food supplement but rather to strengthen a weak body or to relieve certain symptoms. In the opinion of many poskim, those vitamins may not be taken on Shabbos; see discussion in Igros Moshe, O.C. 3:54, Minchas Shelomo 2:37, Shemiras Shabbos K’hilchasah 34, note 86, quoting Rav S.Z. Auerbach, Ashrei ha-Ish 36:29 and Minchas Asher 2:38-2-3; 3:23. See, however, Tzitz Eliezer 14:50, who takes a more lenient approach concerning vitamins on Shabbos.