One of several rabbinic decrees that our Sages enacted in order 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 is allowed to take medicine on Shabbos for
non-life-threatening conditions, we must focus on two separate halachic
considerations. First of all, 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 buy medication at a drug store; we cannot
put on a light to see where medication was stored, and so on. In this
regard–in determining that there is no transgression of the thirty-nine
forbidden Shabbos Labors–there is no difference between this Shabbos
prohibition and any other.
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.
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. 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 Shabbos since one
could also induce sweating by the first method–taking certain medicines
which are prepared by grinding.
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 medicine. Similarly, braces may be worn on Shabbos
because there is no medicine for aligning teeth properly.
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
infection or to shield a healed wound from being re-injured, 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.
Question: Why did the Rabbis suspend the prohibition against taking medicine
when one feels weak all over or bad enough to lie down?
Discussion: The Rabbis suspended many of their decrees for a person who can
be classified as “ill,” even if not dangerously so. Thus, for example, it is
permitted to instruct a non-Jew to do anything which an ill patient may
require on Shabbos, since instructing a non-Jew is a rabbinic prohibition.
Since taking medication on Shabbos is a rabbinic prohibition, it is
suspended when the patient can be classified as “ill.” The poskim agree that
when one has fever, feels weak all over or feels bad enough to require bed
rest, he can be classified as a “patient not dangerously ill” and he is
permitted to take medications.
Since “requiring bed rest” and “weak all over” are subjective terms, it is
up to each individual to determine his personal pain threshold.
Consequently, one who feels that he must lie in bed for his condition may
take medication on Shabbos even though other people in the “same” condition
would not go to bed. There is no requirement to be overly stringent when
judging the degree of illness.
In addition, healthy infants and babies until the age of three (and
according to some poskim even older children till the age of six or
nine ) are also halachically classified as “patients not dangerously
ill,” which means that the rabbinical prohibition against taking medication
is suspended. They are permitted to take all forms of medicine,
provided that no Biblical prohibitions are transgressed.
Question: Nowadays, when medicine is always prepared at a pharmacy, there is
no longer any fear that using medicine will lead to Grinding. Why, then, is
this rabbinic prohibition still in effect?
Discussion: Although contemporary poskim debate whether nowadays we can be
more lenient with taking medication on Shabbos because of the change in
technique, the general consensus is to reject this argument. Some of
the reasons offered are as follows:
Generally, a rabbinic decree, once enacted, is not repealed even when
the reason behind it no longer applies.
There are several homeopathic remedies, such as natural herbs and
spices, which are still prepared at home and require grinding. In fact,
these types of medications are gaining popularity.
In underdeveloped countries, people have never stopped preparing
medicines in their own homes.
Some modern-day medication may lead to other Biblical Labors, such as
Smoothing, Kneading, Cooking or Carrying.
In spite of the above, there are some poskim who feel that nowadays we can
be somewhat more lenient when interpreting the rabbinic decree. Although all
the poskim agree that we may not do away with the rabbinic decree
altogether, we may, nevertheless, find some room for leniency in case of
severe distress or pain (even if the pain is localized and does not require
Note: Although one who is not classified as “ill” may not begin taking
medicine on Shabbos, still, one who requires daily medication for an ongoing
condition may continue doing so on Shabbos as well. Some poskim go even
further and permit continuing taking medicine on Shabbos, even of the
patient is not medically required to take the medicine on a daily basis.
1. Mishnah Berurah 327:1.
2. O.C. 328:42 and Beiur Halachah, s.v. kedei.
3. 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 Shlomo 328, note 110, and Chut Shani, vol. 4. 89:2. Physical
therapy is also permitted; Shulchan Shlomo, 328:66-2; Ohr l’Tziyon 2:36-12.
4. Mishnah Berurah 328:130.
5. 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.]
6. O.C. 328:27. See Igros Moshe, O.C. 3:54.
7. 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 Igros Moshe, O.C. 3:54, Minchas Shlomo 2:37 and Shemiras
Shabbos K’hilchasah 34, note 86, quoting Rav S.Z. Auerbach. See, however,
Tzitz Eliezer 14:50, who takes a more lenient approach concerning vitamins
8. Entire paragraph based on O.C. 328:17 and 37 and Mishnah Berurah, ibid.
[Note that although Shulchan Aruch rules that a shinui is required for
rabbinic prohibitions to be suspended, the general consensus of the poskim
is that this restriction is waived when taking oral medication. When using
other medications, however (such as ointment), it is proper to employ a
shinui; see Mishnah Berurah 328:85 and 130.]
9. See Tzitz Eliezer 14:50-7 and 17:13.
10. Chazon Ish, O.C. 59:3, Rav S.Z. Auerbach in Nishmas Avraham 328:54,
and Rav Y.S. Elyashiv in Eis Laledes, pg. 57, quote the age of 2-3.
11. Tzitz Eliezer 8:15-12.
12. Minchas Yitzchak 1:78. In the final analysis, it all depends on the
strength and maturity of the child.
13. Rama, O.C. 328:17. Note, however, that not all of a baby’s needs are
exempt from the prohibition against medication; see, for instance, Mishnah
Berurah 328:131. See Tehillah l’David 328:24 and Minchas Yitzchak 4:124 who
deal with this difficulty.
14. The complex preparation that manufacturing modern medicine entails is
another reason for leniency, since it may be argued that the Rabbis were
fearful that “simple” and quick Labors such as Grinding would be
transgressed; they did not fear that someone would engage in the lengthy and
involved processing required today.
15. See Igros Moshe, O.C. 2:100 for a general explanation of this rule.
16. See Minchas Shabbos 91:9; Ketzos ha-Shulchan 134:7; Chelkas Yaakov
4:41; and Tzitz Eliezer 8:15-15. See also Minchas Yitzchak 3:35, who permits
taking aspirin for a headache when one is in severe distress.
17. Chazon Ish (oral ruling, quoted in Imrei Yosher on Moed 97); Rav S.Z.
Auerbach (Shemiras Shabbos K’hilchasah 34, note 76). See a dissenting
opinion in Igros Moshe, O.C. 3:53.
18. Rav S. Kluger (Sefer ha-Chayim 328:10 and Shenos Chayim 1:152);
Minchas Shabbos 91:9; Tzitz Eliezer 8:15-15:15; Rav Y.S. Elyashiv (Koveitz
Teshuvos, O.C. 1:40, and oral ruling, quoted in Refuas Yisrael, pg. 14).