Medicine on Shabbos
BY: Rabbi Gil Student
Medical technology has changed so dramatically over the past century that we can barely imagine the
healing process of past years. Presumably, Jewish law should reflect that change, relating to current
medicine rather than that of the past. In particular, the prohibition against taking medicine on Shabbos
(absent pressing need) seems ripe for reevaluation. While Halachah is not changing, the appropriate rule
for the different circumstances must be invoked.
We are forbidden to take medicine on Shabbos out of a concern that we might grind, which is biblically
prohibited (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 328:1). However, medicine today is manufactured commercially and/or mixed at a pharmacy. We do not grind our own medicines. Does this prohibition still stand? To be clear, someone with a serious need for medication may certainly take it on Shabbos.
However, sometimes you just have a minor headache or need a little ointment or some other minor
medical need that is not pressing. In ancient times, you might have ground yourself some herbs to relieve your pain. Must we retain this outdated concern?
Rav Avraham Chaim Na’eh (Ketzos Ha-Shulchan 134 n. 7.2) considers the above logic to permit taking
medicine in pill form on Shabbos. Since the rabbinic concern for grinding no longer exists, perhaps the
prohibition no longer applies. He bases his argument on the Rema (Orach Chaim 339:3) who, quoting
Tosafos (Beitzah 30a sv. tenan), permits clapping on Shabbos because we are no longer concerned that
this might lead to fixing a musical instrument. Once the reason for the rabbinic decree ceases, the
prohibition falls aside. However, because there are still some people somewhere in the world who grind
herbal medicine (at the time of his writing and still today), Rav Na’eh was not willing to rule leniently.
This general approach is very difficult because the view of the Rema and Tosafos seems to contradict
explicit Talmudic passages. While resolutions have been proposed, none are particularly satisfying. As
Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik is quoted as saying (Nefesh Ha-Rav, p. 173), we don’t understand the initial
permission so how can we expand it to other cases? For this reason, most later authorities reject Rav
Na’eh’s permissive theoretical view.
Rav Eliezer Waldenberg (Tzitz Eliezer vol. 8 15:15) takes a different path toward leniency. He argues that
two general approaches exist to the prohibition against (non-essential) healing on Shabbos. Rashi
(Shabbos 53b sv. gezeirah) believes that the Sages enacted a general prohibition against any type of
healing on Shabbos. While the underlying concern was grinding on Shabbos, the prohibition itself is not
directly related. We see this in a number of cases, such as the permission to place a plaster on your eyes
on Shabbos, which would be forbidden because of healing except that it looks like cleaning your eyes
(Rashi, Shabbos 108b sv. ve-nosein). And similarly, Rashi (Shabbos 111a sv. aval) explains that you may
not anoint with rose oil because you are clearly doing it solely for medical purposes. None of these
examples involve a concern for grinding medicine but are still forbidden because of the general
On the other hand, Rambam (Mishneh Torah, Hilchos Shabbos 21:31) permits certain acts of healing,
implying that the prohibition was specifically against taking medicine to treat an illness that is generally
healed with privately ground medicine. Even if you do not grind the medicine, taking it is forbidden because grinding is generally involved in treatment.
According to Rashi and those who agree with him, the change in medical technology does not undermine the general prohibition of the Sages. While they may not have enacted such a prohibition today, their ancient enactment remains in force. However, according to the Rambam, this enactment is specifically about grinding medicine on Shabbos that you normally grind during the week. Since we do not personally grind medicine anymore, the prohibition should no longer apply.
Significantly, the Shulchan Aruch (ibid.) adopts the Rambam’s approach. If we follow this view, then today when we do not normally grind medicine for any illness, we may presumably freely take medicine on Shabbos. However, Rav Waldenberg is cautious because some people do grind homemade remedies
and because there are other interpretations of the Rambam’s position. He therefore decides to be as lenient as possible in specific cases without being entirely permissive in general.
Similarly, Rav Ovadiah Yosef (Yalkut Yosef 328:52) finds Rav Na’eh’s reasoning convincing, but without
dismissing the prohibition, allows for great leniency. For example, he permits someone accustomed to
swallowing pills to take medicine to relieve pain. Rav Eliezer Melamed (Peninei Halachah, Shabbos 28:5
and in harchavos) also allows taking medicine when suffering from minor pains, because of the lenient
However, other authorities dispute Rav Waldenberg’s conclusion, which is based on his original
interpretation of the Rambam. As mentioned above, Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik opposed leniency on this
subject. Similarly, Rav Moshe Feinstein (Iggeros Moshe, Orach Chaim 3:53) forbids taking pills on
Shabbos. Rav Yehoshua Neuwirth (Shemiras Shabbos Ke-Hilchasah 34:3), Dr. Avraham S. Avraham (Nishmas Avraham, Orach Chaim 328:5) and Rav Avigdor Nebenzahl (Yerushalayim Be-Mo’adeha,
Shabbos, vol. 2 p. 361) also maintain the Talmudic prohibition against taking medicine.