Taking Medicine on Shabbat - Part II by Rabbi Chaim Jachter



This week we will conclude our discussion of the rabbinical prohibition against taking medicine on Shabbat.  We will discuss a variety of issues, including taking sleeping pills, birth control pills, antacids, and allergy medication, as well as exercising.

Sleeping Pills — Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach vs. Rav Eliezer Waldenberg

Rav Eliezer Waldenberg (Teshuvot Tzitz Eliezer 9:17:2:40) rules that sleeping pills are considered medicine, and one may not take them on Shabbat.  Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (cited in the aforementioned Teshuvot Tzitz Eliezer) disagrees and argues that sleeping pills are not considered medicine, as they do not treat an illness.  Rav Yehoshua Neuwirth (Shemirat Shabbat Kehilchata 33:16) adopts a compromise position.  He rules that one may take sleeping pills in a case where one is “considerably uncomfortable” (מצטער הרבה).  Rav Neuwirth considers Rav Waldenberg’s strict approach and permits following Rav Shlomo Zalman’s suggestion only in combination with another lenient consideration.  Since some authorities (see sources cited in Shemirat Shabbat Kehilchata 34:note 4) permit taking medicine in any case when one is considerably uncomfortable, Rav Neuwirth believes that one may rely on Rav Shlomo Zalman’s suggestion in this situation 

Rav Shlomo Zalman (cited ibid. note 82) suggests a similar approach to permit taking birth control pills on Shabbat.  He suggests that birth control pills (when permitted by competent rabbinical authority) are not medicine.  He suggests that only something that relieves pain or relieves one who feels weak is classified as medicine.  Of course, this suggestion does not apply to one who takes birth control pills for therapeutic purposes.  We should note that although Rav Moshe Feinstein (Teshuvot Igrot Moshe Even Haezer 4:67) rules that a woman may take birth control pills on Shabbat, he does not offer a reason for this ruling.

Allergy Medication and Antacids

Rav Shlomo Zalman (cited in Shemirat Shabbat Kehilchata 34:note 52) rules that there is room to be lenient when there is concern of preserving human dignity, כבוד הבריות, such as when one has a severe “runny nose.”  Chazal waive rabbinical prohibitions to preserve human dignity (Berachot 19b).  Perhaps this lenient ruling extends to taking allergy medication if the pollen count is quite high or to taking an antacid to avoid embarrassment.  One should ask his Rav for a ruling on this matter.

Taking Medicine Over a Period of Time

Shemirat Shabbat Kehilchata (34:note 76) cites Rav Shlomo Kluger and the Chazon Ish who permit taking medicine on Shabbat if it is part of a routine that was established before Shabbat.  Rabbi Yosef Adler cites Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik who reported that Rav Chaim Soloveitchik adopts the same approach.  For example, if someone is taking antibiotics for ten days, he may take the antibiotics on Shabbat as well.  A reason to be lenient in this situation is that the concern that one may grind medicine on Shabbat is moot, as one usually obtains the medicine before Shabbat if he knows that he must take this medicine for a specific period of time.  Rav Moshe Feinstein (Teshuvot Igrot Moshe Orach Chaim 3:53), Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (cited in Shemirat Shabbat Kehilchata 34:note 76), and Rav Eliezer Waldenberg (Teshuvot Tzitz Eliezer 8:15:15:15) express serious reservations about this lenient approach.  One should ask his Rav for guidance on this question.


Rav Eliezer Waldenberg (Teshuvot Tzitz Eliezer 9:172:40) indicates that the decree that forbids taking medicine on Shabbat does not apply to children.  He does not offer a reason, but one may suggest the following: We noted last week that the prohibition to take medicine applies only to one who is suffering mild discomfort but not to a sick individual.  The Rama (O.C. 276:1 and 328:17) rules that a child has the status of a sick person.  This might be the basis to rule that the prohibition against taking medicine on Shabbat does not apply to children (see, however, Shulchan Aruch 328:42).  We should note that contemporary authorities debate the definition of a child for this purpose.  The opinions range from age three to age nine.  For a summary of opinions, see Nishmat Avraham 1:197.

Yom Tov Sheini Shel Galuyot

The Halachot of Yom Tov Sheni are almost identical to those of the first day of Yom Tov.  Chazal were concerned that Yom Tov Sheini would not be treated seriously.  Although Yom Tov Sheini was instituted merely because of doubt of the proper date of the Yom Tov, we recite the Berachot on the Mitzvot we perform on Yom Tov Sheini (such as the second Seder) to preserve the dignity of the day (Rambam Hilchot Chanukah 3:5, and see comments of Rav Yitzchak Zev Soloveitchik).  Nevertheless, the rabbinical decree against taking medicine on Shabbat does not apply on Yom Tov Sheini (Shulchan Aruch 496:2 and Mishna Berura 496:5). 

Exercise and Physical Therapy

The Mishna (Shabbat 157a) writes "אין מתעמלין" on Shabbat.  Rashi (s.v. Aval Lo) explains this to mean that one may not rub his body with force on Shabbat.  Rashi asserts that this is forbidden (rabbinically) because it is an עובדא דחול, a weekday activity that is inappropriate for Shabbat.  Rabbeinu Channanel explains that the Mishna refers to the practice of folding and unfolding one’s limbs.  He asserts that this is part of the rabbinical decree forbidding medicine on Shabbat.  The activities described by Rashi and Rabbeinu Channanel parallel the contemporary activities of massage and physical therapy.

The Shulchan Aruch (O.C. 328:42) rules that one should not press on his body with enough force that it will cause him to sweat.  The Mishna Berura (328:130) explains that this is part of the rabbinical decree forbidding the taking of medicine on Shabbat.  The Mishna Berura (301:7) forbids jogging on Shabbat for this reason.  He even cites authorities that forbid one from taking walks on Shabbat if his intention is to stay healthy and the walk is not merely for pleasure.  “Speed walking” for exercise is undoubtedly forbidden on Shabbat.

Rav David Zvi Hoffman (Teshuvot Melamed L’Hoil 1:53), Rav Eliezer Waldenberg (Teshuvot Tzitz Eliezer 6:4), and Rav Gedalia Felder (Yesodei Yeshurun 4:297-299) forbid exercising on Shabbat based on this Halacha.  Shemirat Shabbat Kehilchata (34:23) forbids physical therapy on Shabbat unless the individual is Halachically defined as a sick person.  Rav Neuwirth (ibid. 22) permits one to engage in light hand exercises to alleviate pain.  He notes that Chazal prohibit “pressing with force,” thus light exercises are, by implication, permitted.  Similarly, it seems that lightly rubbing one's temples to alleviate a headache is permitted.


The rabbinical prohibition seems to be incongruous with the Mitzva of enjoying Shabbat.  Nevertheless, we are obligated to adhere to the Halachic discipline.  In addition, this prohibition might have important implications for what some claim is our overmedicated society.  One should consult his Rav for guidance regarding the many unresolved issues in this area of Halacha.

For those readers who have been enjoying the Halacha articles in Kol Torah, Rabbi Jachter (together with TABC alumnus Ezra Frazer) is in the final stages of preparing a select compilation of these articles in book form.  Anyone interested in sponsoring publication of this volume should please contact Rabbi Jachter at (201) 837-1929.

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