Question: Can I take pills on Shabbos that my doctor prescribed for me? I am diabetic, so skipping a day’s dosage might prove harmful.
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Answer: The Talmud (Shabbos 140a) speaks about a medicinal remedy for asthma that needs to be dissolved in warm water. R. Acha b. Yosef, who suffered from asthma, went to Mar Ukva for counsel. He advised him to drink three weights of hilith on three consecutive days. He then prepared it and drank it on Thursday and Friday. Realizing that the next day was Shabbat, he went to a beth hamedrash to find out what to do.
He was told either in the name of the school of R. Adda or the school of Mar the son of R. Adda the following: “One may drink a kab or [even] two kabs without fear [of transgressing the Shabbat].”
R. Acha replied that he wasn’t worried about drinking the medicine. He was worried about dissolving it. He was directed to R. Chiya b. Abin, who answered in the name of Rab: “He may dissolve it in cold water and place it in the sun [to heat it].”
R. Acha asked: “Is this ruling only in accord with the view that one may dissolve or even according to [the more stringent] view that one may not?”
He was told that the ruling accords even with the stringent view, and since he began to drink the medicine on Thursday and Friday, he could drink it as well on Shabbat since not doing so would be dangerous. The obvious implication of this passage in the Gemara is that one should not take medicine if no danger is involved.
HaRav Yosef Shalom Eliyashiv, zt”l (Kovetz Teshuvot, Siman 40, cited in the name of Rav Shlomo Kluger; Sefer HaChayim, 328:10), noted this Talmudic passage concerns with a case where some preparation is necessary for the medicine to be effective. In such a case, preparing and taking the medicine is permitted only if not taking it would be dangerous.
But taking pills on Shabbat is a different matter. In today’s day and age, a patient need not do anything to pills before swallowing them. (The only concern is the general gezerah against taking medicine due to the apprehension that one may grind the ingredients to make it.) Since the patient is not doing any prohibited action to the medicine itself, coupled with the fact that he commenced his new drug regimen during the week, there is every reason to permit him to continue taking the medicine on Shabbat.
Now, that is not to say that there aren’t more stringent views on this matter (see HaRav Joseph B. Soloveitchik, zt”l, Nefesh HaRav, p.173), but both Rav Yehoshua Neuwirth in his Shemirat Shabbat KeHilchatah (ch. 34 n. 76) and the Piskei Teshuvot (328, n. 100), cite the Minchat Shabbat (commentary on the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch, 91:9) quoting the Sefer HaChayim of HaRav Shlomo Kluger, that if a person started taking medicine before Shabbat that isn’t prepared by grinding, he can continue taking it on Shabbat.
Rav Neuwirth notes that the Chazon Ish, quoted in the Imrei Yosher (Mo’ed 99), also ruled in this manner. He also quotes the Shenot Chayim (also by Rav Shlomo Kluger) to this effect.
It is thus obvious we are lenient regarding matters relating to one’s health.