The Laws of Taking Medicine on Shabbat
Our Sages teach us in Masechet Shabbat that performing any sort of healing, including taking medication to heal any sort of illness, is forbidden on Shabbat. The reason for this prohibition is because the Sages of the Talmud understood that when one was in distress as a result of his own illness or a family member’s, one could possibly transgress Torah law by preparing the medicine, such as grinding herbs and other ingredients (which was common in those times) for the medicine. Our Sages therefore forbade making use of any type of medicine on Shabbat. (Nevertheless, there are situations where one may heal one’s self on Shabbat, as we shall soon discuss.)
Some say that this edict no longer applies nowadays when medicines are not usually home-made. Indeed, Maran Rabbeinu Ovadia Yosef zt”l utilizes this opinion in order to rule leniently in certain situations.
Maran Ha’Bet Yosef (Chapter 328) writes in the name of several Rishonim that it is clear that our Sages prohibited nothing in a life-threatening circumstance, i.e. when there is a concern that one’s illness may bring him to the verge of death. Shabbat must even be desecrated when there is even a doubtful life-threatening circumstance; even if there are several doubts pointing to the fact that the situation is non-life-threatening, Shabbat is nevertheless desecrated if there is even a slight chance that an individual’s illness can prove life-threatening. Even works forbidden by Torah law, such as driving a car and the like, must be performed in a life-threatening circumstance. Our Sages forbade taking medication on Shabbat only for an individual with pain or discomfort who continues to walk around like a healthy person.
Who May Take Medicine on Shabbat?
If one suffers from minor abdominal discomfort on Shabbat, one may not take medicine to alleviate this pain. Similarly, one who suffers from a cold or cough on Shabbat may not take medication to alleviate his symptoms. However, if one’s pain or discomfort is so great that one feels ill all over his body or if one must lay down in bed as a result of the pain, although the individual’s life is not in danger, one may take medicine to relieve his pain, for our Sages did not establish the edict regarding concern for grinding herbs in such a situation. This is certainly true regarding in a life-threatening situation in which case anything necessary to heal the ill individual may be done.
The Law Regarding Children
The edict of our Sages regarding healing on Shabbat does not apply to children under nine years of age. One may therefore give them medicine and the like on Shabbat (see Chazon Ovadia-Shabbat, Part 3, page 361).
Summary: If one is not actually ill and is merely suffering from some aches and pains, such as a stomach ache or a cough, and continues to walk around like a healthy person (as usual), one may not take medication to relieve his symptoms. However, if one becomes so ill that his entire body is in pain or if one must lie down in a bed, one may take medicine to relieve his pain and discomfort. A child under the age of nine may take medicine on Shabbat.
There are many other details pertaining to these laws, such as the law regarding taking antibiotics on Shabbat, as we shall discuss in the following Halacha.