Question: Is it permissible to open the packaging of medication tablets on Shabbat?
Answer: It is common nowadays that many pharmaceutical companies manufacture their medication tablets in a packaging of which one side is made of plastic and the other side is made of foil with the name of the company and medication imprinted on it. In order to remove the tablets, one must tear the foil in which the tablet is encased.
One of the thirty-nine forbidden works on Shabbat (listed in the Mishnah in the seventh chapter of Masechet Shabbat) is “erasing.” Since the name (and company) of the medication is printed on the foil, by tearing the foil, the words printed on it will no longer be legible which constitutes a concern of the forbidden work of “erasing” on Shabbat. We must therefore discuss whether or not it is permissible to tear the foil encasing around the tablets on Shabbat.
Although the act of erasing writing on Shabbat is certainly a Torah prohibition, this only applies when one erases in order to write, for instance, if one erases writing in a notebook which then allows him to once again write on the paper. However, if one is not erasing in order to write, this kind of erasing constitutes only a rabbinic prohibition.
If so, erasing the words on the back of a package of tablets is certainly not considered “erasing in order to write.” Thus, our discussion involves a form of erasing which is only a rabbinic prohibition and there is no concern for a Torah prohibition of erasing whatsoever.
We must now discuss what Maran Rabbeinu zt”l writes in several of his works that when any rabbinic prohibition is being performed on Shabbat, if one does not intend to perform this forbidden work and one does not care about that outcome that ensues as a result of it, there is not prohibition to perform such a work.
For example, if one walks on snow on Shabbat, although one is crushing the snow as he is walking, since crushing snow with one’s feet is only a rabbinic prohibition, one may walk on it on Shabbat, for this walking causes only a rabbinic prohibition the result of which (the crushed snow) one does not care about. This is therefore permissible (see Chazon Ovadia-Shabbat, Part 4, page 171).
The same would apply to tearing the packaging of the medication. Since the one tearing the packaging does not intend to perform the forbidden work of erasing letters and does not care about this outcome whatsoever, it seems that there is room for leniency to tear such packaging on Shabbat so that one may use the pills on Shabbat.
Indeed, the Sefer Shemirat Shabbat Ke’Hilchata (page 519) quotes Hagaon Harav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach zt”l as ruling leniently on this matter and adds that although some Acharonim rule stringently regarding a similar case, in our situation where the pills are meant to heal some sort of illness, there is certainly room to permit doing so.
Nevertheless, one who acts stringently and tears the packaging on Erev Shabbat and prepares the necessary amount of tablets for Shabbat before the onset of Shabbat shall certainly be blessed. This is especially true when the tablets are not meant for an ill individual in which case there is more room to act stringently.
Summary: According to the letter of the law, one may tear the packaging of medication tablets on Shabbat although by doing so, the letters on the back of the packaging are being torn. One who acts stringently and tears the packaging before the onset of Shabbat shall be blessed.