Question: Is there an obligation to follow doctors’ instructions and seek medical treatment in case of illness, or is one permitted to just trust in Hashem and avoid doctors and medicine altogether, especially since it is well-known that certain Chassidic works say not to go to doctors?
Answer: In the previous Halacha we have mentioned the words of the Ramban in his work, Milchemet Hashem, that if one suffers from a life-threating condition and needs Shabbat to be desecrated on his behalf and he acts stringently by telling people not to desecrate the Shabbat for him, this is tantamount to suicide as this can indeed lead to his demise.
The Rambam writes in his commentary on the Mishnah (end of Chapter 4 of Masechet Pesachim) that if an ill person does not try to heal himself in a natural, medical way and instead chooses to rely on a miracle, he will end up dying from his illness, which may not have been decreed on him when he initially became ill. He writes that this is comparable to one who walks into a fiery blaze, where surely the fire will consume him and he will die an untimely death. These are clear concepts which only foolish and stubborn people would deny.
We see clearly from his words that one may not say that he relies solely on Hashem and will avoid doctors and medicine, for Hashem has indeed decreed at the time that He had given doctors the permission to heal that sometimes, man will fall ill and his healing shall be in the hands of another person who shall heal him in natural, medical methods.
This that is quoted in the name of Harav Nachman of Breslov that one should not go to doctors, it may be that this only applied to the doctors of the days of yore who, in certain places, would practice all sorts of pagan and ritualistic medicine, and he did not want to rely upon them. Additionally, what he meant was that one should not place all of his trust in doctors, rather in Hashem, and only to seek assistance from doctors when necessary just as he himself sought medical help from doctors when he was ill; unfortunately, they were unable to cure him.
The Radbaz writes that according to all opinions, if doctors have examined a patient who is suffering from a life-threatening condition and determined that Shabbat must be desecrated in order to heal him and he refuses due to a measure of “piety,” this person is a pious fool and he is not acting piously at all. Furthermore, Hashem will hold him accountable for his own blood, as the Torah states, “And [man shall] live through them,” and not die through them, for Shabbat is even desecrated in a case that there is only a doubt of danger to one’s life and certainly if doctors state unequivocally that a clear life-threatening situation is present.
Similarly, regarding anything that depends on doctors, we rely on their opinion, whether it relates to Shabbat desecration, operations (which entail actual life-threatening experiences), or eating on Yom Kippur. Even if none of the doctors are Torah and Mitzvah observant, we have no choice but to rely on them, for their opinion raises a doubt of a life-threatening situation at the very least, and even when in doubt about a life-threatening situation, the Shabbat is desecrated.
There was once an incident regarding a certain great Torah scholar who had merited learning under Maran Harav Shlit”a approximately sixty years ago in Egypt. When this scholar aged, he became quite ill but he refuse to go to the hospital and seek medical advice from doctors about what should be done next. When we related this to Maran Harav Shlit”a, he immediately picked up the telephone and called this student of his and told him, “With all due respect, the Radbaz says that whoever acts this way is considered a pious fool, and I command you to immediately admit yourself to the hospital so that they may find a cure for your illness.”
This student did indeed heed the words of Maran Harav Shlit”a and made his way to the hospital where he was immediately admitted to undergo emergency surgery on his digestive tract. When the student heard this, he immediately ran away from the hospital. When Maran Shlit”a heard about this, he once again troubled himself to convince his student to return to the hospital and he blessed him that no harm will befall him, until the student acquiesced. The operation was performed successfully, and this student has indeed merited living many long and healthy years, until this very day.
Nevertheless, we must stress that desecration of Shabbat is only permitted in life-threatening instances, however, one may not desecrate Shabbat even for a great mundane purpose such as to notify someone about the fact that his wife has given birth or, G-d forbid, that a relative has passed away; in these kinds of situations one may not be lenient and use the telephone to relay such messages on Shabbat. One who does so transgresses the prohibition of Shabbat desecration so long as there is no life on the line.