June 25, 2020

Shabbat 109

Today we continue the exploration of the rabbinic prohibition on healing on Shabbat. The mishnah on Shabbat 109b informs us that specific herbs that are only consumed for their medicinal properties may not be eaten on Shabbat, while foods that have medicinal properties but are also consumed for their nutritional benefits may be eaten:

‘One may not eat eizoveyon (Greek hyssop) on Shabbat because healthy people do not eat it, and therefore it is clear that anyone eating it is doing so for its medicinal value. However, one may eat a plant called yo’ezer (pennyroyal) and may drink abuvro’e (Eupatorium). Furthermore, all types of food that healthy people eat may be eaten by a person even for medicinal purposes.’

Like yesterday’s daf, which ruled that a person may bathe in salt water on Shabbat even if this is done for medicinal purposes since, as Rashi explained there, “onlookers would not necessarily presume that the salt water is being used for healing,” here too, foods that have medicinal properties but are consumed by some people for their nutritional benefits may be eaten on Shabbat even just for medicinal reasons because, as Rashi explains here, “many people eat these foods even when they are in good health.” Based on this, it is clear that the rabbinic decree against healing on Shabbat was primarily an objection to the appearance of engaging in acts of healing on Shabbat, rather than the act of healing itself.

In light of this debate, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (1895-1986) was asked about the permissibility of taking vitamin supplements on Shabbat, and in his responsum (see Iggrot Moshe, Orach Chaim Vol. 3 No. 54) Rabbi Feinstein addresses what becomes a central question pertaining to this issue: Are vitamin supplements comparable to food such that, notwithstanding their medicinal properties, they may be consumed on Shabbat? Or are vitamin supplements more comparable to medicine and therefore forbidden to be taken on Shabbat?

As part of his exposition Rabbi Feinstein seemingly echoes Rashi by stating that many people take vitamin supplements even when they are in good health while also acknowledging that there are those who take them as part of their daily medicinal therapies. Given this, towards the end of his responsum he writes that: “if vitamin supplements are able to give a person a little more strength in a comparable manner that eating a piece of meat does” then they may be taken, while, “if the vitamins are intended to provide healing, then they should not be taken.”

Contrasting this is the view of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik (1903-1993), who categorized all vitamin supplements as food and consequently ruled that they may be consumed on Shabbat in all instances.

What we learn from here is that how a posek perceives a product, or possibly how a posek understands how their questioners perceive a product, directly impacts on the way they rule on a question.

Nb. a slightly shorter version of this thought was featured today on My Jewish Learning – see https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/shabbat-109/
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