Back on page 53, the rabbis established a rule that healing was forbidden on Shabbat (an exception was made for life-saving measures, of course). The reasoning: producing medicines involves grinding — one of the 39 forbidden Shabbat labors. Indeed, even if a person possessed pre-prepared medicines that did not require grinding on Shabbat, the rabbinic decree forbids healing because of the possible appearance of violating the law.
But not all medicines are ground. And not all therapies are used only for medicinal purposes. For instance, bathing can be a therapy, or a basic activity of personal hygiene, or a luxury. (We have also seen that the rabbis have complicated feelings about bathing on Shabbat.)
Jews have long considered bathing in salt water to have medicinal benefits, for both the body and especially for the eyes. On today’s page, the rabbis ask if it too should be prohibited on Shabbat.
Two fourth-century Amoraim of the Land of Israel, Ravin and Rav Yirmeya, ask this question as they stroll alongside a famously salty body of water, the Dead Sea (or, as the Gemara calls it, “the Sea of Sodom”):
Ravin was walking after Rabbi Yirmeya on the shore of the Sea of Sodom. Ravin said to Rabbi Yirmeya: What is the ruling? Is it permitted to wash oneself with this water on Shabbat, or perhaps it is prohibited because it has healing properties? Rabbi Yirmeya said to him: One may well do so.
Rabbi Yirmeya’s affirmative answer is surprising. Wouldn’t washing with salt water, a therapeutic activity, violate the rabbinic decree against healing on Shabbat?
Rashi explains that Rabbi Yirmeya permits bathing in salt water on Shabbat because it requires no grinding or other preparation — the body of water already exists. And also because onlookers would not necessarily presume that the salt water is being used for healing. It neither violates Shabbat, nor appears to.
Ravin has a follow-up question for Rabbi Yirmeya, this time about the use of salt water to heal and strengthen the eye:
When washing oneself in salt water on Shabbat, may one close and open their eyes in the water so that the water gets inside?
Rabbi Yirmeya said to him: That case I did not hear…
The difference here is likely in the appearance. Unlike the first case of bathing, in which onlookers would not necessarily presume that the salt water is being used for healing, in the case where someone deliberately opened their eyes underwater, it would be obvious to all that their intention is to use the salt water for healing. Consequently, Rabbi Yirmeya believed that this was problematic — even though this particular therapy does not involve grinding or another forbidden labor. Even more curiously, he then proceeds to teach Ravin a variety of rulings about healing the eye with wine or with saliva on Shabbat.
Today, when medicinal pills and syrups are purchased ready-made and rarely require any kind of grinding or other forbidden labor, many rabbis believe that the rabbinic decree against healing on Shabbat no longer applies and, consequently, people can take medicine on Shabbat without fear of what others may think.