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 explains, “onlookers would not necessarily presume that the salt water is being used for healing,” here too, foods that have medicinal properties but are also consumed by some people for their nutritional benefits may be eaten on Shabbat even just for medicinal reasons because, as Rashi again explains, “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), an American Orthodox rabbi and one of the most respected halachic authorities of his day, was asked about the permissibility of taking vitamin supplements on Shabbat (Iggrot Moshe, Orach Chaim Vol. 3 No. 54). To frame this question in the spirit of the Talmud: are vitamin supplements enough like food that, notwithstanding their medicinal properties, they may be consumed on Shabbat? Or are vitamin supplements more comparable to medicine and therefore forbidden?
As part of his exposition Rabbi Feinstein seemingly echoes Rashi (cited above) by stating that many people take vitamin supplements even when they are in good health, but also acknowledges there are those who take them as part of their daily medicinal therapies. He concludes: “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.”
However, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik (1903-1993), the great Talmudist and leader of Modern Orthodoxy, took a more lenient view. By categorizing all vitamin supplements as food, he ruled that they may be consumed on Shabbat in all instances.