Twenty-first century medical technology has a pill for nearly every illness and ache. Even those who prefer alternative medicines often purchase their cures in liquid or pill form. Most people today have no familiarity with the potential medicinal cures found in their local gardens.
Prior to pharmaceuticals, it was common for people to possess the skill of preparing their own remedies. Most homes even had a mortar and pestle, the tools for grinding ingredients. Grinding (tochein), however, is one of the forbidden agricultural acts included in the 39 melachot (creative works forbidden on Shabbat).
Since the sanctity of Shabbat is a principal component of Jewish life, the sages enacted numerous laws known as g’zeirot, fences, in order to protect the Shabbat. One such g’zeirah prohibits the use of medications, even prepared pills, on Shabbat, lest it lead to grinding or other forbidden labors.
At the same time, care of one who is ill (not merely a person in discomfort) takes priority over Shabbat in Jewish life (thus, in case of danger to life, one must violate Shabbat if necessary, e.g. drive, call an ambulance, etc.). Throughout the ages, Jewish authorities have taken each medical advance into consideration in defining this prohibition. For instance, doctors often prescribe multi-day regimens of anti-biotics or other medicines. If one has started taking this regimen prior to Shabbat, then one may continue it on Shabbat. However, if possible, one should hold off beginning anti-biotics on Shabbat.
What about mundane medicines such as aspirin/ibuprofen/acetaminophen, or other pain management drugs? The accepted position of today’s halachic authorities is that one may take medicine if one will be forced to lie down due to discomfort. In fact, even if one has a pain that they believe will increase to the point that they will be forced to lie down later, they may take the medicine immediately.
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