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Peninei Halakha > Shabbat > 28 – Illness That Is Not Life-Threatening > 01. Principles of the Halakhot of Sick People

01. Principles of the Halakhot of Sick People

There are three categories of sick people according to halakha:

1) a gravely ill person – one whose life is in danger;

2) a “regular” sick person – one whose whole body is ill but whose life is not in danger;

3) a “mildly” sick person – one who is ailing in part of his body or who experiences pain from a bodily ailment.

When caring for a dangerously sick person, one does everything on Shabbat that he would do during the week. All Shabbat prohibitions are overridden in order to save a life, as we saw in the previous chapter.

When caring for a regular sick person – one who is sick enough that he is forced to lie down, but whose life is not in danger – one may disregard rabbinic prohibitions, but Torah prohibitions remain in force (as will be explained in the next section).[1]

A mildly sick person or one who is bothered by ailments – that is, one who can walk around as though healthy, but experiences discomfort from a mild ailment – is subject to all rabbinic laws, and one may not even violate shvut di-shvut on his behalf. However, if he is in pain, one may do certain things for him even though they are categorized as shvut di-shvut. Specifically, one may ask a non-Jew to transgress a rabbinic prohibition for him, or a Jew may make use of a shinui to do so (SA 307:5; MB 328:3; above 9:11).

There is a specific rabbinic enactment forbidding a mildly sick person to take medicine. The poskim disagree whether this prohibition pertains to today’s medications, which are factory-made (the laws pertaining to one bothered by a mild ailment will be explained in sections 3-5).

The main idea of Shabbat is that on this day we calmly and tranquilly accept reality as it is. If we have no clean clothes, we wear dirty ones. If we forgot to cook a certain dish, we content ourselves with the food we have, or we ask a neighbor for help. If we forgot to turn on the heat, we put on a coat. If we forgot to turn on the air conditioning, we suffer a bit from the heat. Even though Shabbat laws sometimes cause suffering, they liberate us from the burden and tension of having to pay constant attention and ensure that every little detail of our lives is properly addressed. Therefore, Shabbat is a valuable gift. The feeling of faith, tranquility, and rest that results from accepting reality on Shabbat is enjoyable and uplifting.

The Sages continue this trend through their enactments, one of which is to refrain from using medicine on Shabbat. If we experience some discomfort, even if it is irritating and unpleasant, we bear it calmly, as this too is part of Shabbat rest. However, if the discomfort causes pain and negates oneg Shabbat, the Sages permitted transgressing minor rabbinic prohibitions (shvut di-shvut) to relieve the suffering. And when it comes to caring for one who is actually sick, the Sages allow us to transgress all rabbinic prohibitions, as taking care of one’s health is a mitzva.

[1]. According to most Rishonim, one may not violate a Torah prohibition for a person who is in danger of losing a limb (Rosh, Ran, Rashba, and seemingly Rambam). Others maintain that one may indeed desecrate Shabbat to save a limb (Tosafot, Rabbeinu Tam, Sefer Haaguda, and Me’iri). In practice, SA rules that one may not violate a Torah prohibition in such a case (328:17). However, according to current medical opinion, in practice, when a person’s limb is in danger, it is almost always life-threatening, as there is always the possibility of infection setting in (Nishmat Avraham 328:49). This may be the rationale of the Rishonim who are lenient in a case of danger to a limb. Melamed Le-ho’il 2:32 presents similar reasoning, as detailed in Harĥavot.

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Series Editor: Rabbi Elli Fischer

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Editor: Nechama Unterman