13. Physical Therapy, Massage, and Acupuncture

Physical therapy exercises are often meant to restore function to limbs or muscles that have atrophied as a result of injury or paralysis. If it is not strictly necessary to do the exercises on Shabbat, one should not do them then, because this is a weekday activity. For example, if one is not always careful to do the exercises regularly during the week, one may not do them on Shabbat. Even if no equipment is used, since these exercises are undertaken with professional guidance, they are considered a weekday activity. One should instead exercise on Friday before Shabbat begins, and on Saturday night after Shabbat ends. However, if the exercises are indeed necessary for the patient, and during the week he takes care to do them several times a day, he may do them on Shabbat as well. One may even use equipment, as long as it does not require electricity to operate. These exercises have the same status as pills that must be taken for several consecutive days: one may take them on Shabbat as well (n. 4 above; Nishmat Avraham 328:93 in the name of R. Shlomo Zalman Auerbach).

One may do gentle stretches to loosen his back or neck or to refresh himself. This is not considered medicinal, nor is it considered a weekday activity. However, one may not do calisthenics, which maintain or improve one’s fitness, as they are a weekday activity (see above, 22:8).

One may not give a professional massage to someone who is experiencing discomfort in his back or another limb. Since such aches are treated with pills and ointments, their treatment is included in the rabbinic enactment against medicine on Shabbat. In addition, a professional massage is considered a weekday activity. Nevertheless, if the ailment is truly painful, one may give a professional massage in order to relieve it. As we have already seen (section 5), since medications today are generally mass-produced, one who is in pain may use such medications. Certainly, then, one may provide treatments that do not involve medication at all. Furthermore, the prohibition on weekday activities does not apply when pain is involved.

One may always give a non-professional massage. Since it is not professional, it is not considered medicinal, nor is it considered a weekday activity. Even a professional masseur may give his family members a non-professional massage that is meant to be soothing. Since they are not in pain and the massage is not done in a therapeutic context, it is not prohibited.

Acupressure is a treatment in which one applies pressure to various parts of the head or body in order to relieve pain and restore the health and vitality of the body and its limbs. When there is no great need, one may not perform it on Shabbat, both because of the enactment against medicine and because it is a weekday activity. However, one who is in pain may undergo acupressure, either manually or with an instrument designed for this purpose.

One may not administer acupuncture on Shabbat even for one who is in pain, because the needles are muktzeh meĥamat ĥesron kis. However, a patient who needs acupuncture very badly may be treated. As we already have seen (n. 2 above), the Sages suspended their enactments for the sake of caring for a sick person. Even for a sick person, acupuncture is only permitted on condition that the treatment will not necessarily cause bleeding, which is prohibited by Torah law.

In circumstances where a professional may provide treatment (of pain or illness) on Shabbat, he may not accept payment for his services. However, if he provides treatment during the week as well, the Shabbat payment may be subsumed within the weekday payments (above, 22:12). When a professional is summoned to provide treatment on Shabbat, one may not discuss the arrangements for subsuming his fee. Rather, one may say that after Shabbat they will discuss the details that they may not discuss on Shabbat. This is because when necessary, the Sages permitted alluding to such matters (above, 22:3, 10).