Not Your Father's Talmud

Rabbi Adam Chalom of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in suburban Chicago explores the Talmud from a Humanistic perspective, one page a day.

Location: Highland Park, Illinois, United States

Rabbi Adam Chalom is the Rabbi of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in suburban Chicago. He is also the Assistant Dean for the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism.

Friday, August 19, 2005

Shabbat 109 – Healing and the Shabbat

While the concept of work being prohibited on Shabbat is well known, less well-known is the tradition of additional dietary restrictions on Shabbat. It turns out that healing on Shabbat is prohibited, so taking certain herbs or remedies are actually forbidden during the day of rest. Thus certain leaves are said to have no medicinal properties, and thus are permitted to use on Shabbat. Or if one bangs their hand or foot, they may soak it in wine to reduce swelling, but not vinegar since that would too obviously be healing! And the delicate, who are healed by wine, cannot even do that, according to Rabbi Hillel (not the same as the early Hillel) who attended the academy of Rabbi Kahana.

We do have other, external evidence of historical Jewish reticence to heal on the Shabbat – if one reads in the New Testament, there is a story in Luke 13:10-17 on this very subject. In the story, Jesus preaches in a synagogue on Shabbat, and he heals a woman. The leader of the synagogue is upset, saying “there are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, but not on the Sabbath day.” The miraculous cure was not the issue, but rather the curing on Shabbat! This story would have taken place right around the time of transition from Pharisees to Rabbis, shortly before the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple. Rather than baldly accept Jesus’s rebuke of the leader as a hypocrite, we must remember that “healing” in this period was not the rare miraculous event depicted in the New Testament gospels, but a profession common to holy men, amulet makers, and apothecaries the world over. In other words, it was a way to earn a living – something not to be done on Shabbat by any approach before modern times.

This is not to say that there is universal agreement on this principle of not healing on Shabbat – for example, Rab taught that a hand or foot injury was like an internal injury and thus could justify Shabbat desecration. We would think that alleviating pain and curing a disease would automatically be allowed at any time, but if we think in terms of professional healers, it makes more sense – even doctors are allowed a day off!

Rabbi Adam Chalom

For the full New Testament story of healing on the Sabbath, visit