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Those who are healthy but enjoy taking vitamins and food supplements must be sure that all the ingredients in these pills are kosher.

By Rabbi Ari Enkin, Rabbinic Director, United with Israel

This week’s Torah portion is “Ekev” (Deuteronomy 7:12-11:25) and in it Moses tells us that if we observe the commandments of the Torah then we will be blessed with health.

Well, we know that sometimes we do have health issues, which should then lead us in two directions concurrently: prayer for healing and seeking medical attention by visiting a doctor. With the latter method, the doctor will often prescribe medications for the illness one is experiencing.

The question we will discuss in this article is whether medicines must be kosher and when it is permitted to take non-kosher medicines. Note that these guidelines do not necessarily apply on Passover, which carries other stringencies.

Edible vs. Inedible Medicine

Medicines are generally categorized into two different categories in Jewish law. The first category is “edible medicine”. Edible is defined as medicine that is consumed in the same general manner as food is consumed.

This category includes flavored syrups, cough drops/candies, and chewable tablets. So too, just as food is usually pleasant tasting, this category includes medicine that is also pleasant tasting. The problem with this category is that many such medicines contain non-kosher ingredients, most notably, glycerin, which is common in liquid medicines. We will see how to deal with this non-kosher issue shortly.

The second category of medicine is “inedible medicines,” such as tablets, capsules, pills, and the like.

These medicines are not meant to be chewed or tasted – they are meant to be swallowed whole. This is clearly not the manner in which food is eaten and hence, these medicines are considered “inedible”. Included in this category are the common “gel caps” capsules. Gel caps are called such because they contain gelatin which is almost always from non-kosher sources.

This latter category is more lenient than the first and one should always opt to take “inedible medicines” when needed rather than those in the first category. The reason for this is the non-kosher content in such medicines has been completely pulverized, reconstituted, and bears no resemblance from its original form.

As such, such the inedible medicine’s ingredients are simply not considered food.

Furthermore, since it is not normal to eat by swallowing without first chewing and tasting one’s food, the consumption of such medicines is simply not a form of eating. It is only forbidden to “eat” not kosher foods, it is not necessarily forbidden to “benefit” from non-kosher foods or otherwise ingest them in an abnormal manner.

Severity of Illness

Another factor to consider when weighing the use of non-kosher medicines is the severity of the illness. Here too, Jewish law has narrowed “illness” down to three categories.

The first category is “deathly ill” and it is when a person’s life is in immediate danger or potentially in immediate danger. In addition to the most obvious conditions, it can often include one who suffers from high blood pressure, diabetes, kidney failure, mental health illnesses, and most internal infections.

Also included in this category are those who are weaker and at great risk when ill. This would include a very old person who has the flu or even a severe cold or a baby with an unusually high fever.

Since one is permitted to violate any precept of the Torah in order to save a life, it goes without saying that taking any type of non-kosher medicine is permitted for someone who is in this category of illness. Of course, should an equally effective kosher alternative be available, one should endeavor to use the kosher version instead.

The second category of illness is one who is suffering from a “non-life-threatening illness”. This is one with a fever, the flu, chills, severe migraines, and any other condition that renders one bedridden.

One who finds himself in this category of illness may only use medications from category number two. It is not permitted to use “edible” and good tasting non-kosher medications when suffering from clearly non-life threatening illnesses. However, category two medicines can be taken if truly needed.

The third category of illness is “mild discomfort.” This refers to people who are suffering from various pains but are essentially functioning normally and following their daily routine.

It goes without saying that only kosher medicines may be taken by people who find themselves ill in this category. However, category number two medicines may often be taken if truly needed.

Those who are healthy but enjoy taking vitamins and food supplements must be sure that all the ingredients in these pills are kosher.

Wishing everyone good health!

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