Rabbi Yehuda Finchas
Rabbi, last Shabbat my shoulder was hurting so I asked my son for a gentle massage. He politely refused, arguing that massages on Shabbat were forbidden. But I once learned that it is permissible. Is my son correct or was he just being lazy?
There’s actually a difference of opinion as to whether you may have a massage on Shabbat. Hacham Ovadia, zt”l, does allow a gentle amateur massage, but others disagree. To appreciate these different perspectives, we need to delve into differing explanations of a mishnah in Masechet Shabbat (147a) and the subsequent rulings of the Shulchan Aruch.
The mishnah rules that one may not be “mit’amel” on Shabbat. Rashi explains that “mitamel” describes a type of massage of vigorously rubbing the body. It is prohibited on Shabbat since it is classified as a “weekday activity” or “uvdin de-chol.” Rambam disagrees and describes “mitamel” as a therapeutic treatment that induces sweating. This was considered medically beneficial and is therefore prohibited under the general prohibition of medical treatment on Shabbat (in a non-lifesaving setting).
A practical difference between these two approaches is a gentle massage. According to Rambam, so long as it doesn’t induce sweating, it would be permissible, but Rashi would still prohibit it since it would still qualify as a weekday activity.
So, who do we rule like, Rambam or Rashi?
Fascinatingly, Rabbi Yosef Kairo, the author of the Shulchan Aruch, seems to contradict himself. He first quotes Rashi’s opinion in chapter 327:2 of Hilchot Shabbat and in the very next chapter (328:42), he quotes the Rambam. Depending as to how you resolve this seeming contradiction will answer the question, can you have a massage on Shabbat.
Some halachic commentators explain that the Shulchan Aruch quotes both opinions because he adopts the potential stringencies of both opinions. Others explain that, in essence, Rashi and Rambam agree as to the practical outcome of prohibiting massages, and they only disagree as to how to properly interpret the mishnah. This is the stance of those who prohibit massages on Shabbat.
The Bi’ur Halacha (328:42), however, understands that Shulchan Aruch is indeed quoting two opposing views, but that for practical purposes we follow the opinion of Rambam, and he therefore permits a gentle massage that does not induce sweating. This is, in part, the line of reasoning and the source for Hacham Ben Zion Aba Shaul (Or Lezion 2:36:11) leniency to permit a massage on Shabbat to relieve pain and is quoted by Hacham Ovadia (Hazon Ovadia, Shabbat, Vol. 3, pp. 386 – 389).
Hacham Ovadia goes a bit further and also permits basic morning stretching exercises on Shabbat since they are neither meant to be therapeutic nor do they induce sweating (see also S.A. 301:2). He similarly permits breathing exercises as part of daily regimen of speech therapy.
Running and exercising that induces sweating is also prohibited. However, casual walking, even for health reasons, is allowed. The Gemara (Shabbat 113b) learns this from the pasuk in Yeshayahu (58:13) that says: “If you restrain your foot on the Shabbat… if you declare the Shabbat as a ‘delight’ [and] Hashem’s holy day as ‘honored’ and honor it by not engaging in your own affairs…”
The Talmud and Rambam (Shabbat, 24:4) explain this to mean that even our manner of walking on Shabbat should be different than our weekday walking, which precludes running, unless running to perform a mitzvah, which is permitted. Shabbat is both a day of “ta’anug,” enjoyment, as well as a day of rest, requiring proper balance and prioritizing. In conclusion, if a gentle massage is needed to relieve aches or pains, this is allowed according to our Sephardic hachamim.
Rabbi Yehuda Finchas is a worldwide expert and writer on medical halacha, and is the head of the Torat Habayit Medical Halacha Institute. His latest book is entitled “Brain Death in Halacha and the Tower of Babel Syndrome.” To contact Rabbi Finchas, email firstname.lastname@example.org.