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Shabbat Parashat Vayakhel Pekudei 5773

Ask the Rabbi: Beracha on Homeopathic Medicine

by Rav Daniel Mann

Question: I understand that one does not make a beracha on medicine. This raises a question for Orthodox users of homeopathic medicines (which are normally sweet). Should they listen to their homeopaths, who consider it medicine, and not make a beracha or listen to conventional doctors, who say it is not medicine, and make a beracha on it?  

 

Answer: There is disagreement on the topic of alternative medicine. Like in most topics, extreme opinions are rarely right. It is clear that some treatments under the umbrella of alternative medicine are helpful, and it is clear that some are quackery and serve as a placebo at best. There is also a significant category of medicines and treatments (homeopathic or conventional) whose efficacy is unclear or varies greatly from person to person. We are not in the position to take a stand on the important question as to which treatments fall into which category.

These questions are relevant regarding cases where we want to do something which would otherwise be forbidden in order to heal the sick (see Orach Chayim 301, 328). However, your question does not depend on this matter. It is not that the status of medicine uproots the need for a beracha. Rather, berachot were instituted for the benefits of food (primarily, taste), not for medical benefits alone (see Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 204:8). If one receives both benefits, he must recite a beracha (ibid.). Therefore, if any medicine’s taste is good, a beracha would be required on it. If there is not a good taste, then even if there is no medicinal value either, there would be no beracha. (Indeed, there is no beracha on swallowing paper).

However, there is still a question about the beracha for anything taken for medicinal purposes that has additives that give it a somewhat positive taste. The Sha’ar Hatziyun (204:37) says that medicinal food does not need to have a particularly good taste; the main thing is that it does not have a bad one. One might claim that the classic sources discuss cases where the therapeutic agent has a reasonable taste but that if the medicine tastes bad and sweetener improves it, the sweetener is the medicine’s less important part and should not count regarding berachot (see Berachot 36a). However, the rule that the beracha follows a food’s more important ingredient for berachot applies only when the important part has a beracha, but if the medicinal part has no beracha, we should make a beracha on the sweetener (Pitchei Halacha, Berachot pg. 246; Yalkut Yosef, Berachot, pg. 442).

Yet, there still are cases where a beracha is doubtful. If one swallows a pill, it is not considered a manner of eating in regards to berachot even if it leaves a sweet taste on the tongue before swallowing (V’zot Haberacha pg. 311). Also, Rav S.Z. Auerbach is quoted by several as minimizing the cases in which a beracha is called for. Nishmat Avraham (IV, OC 204:8) quotes him as saying that if the sweetener is on the outside of a chewable pill and one enjoys the taste before getting to the medicinal part there is a beracha, but if the tastes are all mixed together, there should not  be a beracha. This is based on the assumption that the mixture does not have a taste which would interest anyone as a food. V’zot Haberacha (pg. 312) cites Rav Auerbach from a different angle. If the active ingredient’s taste is neither bad nor particularly good, the minor taste enjoyment suffices for a beracha. However, for an external taste to turn a non-food into a food, the medicinal mixture must have an actually good taste overall. Not all agree with Rav Auerbach (see ibid.), and it is logical to say that as long as one appreciates the positive element, the fact that the negative element neutralizes it somewhat does not take away from the beracha. However, it is hard to require a beracha against Rav Auerbach’s opinion. There also will be borderline cases regarding how they are to be considered according to the different opinions.  In a case of doubt, one should not make a beracha (one who wants, can eat something else first, having in mind to cover the medicine).

 

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