Taking Non-Kosher Medications

I have been prescribed a drug for severe intestinal issues which is made from enzymes from non-kosher animals. Am I allowed to take it, even though it’s not kosher?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

I wish you a full recovery from your health issue first of all.

The issue of non-kosher medicines is very broad, so before I answer your question, I would like to offer a few general guidelines.

In terms of medications, there are two primary types:

(a) Edible medicines, such as flavored syrups, cough drops, chewable tablets.

A common ingredient in many syrups which may be derived from a non-kosher source is glycerin.

(Note that if an edible medicine has an inedible non-kosher ingredient, there is room to be lenient as the non-kosher itself has not been rendered edible.)

(b) Inedible medicines such as tablets, capsules and gelcaps, which are made to be swallowed whole.

Note that gelatin is generally made from animals. It is thus non-kosher unless it was made in a special run, from properly slaughtered and prepared kosher animals.

Regarding the second category, there are multiple grounds for leniency. First of all, the non-kosher ingredient has typically been dried and ground to be put in medicine form. It has thus been transformed from its original state, and might not be considered “food” any longer.

Secondly, since it is not “normal” to eat foul-tasting food, taking a pill or a bitter liquid medicine is considered eating in an abnormal manner. This is only Rabbinically forbidden and might be permitted in cases of need. The same is true if food is taken wrapped in something else, such as a medicine served in a (kosher) capsule.

Finally, hard parts of animals – such as bones, claws and shells – are not considered food to begin with. Thus, if a medicine is derived from such a source, it should pose no kashrut problem.

The second factor to consider is the severity of a person’s illness. Jewish law recognizes a number of distinct categories:

(a) Someone who is deathly ill (“choleh she’yaish bo sakanah”): This includes anyone who has a condition which may potentially be life-threatening, even if he is not at risk of immediate death. This includes such conditions as high blood pressure, diabetes, kidney failure, severe depression, most internal infections requiring antibiotics, and a woman in labor. This also often includes categories of people who are weak and at greater health risk, such as an elderly person with the flu, an infant with a fever, or a pregnant woman with health concerns (placing either her or the baby at risk). This also includes someone who is at risk of developing a serious illness, to the degree that his doctor prescribes preventative medication for him.

Needless to say, preserving life takes precedence over keeping kosher. When there is even some (non-negligible) risk of loss of life, such as in the above cases, a person is permitted to take even tasty non-kosher medicine. Even here, however, one should strive to find a kosher alternative (or at least an inedible non-kosher one) as the first choice. But if one’s doctor feels the non-kosher one is most effective, he is not only permitted but obligated to take that.

(b) Someone who is sick with a non-life-threatening illness (“choleh she’ain bo sakanah”): This is someone who is sick enough to be bedridden or who cannot function well, but who suffers from a condition known to be non-life-threatening, such as the flu, back pains, arthritis pain, and migraines.

For this category, one may not take good-tasting non-kosher, but he may take non-kosher in inedible form, because of the reasons cited above – although here too, if a kosher alternative is available, that would come first. It’s important to note that a doctor may prescribe a non-kosher medication although kosher alternatives exist, simply because he is not aware that it makes a difference to the patient. Thus, this should always be checked with one’s doctor before filling the prescription.

(c) Someone who is experiencing mild signs of illness, but who can function basically normally (“michush”): Examples would be a mild cold, a mild headache, joint pain, a toothache, and a minor skin condition.

Such a person should strive to only take a kosher medicine. If none are available, at times an inedible medicine may be taken. A rabbi should be consulted in individual situations.

(d) Supplements, prevention: Someone who is completely healthy but wants to take a health supplement to maintain his health or provide other health benefits, such as increasing his energy, may not take non-kosher supplements, even inedible.

(Sources: Shulchan Aruch Y.D. 155:3, Achiezer Y.D. 11, Tzitz Eliezer X 25:50.)

Some of the above based on the medication guide published by Star-K.

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