Peninei Halakha

06. The Psychological Aspect

Sometimes a person becomes so weak on Yom Kippur that he is afraid that he is going to lose consciousness and die. This fear is usually exaggerated, as fasting and the attendant weakness are generally not dangerous. (There are even some serious illnesses for which fasting may be helpful.) Nevertheless, it is possible that a person does have some issue which might make fasting dangerous. Therefore, if someone is so afraid he might die that he asks for food and drink despite the holiness of the day, we give it to him. However, since the need is sometimes simply psychological, we begin by giving him only a little. Sometimes this is enough to calm him and bring about a recovery. If this does not work, we continue giving him small quantities of food, spread out over time (as explained in the previous section). If this, too, does not work, he may eat and drink until he is reassured (SA 617:2-3).

Sometimes just knowing that it is permissible to eat and drink restores a person’s well-being. He calms down and feels able to continue fasting. There is a story in the Yerushalmi (y. Yoma 6:4) about R. Ḥaggi, who became very weak from fasting, but when R. Mana told him to drink, he decided that he could manage, and he continued to fast. Many poskim use this strategy (Kol Bo §69, cited by Beit Yosef 618:1).[8]

On the other hand, we must be very careful not to take danger lightly. If doctors have instructed someone to eat and drink, he should do so joyfully, as he is fulfilling God’s commandment to take care of his health. Hopefully, he will merit long life as a reward for observing this mitzva. Torah giants made it a practice to admonish the sick about this. If they knew that a particular patient was likely to disregard medical advice and fast, thus endangering his life, they would visit him on Yom Kippur to persuade him to eat and drink.

[8]. R. Zevin tells a remarkable story. Once, before Ne’ila, there was a commotion in the beit midrash of R. Ḥayim Halberstam, the Sanzer Rebbe. A rich congregant, desperately thirsty, almost passed out. This rich man was known to be very stingy. At first, some mocked him: “Throughout the year, this wealthy man is unwilling to give a poor person a little water to drink. Let him now experience thirst!” However, when the people standing around realized that he was truly in danger, they went to the dayanim to ask what they should do. The rabbis instructed them to give him a spoonful of water (less than a cheek-full). However, each spoonful they fed him seemed to make him thirstier, until he asked for a cup of water. The head of the beit din, Rav Berish, did not trust himself to rule on this, so he approached R. Ḥayim for a ruling. He interrupted R. Ḥayim’s holy worship, told him the whole story, and asked him what to do. R. Ḥayim said, “Tell him that for each cup that he drinks now, tomorrow he must donate a hundred guilder (a substantial amount) to charity. If he agrees to this, give him as much as he wants to drink.” When the wealthy, weak man heard this ruling, it revived him. He got to his feet, stood up straight, and continued to pray as if he was not thirsty at all (R. Shlomo Yosef Zevin, Sipurei Ḥasidim: Mo’adim, p. 101 [A Treasury of Chassidic Tales on the Festivals, vol. 1, pp. 117-118]).

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The Laws of Shabbat (1+2) - Yocheved Cohen
The Laws of Prayer - Atira Ote
The Laws of Women’s Prayer - Atira Ote
The Laws of Pesach - Joshua Wertheimer
The Laws of Zemanim - Moshe Lichtman

Editor: Nechama Unterman