Sunday, October 5, 2008

To Fast or Not to Fast?

The Shem Mishmuel zt”l once wrote to his son-in-law Rav Yaacov Tsvi zt”l: “I heard from my daughter…that the doctor feels that you are recovering, may Hashem send you complete recovery. Yom Kippur is approaching and I want to warn you not to act overly righteous by fasting if the doctor tells you to eat. If he says that eating less than a shiur is not potentially dangerous to your health, then do so. If he says that this is not enough for you, G-d forbid that you should be stringent and endanger yourself. He who commanded us to fast on Yom Kippur commanded us to eat for health reasons. Do not think that only an immediate danger allows one to eat. Even when there is the shadow of a doubt, one must eat… This is the meaning of the gemara in Yoma: If the sick person says that he doesn’t need to eat but the doctor says he does, we listen to the doctor. This is even in the case of a sick person who himself understands the nature of sickness…even if he is a real expert, we still listen to the doctor.
“I am certain that you recall what you have heard from me many times that the main element of Judaism is to nullify one’s own understanding before that of the Torah and the chachomim. Even if they tell you that your left is really right. This is the most important avodah of a Jew, and by eating as ordered by the doctor you will be doing this distinguished avodah. Therefore you should feel no pain in the event of your having to eat, because in such an eventuality you will actually be doing a more precious avodah than one who fasts!”
But the above letter only holds true regarding one who is truly endangered. Before eating on a fast day one must be meticulously honest as illustrated in the following amusing story:
Once, on Yom Kippur in Slutsk during the time of the Beis Halevi zt”l, a certain wealthy man felt faint quite suddenly. He began to get hysterical and insisted that he must have water immediately. It seemed to be a case of pikuach nefesh, about which we would permit the normally forbidden even when we are in doubt. To clarify the matter, members of the community approached the Beis Halevi right away for a halachic decision.
The Beis HaLevi zt”l replied, “Of course, he is allowed to drink because of the possibility of it being pikuach nefesh. But, just to make certain that this man really understands the severity of his act, he will have to pay a very large sum of money for each sip that he drinks.”
When the wealthy man heard this, he felt “miraculously” restored. “I’m sure I can wait until the end of the fast,” he said!

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