By Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow
There was a pregnant woman who smelled food on Yom Kippur. She developed a ravenous desire to eat. If she did not satisfy the craving, it was possible that her life or that of the fetus would be in danger (Yoma 82b). When Rebbe was told of the situation, he advised that they whisper to the woman, “Today is Yom Kippur.” The Meiri says the expectant mother was additionally blessed that if she didn’t eat food on Yom Kippur she would merit a righteous son. The words had their effect, and she indeed did not eat that Yom Kippur.
She merited a son who was none other than the great Amora Rebbe Yochanan. Rebbe applied the following verse to the incident: “Before you were formed in the womb, I (Hashem) knew you.” The simple explanation of the relevance of the verse is that since the pregnant woman through her sheer willpower withstood her cravings, from that moment she was destined to have a son who was righteous. Rebbe was commenting that even before the child was born he was already fated to be a tzaddik. However, Rabbi David Feder offered another explanation in the name of his chavrusa.
It is a well-known halachah that when someone has to eat on Yom Kippur for health reasons, we prefer that they follow a special process. They should eat small amounts of food every nine minutes. If one needs to eat more due to a medical condition, they may do so as concern for human life takes precedence. Nevertheless, we initially advise the individual to follow the strict eating regimen if possible.
According to Reish Lakish, the reasons for the guidelines are obvious. If one eats less than the size of a large date every nine minutes on Yom Kippur, only a rabbinic prohibition is violated. We would certainly prefer that a rabbinic injunction be violated than a biblical one. However, according to Rebbe Yochanan, the reason for the strict eating regimen is less obvious. He holds that eating any amount of food on Yom Kippur violates a biblical prohibition. Likewise regarding any forbidden food, he holds that even if one eats less than the amount necessary for punishment, a Torah prohibition is still violated.
This position is referred to in the Gemara as “Chatzi shiur assur min haTorah.” Even half of a requisite amount is still biblically forbidden. However, ordinarily if one intentionally eats an amount of food that is equivalent to a large date in the requisite time on Yom Kippur, a biblical precept was violated that carries the strict penalty of kares. If one eats less than that amount, a biblical prohibition was still violated, albeit a less severe one without kares.
The Torah does not prescribe any specific penalty for eating food on Yom Kippur that is less than the equivalent of a large date. In general, when faced with a situation where a Torah prohibition needs to be waived for health concerns, we prefer that a less severe prohibition be overridden. Consequently, we advise an individual who needs to eat on Yom Kippur to strive to only override the more lenient prohibition, the one that does not entail the kares penalty. This means that the individual will eat less than the size of a large date every nine minutes.
Rebbe Yochanan’s mother mentioned in the story with Rebbe above requested a permit to eat on Yom Kippur. If she had eaten, she presumably would have only eaten small amounts every nine minutes. According to Reish Lakish, only a rabbinic prohibition would have been waived. Her steadfast refusal in the end to break her fast foretold that the baby she was carrying would one day rule that intentionally eating even small amounts on Yom Kippur incurs a biblical violation. Therefore, her future scholar would advise that the permit to break one’s Yom Kippur fast be granted sparingly. Her strength and fortitude in not eating even the smallest amount of food on Yom Kippur adhered to the position that her son would take. This was hinted in the verse Rebbe chose to apply to the incident, “Before you were formed in the womb, I knew you.” Even before Rebbe Yochanan was born, it was portended that he would rule stringently on the question of chatzi shiur, eating small amounts on Yom Kippur.
Rebbe Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, zt’l, says that even nowadays we should use the Gemara’s advice. We should attempt to dissuade a pregnant woman from breaking her fast with the statement that “Today is Yom Kippur,” coupled with a blessing if she perseveres. However, he cautions that in no way should an expectant woman be scared into fasting. Besides being misguided and wrong, it’s counterproductive. Scaring a fasting individual is more likely to exacerbate a need to break the fast. v
Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow leads a daf yomi chaburah at Eitz Chayim of Dogwood Park in West Hempstead and is a rebbi at Mesivta Kesser Yisroel of Willowbrook. He can be contacted at ASebrow@gmail.com.