Parashas Tazria teaches us to perform Bris Milah on the eighth day of an infant’s life: “On the eighth day you shall circumcise the flesh of his foreskin.”
The Avnei Nezer (Yoreh De’ah 321) was consulted concerning a child who was born with a crooked leg. Expert physicians advised that the leg be straightened out immediately, while the bones were still soft and flexible, and that the procedure be undertaken before the eighth day of his life. Yet, it was clear that should the procedure be performed, the infant would not be able to undergo Milah on the eighth day.
The Avnei Nezer ruled that it is permitted to perform the procedure, because the obligation to perform Torah mitzvos does not go beyond a fifth of one’s wealth (Orach Chaim 656:1). If there is no obligation to spend more than one fifth of one’s money on a mitzvah, it follows that there is no obligation for a person to render himself a cripple for the sake of performing a mitzvah, for physical wholeness is worth more than a fifth of one’s assets.
This halachic ruling leads us to investigate the general question of performing mitzvah under threat of sickness and pain. Does the obligation of mitzvos apply even when their performance involves pain and discomfort? Does a person have to suffer physical damage or illness for the sake of performing a mitzvah? And how do the relevant principles apply to the mitzvos of Seder Night?
These questions, among others, are addressed below.
Headaches and the Four Cups
The Gemara (Nedarim 49b) tells us of how Rabbi Yehudah used to suffer from grievous headaches after drinking the Four Cups of Pesach; his head would hurt from Pesach through Shavuos.
Based on this anecdote, the Rashba (1:238) rules that even somebody who hates wine, and even where wine causes him physical damage, must drink the Four Cups. The Rashba also cites the Yerushalmi (Pesachim 10:1) that Rabbi Yonah, like Rabbi Yehudah, would suffer from severe headaches for the duration of the Omer period after drinking the Four Cups on Pesach.
The Rashba’s opinion forms the basis for the ruling of the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 472:10): “Somebody who desists from wine because it damages him or because he detests it, must nonetheless force himself to drink, in order to perform the mitzvah of the Four Cups.”
The Shulchan Aruch does not expound on the halachah, and does not discuss the degree of physical damage a person must be ready to incur for the sake of the mitzvah. The Mishnah Berurah (472:35) does address this question, and writes that a person must drink wine even if it distresses him and causes him pain, but the obligation does not include actually becoming ill. The Shaar Ha-Zion (52) adds: “For this is not the way of freedom.”
This last comment would seem to indicate that for general mitzvos, which are unrelated to the “way of freedom,” the obligation to perform the mitzvah applies even if as a result, the person will fall ill. The Four Cups, it appears, is an exception to the general rule.
Four Cups with Grape Juice
Having mentioned the Four Cups, it is worth dwelling on the side issue of grape juice. Many people dislike wine. However although some are sensitive to the sugar content, not many dislike grape juice. Can a person use grape juice for the Four Cups instead of wine?
In ancient times, their wine was extremely strong, and needed to be mixed with water before drinking. The Gemara (Pesachim 108b) discusses the status of undiluted wine for the Four Cups. The following statement is made by Rav Yehudah, in the name of Shmuel: “These Four Cups must be diluted [with water]. If he drank them undiluted he fulfills his obligation … Rava said: He fulfilled his obligation of ‘wine,’ but not that of ‘freedom.’ ”
The Rishonim dispute how the extra obligation of freedom with regard to the Four Cups should be understood. Tosafos understands that the obligation of the Four Cups is no different from the general obligation of taking a cup of wine when performing a mitzvah – as we do for Kiddush on Shabbos, for weddings, for a Bris Milah, and so on. The concept of freedom is only that the wine should ideally be properly diluted – wine that a free person would drink.
Based on this understanding, grape juice is a fine alternative to wine, just as it is for Kiddush and for other mitzvah cups.
The Rambam (Chametz U-Matzah 7:11), however, understands that there is a special obligation related to freedom in drinking four cups of wine: “These four cups must be diluted so they are pleasant to drink, everything according to the wine and the taste of the person drinking. … If he drank these four cups from undiluted wine, he fulfills the obligation of Four Cups but not that of freedom.” Based on this understanding, Rav Moshe Feinstein ruled (Kol Dodi 3:8) that one must drink wine even if he dislikes the beverage, and even if it will cause him a temporary headache.
However, many contemporary authorities write that if one dislikes wine, or if wine makes a person dizzy or ill, it is permitted to drink grape juice. Teshuvos Ve-Hanhagos (2:243) writes that the Brisker Rav and the Tchebiner Rav actually used grape juice for the four cups, and this is also reported of the Chazon Ish (Siddur Pesach Ke-Hilchaso 2:3, note 25; see also Chazon Ovadia, p. 125).
Some authorities go further, and note that people who dislike wine should not force themselves to drink it, since for them it is not derech cheirus (the manner of free people) to drink something that they dislike or that makes them ill (Shearim Metzuyanim Be-Halachah 118:1). This is based on the wording of the Rambam and the Shulchan Aruch Harav (272:17) that the drinking of the four cups must be pleasant.
A reasonable option is to buy light wine, which is usually wine mixed with grape juice. Alternatively, wine can be mixed with grape juice at the table, the optimal being a mixture containing a full shiur of wine (see Halailah Hazeh, p. 9, citing Rav Elyashiv zt”l).
It should be noted that the halachic authorities who are reported to have used grape juice were not necessarily at their healthiest at the time of these reports, and wine remains the best choice for those who are healthy.
Getting Sick from Maror
Must one eat Maror even when it will cause him to fall ill?
Shut Binyan Shlomo (47) cites the Besamim Rosh (94), who ruled that there is no obligation to eat Maror under such circumstances.
Although he proceeds to dispute the rationales offered by the Besamim Rosh (who applied the special exemption of Sukkah to all mitzvos, or alternatively relied on the obligation to maintain good health) he agrees in practice that there is no obligation to eat Maror if doing so will lead to sickness.
The reason for this is that a person is not obligated to pay more than a fifth of his income to fulfill a mitzvah. The Binyan Shlomo reasons that sickness and pain is worth more to people than their money – though this depends on the extent of the sickness and pain involved. The exemption from positive mitzvos for financial considerations can therefore be extended to exempt a person from mitzvos that are liable to cause them illness and pain.
The Opinion of the Mishnah Berurah
The Mishnah Berurah (473:43) rules that a person who is unable to eat Maror due to health considerations (again, the extent is not clarified) is exempt from the mitzvah, and should eat only a little to recall the mitzvah. He should not recite a berachah over this eating.
Indeed, even where the Maror will not lead to actual physical damage, but only cause a person to suffer, the Mishnah Berurah (Shaar Ha-Zion) implies that there is no full obligation to perform the mitzvah, but only that “it is proper for a person to exert himself with all his strength to perform the mitzvah of the Sages.”
This ruling appears to contradict the above ruling concerning the Four Cups, which implied that that obligation applies even when performing the mitzvah will cause a person to be sick.
It is possible, however, that the mitzvah of the Four Cups is different from other mitzvos, because there is a special obligation to perform this mitzvah even if this requires a person to collect alms from door to door. This special obligation connected with the Four Cups sets it apart from other mitzvos, for which a person without the means for them is exempt, and for which risk of illness is likewise sufficient to exempt a person from those mitzvahs.
Contrary to these opinions, the opinion of Shut Maharam Schick (no. 260) is that a person is only exempt from eating Maror if doing so involves danger of death. Danger of sickness is not sufficient to exempt a person from this mitzvah. In contrast, the previously cited, Shut Binyan Shlomo, who represents the general consensus, writes that it is actually forbidden for a person to eat maror if it will cause him to become ill. This is usually not pertinent nowadays when we use lettuce, whereas in previous generations in Europe they used horseradish.
Torah and Rabbinic Mitzvos
With regard to Rabbinic mitzvos, we find in the Gemara (Kesubos 60a) that it is permitted for one who is in great pain to nurse directly from a goat on Shabbos (if the milk is therapeutic for the ailment), in spite of the prohibition of mefarek that doing so involves. The Gemara explains that nursing directly from a goat is not the ordinary way to milk an animal, and therefore the prohibition is only rabbinic in nature – and the Sages didn’t make their prohibition in the case of pain.
Since we find that the Sages did not enact rabbinic prohibitions in the face of suffering or illness, it seems to follow that a person is exempt from fulfilling rabbinic mitzvos in similar circumstances. Why then do we find a discussion, as presented above, of the issue of performing rabbinic mitzvos where the threat of illness is present?
The answer to this can be found in the Beis Yosef (Yoreh De’ah 123), who writes that regular rabbinic prohibitions are not waived in circumstances of pain and illness, such as the prohibition of stam yeinam (non-Jewish wine) which is forbidden even for the sick. It is therefore possible that we cannot learn the principle of exempting somebody in danger of illness or pain from the case above (of nursing from a goat), because the exemption is for a specific case.
Shut Chavas Yair (no. 164) further asserts that the exemption cannot be applied on a widespread scale, and it applies only to instances of severe suffering, and not to regular cases of pain or sickness.
Based on this approach, it is clear that we require special reasons to exempt somebody from performing mitzvos in the face of potential suffering or illness, as noted above.[i]
Danger to a Limb and Illness from Performance of Torah Mitzvos
The Gemara (Yevamos 72a) writes that according to Rabbi Yehudah, a mashuch (somebody whose foreskin has been pulled over his Bris) is exempt from the mitzvah of Bris Milah, because of the concern that he will be injured and become a crus shafcha (who is unable to father children) though this does not involve any danger of death.
This indicates that danger to a limb is sufficient to exempt a person from performance of a Torah mitzvah, unless we suggest that danger of becoming a crus shafcha is more severe than the danger of losing a different limb (perhaps on account of the prohibition involved).
This proof supports to some degree the position of the Binyan Shlomo (as mentioned above), who writes that a person is not obligated to place himself into danger of illness, even for a Torah mitzvah. This is also the opinion of the Birchei Yosef (640:5).
However, there is room to make a distinction between danger of regular illness and the danger of actually losing a limb. This difference is raised by the Shach (Yoreh De’ah 157:3), who raises a possibility that even in the face of a negative Torah mitzvah, danger of losing a limb is sufficient to waive the prohibition – and he leans in practice towards leniency. This leniency does not apply to danger of regular illness.
The discussion here is for purposes of general education, and one should refer particular cases to the decision of a competent rov.
How Much is it Worth?
The Bris Milah case of the Avnei Nezer, which we opened this article with, likewise addresses a case of permanent physical damage, which can be distinguished from regular illness which doesn’t involve permanent damage.
Therefore, although it appears clear that one does not have to endanger a limb in order to perform a mitzvah, the question of endangering one’s health for the sake of a mitzvah remains a matter of dispute among authorities.
As a type of compromise, the Eshel Avraham (Orach Chaim 656:1) suggests that a person should consider whether he would be prepared to part with a fifth of his wealth in order to avoid the illness or suffering that he wishes to avoid. If he is prepared to pay one fifth of his wealth to avoid this, he will be exempt from the mitzvah; but if he is not prepared to lay out this sum, he will be obligated to perform the mitzvah.
May we merit to perform the mitzvos of the Torah, both those of Pesach and those of the year round, in good health and well-being.
[i] Note that the Rema (Yoreh De’ah 155:3) cites an opinion according to which there is a broader exemption from rabbinic prohibitions under circumstances of illness and suffering. However, this exemption is not absolute, and refers to deriving benefit from prohibited foods rather than eating them; see Pischei Teshuvah (8).