By Rabbi Yair Hoffman
It is one of those things that no one really learns, almost like that elephant in the room that we don’t want to talk about. Perhaps it is because it reminds us of our own morbidity. But it is a set of halachos that we should be familiar with, because dangerous illness can strike people at any time. So, what are the parameters of feeding a dangerously sick person on Yom Kippur?
It is important to know that the Torah does not want us to endanger ourselves by being overly stringent in matters of fasting. If it is determined that a patient must not fast, then it is a mitzvah to eat. A serious punishment is exacted upon people who refuse to eat when it is medically mandated (see M.B. 618:5).
Experience, however, tells us that when people get very ill or very old, they often do not think logically when it comes to their own health. It is often excruciatingly painful for elderly, sick people to eat on Yom Kippur even when they must. As a consequence, they will often use their lifelong strict adherence to halachah as an excuse not to eat even when instructed to do so.
Family members should patiently and lovingly say that their mitzvah now is to eat, just as there is a mitzvah to eat on erev Yom Kippur. Often the best manner to approach it is to divert their attention with other matters or questions when one feeds them. Sometimes, switching the feeder or plying the “guilt trip” method can work, too. (This is all referring to situations when there is no feeding tube or parenteral nutrition port.)
There are other situations where a generally healthy person may have recently just taken ill. It is therefore important to be familiar with the definitions and parameters found below.
Dual Prohibitions
There are actually two prohibitions that are violated when a healthy adult eats on Yom Kippur. The less commonly known one is called “below the threshold” or “chatzi shiur” prohibition. Although this is a Torah prohibition, it does not invoke the serious punishment of kareis. It is also set aside whenever there is anyone who is dangerously ill.
But what about the regular “above the threshold” prohibition? May a dangerously ill person violate this regular prohibition if he can be eating “below the threshold”? Although this issue is debated, the consensus is that if it is completely feasible from a medical perspective, such a person should eat and drink only in amounts that are below the threshold.
Below-The-Threshold Measurements
Foods. The food measurement is a constant–two-thirds of a medium egg (see S.A. O.C. 618:7), understood as one fluid ounce. If it is determined that the patient should be fasting on Yom Kippur, then, if feasible, the maximum quantity of food that may be eaten at one session is one fluid ounce–or 30 milliliters (cc). It is a good idea to prepare these amounts in schnapps cups in advance. Proteins are more filling than starches.
Liquids. The amount for liquids varies depending upon the person’s individual cheek volume. Remember, it is not a mouthful, but rather a cheekful–one side of the mouth. For the average person, one can figure 35 milliliters. For a small person, it could be 30 milliliters.
All this refers to plain water. However, a few years before his passing (before Yom Kippur of 5769), Rav Elyashiv, zt’l, ruled that a person could actually use a different option–consuming water that has a pagum (unnatural) taste that is not normally consumed because of its negative taste. The rationale for this ruling (based upon the Rema) is that such drinking does not constitute a normal form of drinking and is thus only forbidden by rabbinic ruling. The rabbis, however, never made such enactments for people who are dangerously ill.
Time Durations
What is considered an eating or drinking session? Ideally, one should try to space them every nine minutes. The view of Rav Chaim Na-eh for food is eight minutes (see Shiurei Torah 3:15). Rav Moshe Feinstein, zt’l, writes (Igros Moshe O.C. IV #41) that b’dieved, in a case of need, they should have a gap of four minutes between them. In regard to liquids, one should try for a nine-minute gap, but if not, a-four minute gap. If this is not possible, then, for liquids one should try to fulfill the view of the Chasam Sofer (Responsa Volume VI #23) of a gap of at least two minutes. These are the main views.
Some people have life-threatening illnesses that require the consumption of a potent antibiotic. These antibiotics must be consumed with a significant amount of water. Because of this, the pagum water suggestion of Rav Elyashiv, zt’l, would be the most appropriate approach to this dilemma.
But what should be the recipe for such water? It should be distasteful enough that a normal person would not be drinking the water, yet not so distasteful as to cause the drinker to get sick or to violate the prohibition of bal teshaktzu–doing something disgusting.
One should always check with one’s doctor, but this author has experimented with various concoctions to create the pagum-water. (Do not take the pagum water if your doctor does not advise it for you.) The recipe that best fits the bill, in this author’s opinion, is a room-temperature 16.9-ounce bottle of water, mixed with a half teaspoon of granulated onion powder and three shakes of salt. (The onion powder should first be dissolved in a small amount of hot water before Yom Kippur, if possible. This will keep it as pagum but will help reduce possible stomach unrest later.) If there is a negative reaction to the pagum water, one can always go back to the “below the threshold” method.
Experiments conducted by this author have revealed the following: the colder the water, the more onion powder and salt one can tolerate.
It is this author’s opinion that the halachos under discussion should be more widely known and disseminated. Whenever there is a doubt as to whether one is dangerously ill and there is no doctor or knowledgeable rabbi available, one should feed the patient. We should all know the one-ounce food figure and nine-minute gap formula, and the four-minute gap if this is not possible. It may also be worthwhile to have pre-filled one-ounce food containers available for emergencies.
May Hashem, the Healer of all illness, grant us all a year of health, parnassah, and nachas. v
The author can be reached at

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