Indigestible Matzos, or Performing Mitzvos When Suffering from Food Allergies
This week is Shabbos Rosh Chodesh and also Parshah Hachodesh, which discusses both the mitzvah of creating the calendar and the mitzvah of korban Pesach. Over the years, I have discussed these topics many times, and I have also written articles on some of the unique features of Shabbos Rosh Chodesh. These articles can all be found on this website. For those wanting to read up on the many topics germane to Pesach, the website also contains a variety of articles, which can be found by using the search words matzoh, Pesach, wine, kitniyos, sefiras ha’omer, hallel, yom tov, chol hamoed, or eruv tavshillin.
Question #1: I have acid reflux; as a result, I never drink any alcohol since it gives me severe heartburn. I also have difficulty tolerating grape juice, which does not agree with me. Am I required to drink either wine or grape juice for the four cups at the Seder?
Question #2: My body is intolerant of gluten. Am I required to eat matzoh on Pesach, and if so, how much?”
Question #3: How far must one go to fulfill the mitzvah of maror if the only variety available is horseradish?
Consuming matzoh, maror,
wine or grape juice is uncomfortable for many people, for a variety of reasons.
Consumption of these foods may exacerbate certain medical conditions, such as
allergies, diabetes, celiac disease, Crohn’s disease, irritable bowel syndrome
and reflux. To what extent must someone afflicted by these conditions extend
him/herself to fulfill these mitzvos? Does it make a difference if the
mitzvah is required min haTorah, such as matzoh, or only miderabbanan,
such as arba kosos, the mitzvah of drinking the four cups of wine at the
Seder. (Similarly, the mitzvah of maror is required today only miderabbanan,
since the Torah requires eating maror only when we offer the korban
One is never required
to perform a positive mitzvah when there is a potential threat to one’s life.
Quite the contrary, it is forbidden to carry out any mitzvah whose performance
may be life- threatening. Therefore, someone who has a potentially
life-threatening allergy or sensitivity to grain may not consume matzoh or any
other grain product – ever — and this prohibition applies fully on Seder night.
NOT DANGEROUS, BUT
However, must one
observe these mitzvos when the situation is not life threatening,
but is painful or affects one’s wellbeing? Must one always fulfill the
mitzvah, even though doing so is extremely uncomfortable or makes one unwell?
The Gemara reports
that the great Tanna Rabbi Yehudah, who is quoted hundreds of times in
the Mishnah and Gemara, suffered from the consumption of wine.
The Gemara records the following anecdote:
looked so happy that a Roman woman accused him of being inebriated. He
responded that he is a teetotaler, “Trust me that I taste wine only for
kiddush, havdalah and the four cups of Pesach. Furthermore, after drinking four
cups of wine at the Seder, I have a splitting headache that lasts until
Shavuos” (see Nedarim 49b).
This passage implies
that one is required to undergo a great deal of discomfort to fulfill even a
mitzvah that is rabbinic in origin, and certainly a Torah-required law, such as
consuming matzoh on Pesach. Based on this anecdote, the Rashba (Shu”t
1:238) requires someone who avoids wine because he despises its taste or
because it harms him (“mazik”) to drink the four cups; this conclusion
is quoted definitively in Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayim 472:10).
Thus, one might conclude that one must fulfill arba kosos in any
non-life-threatening situation, even when the consequences are unpleasant.
authorities sanction abstaining from arba kosos under certain
extenuating, but not life-threatening, circumstances, even though they also
accept the ruling of the Shulchan Aruch! For example, the Aruch
HaShulchan (472:14) permits someone who is ill to refrain from consuming
the four cups on Seder night, and the Mishnah Berurah rules
similarly (472:35). They explain that the harmone must experience to
fulfill the mitzvah does not include physical harm, but is limited to
discomfort or moderate pain.
In Shaar HaTziyun, the
Mishnah Berurah explains why he permits refraining from arba
kosos under such circumstances: Becoming bedridden because one consumed arba
kosos is not derech cheirus, which I will translate as demonstrating
freedom. His reference to derech cheirus alludes to the following Gemara:
One who drinks the
wine undiluted has fulfilled the requirement of arba kosos, but he did not
fulfill the requirement of demonstrating freedom (Pesachim 108b).
What does this Gemara
mean? Why does drinking one’s wine straight not fulfill this mitzvah called demonstrating
The wine of the Gemara’s
era required one to dilute it before drinking. Imbibing it straight was not
the normal method of drinking and, therefore, would not demonstrate the freedom
that the Seder emphasizes.
The Mishnah Berurah
contends that a mitzvah whose purpose is to demonstrate that we are freemen
cannot require becoming bedridden as a result. Although a potential massive
headache, such as what affected Rabbi Yehudah, does not exempt one from the
mitzvah, becoming bedridden is qualitatively worse. The Aruch HaShulchan rules
similarly, although he omits the reasoning of derech cheirus and simply
assumes that the mitzvah does not apply under these circumstances.
(There may be a
difference of opinion between the Mishnah Berurah and the Aruch
HaShulchan germane to mitzvas maror. The Mishnah Berurah’s
reason of derech cheirus applies only to the arba kosos, and
therefore he might hold that one must eat maror even if he becomes
bedridden as a result. However, the Aruch HaShulchan’s ruling may apply
to any rabbinic mitzvah, and thus permit someone who would become ill from
eating maror to abstain from performing this mitzvah.)
Let us assume that our
patient could drink grape juice without any ill result, but may have some
difficulty with wine. Is there a requirement for him/her to drink wine?
The Gemara states
that “One may squeeze a cluster of grapes and then immediately recite Kiddush
over it” (Bava Basra 97b). Obviously, this grape juice has no alcoholic
content, and yet it is acceptable for Kiddush.
However, the Gemara’s
ruling that someone who drank the arba kosos without dilution does not
fulfill cheirus implies that the Seder mitzvah requires a wine
with alcoholic content, and therefore grape juice does not perform this aspect
of the mitzvah. Nevertheless, someone who cannot have any alcohol may fulfill
the mitzvah of arba kosos with grape juice (Shu”t Shevet HaLevi 9:58).
Is it better for
someone to dilute their wine with water, rather than drink grape juice?
contend that one fulfills the concept of cheirus as long as one can
detect alcoholic content, even though the wine is diluted. However, before
diluting our wine with water, contact the manufacturer or the hechsher,
since some wines are already diluted to the maximum halachically
allowable that one can and still recite over it hagafen. The Pri
Megadim (Eishel Avraham 204:16) rules that although Chazal diluted
their wine significantly (Shabbos 77a), our wine is very weak and should
be diluted only moderately. He contends that if one adds more water than wine
the bracha becomes shehakol; one can certainly not use this wine
for Kiddush or arba kosos. The Aruch HaShulchan (204:14)
rules even more strictly, that any added water renders our wines shehakol
and invalidates them for Kiddush or arba kosos. I suspect
that this was not a dispute, but a reflection of the quality of the wine
available; the wine available to the Pri Megadim could be diluted
without ruining it, as long as there was more wine than water, whereas that
available to the Aruch HaShulchan was easily ruined.
On the other hand,
diluting wine with grape juice does not jeopardize the bracha, and, if
the alcohol content is still noticeable, one will fulfill the concept of cheirus.
ARBA KOSOS SUBSTITUTES
If someone cannot
drink four cups of wine or grape juice, should they simply not drink anything
for the arba kosos?
The Mishnah Berurah
rules that one may substitute chamar medinah, literally, the
national “wine.” This follows a ruling of the Rama (483) that
someone who has no available wine may fulfill the mitzvah of arba kosos with
Exactly what chamar
medinah includes is beyond the scope of this article. For our purposes, I
will simply note that there is much discussion about this matter, some rabbonim
holding that tea or coffee qualifies, others contending that it must be
alcoholic and still others maintaining that most places today have no chamar
Thus far, we have
concluded that someone who becomes ill enough to be bedridden may not be
obligated in arba kosos, but someone who finds drinking four cups of
wine or grape juice uncomfortable and even painful, but does not become
bedridden as a result, is required to drink them. However, note that sometimes
one may be lenient and use a smaller cup and drink a smaller proportion of its
wine than we would usually permit. These are matters to discuss with one’s rav.
WHAT ABOUT MATZOH?
Our second question
above read: “My body is intolerant of gluten. Am I required to eat matzoh on
Pesach, and if so, how much?”
discussion only explained the rules pursuant to drinking the four cups of wine,
which is a rabbinic mitzvah. Does any leniency exist to exempt someone from
eating matzoh Seder night, in non-life-threatening situations? Granted one is
certainly not required or permitted to eat matzoh if doing so may be
life-threatening; but if the results are simply discomfort, to what degree must
one extend oneself to observe a positive mitzvah min hatorah?
The Binyan Shelomoh
(#47), a nineteenth century work authored by Rav Shelomoh of Vilna, the city’s halachic
authority at the time, discusses this very issue. (Out of deference to the
Vilna Gaon, the Jewish community of Vilna appointed no one to the title of rav
from the passing of the Gaon, until the government required them to do so,
in the era of Rav Chayim Ozer Grodzenski, over a hundred and twenty years
later.) In a lengthy responsum, The Binyan Shelomoh establishes how far
someone who is ill must go to eat matzoh, when there is nothing
life-threatening. He based his analysis on the following law:
Chazal prohibited spending more than one fifth of one’s money to
fulfill a positive mitzvah (Rambam, Hilchos Arachin 8:13, based on Gemara
Kesubos 50a. See also Rambam’s Peirush HaMishnayos Pei’ah 1:1).
The Binyan Shelomoh
reasons that since maintaining good health is more important to most people
than spending a fifth of one’s money, one is exempt from performing a mitzvah
that will impair one’s health, even when there is no risk to one’s life. (We
find other authorities who derive similar laws from this halacha. See
for example, Shu”t Avnei Nezer, Yoreh Deah #321; Shu”t Igros Moshe,
Even HaEzer 1:57). The Binyan Shelomoh applies this rule to all mitzvos:
One is exempt from observing any mitzvah, if fulfilling it will seriously
impair one’s health. Furthermore, one could conclude that, if fulfilling a
mitzvah causes such intense discomfort that one would part with one fifth of
one’s financial resources to avoid this pain, one may forgo the mitzvah.
According to the Binyan
Shelomoh, if this law is true regarding matzoh, it will certainly hold true
regarding arba kosos and maror, which are only rabbinic
requirements. Thus, someone who will not be bedridden as a result of consuming arba
kosos or maror, but whose health will be severely impaired as a
result of this consumption is absolved from fulfilling this mitzvah, as will
someone to whom the consumption is so unpleasant that he would gladly part with
one fifth of his earthly possessions to avoid this situation.
MATZOH AND WINE
If we assume that the Mishnah
Berurah accepts the Binyan Shelomoh’s approach and vice versa, we
would reach the following conclusion:
Someone whose health
will be severely impaired is not required to eat matzoh on Pesach, even if no
life-threatening emergency results.
Aside from the above
leniency regarding matzoh, there is an additional leniency regarding the arba
kosos.Someone who will become sick enough that he will be bedridden
is absolved from drinking four cups at the Seder, even though it will not result
in any permanent health problems. However, it is unclear whether this latter
leniency extends also to the rabbinic mitzvah of maror.
In the last few years,
matzoh for Pesach produced from either spelt or oat flour has become available.
For a variety of reasons beyond the scope of this article, only someone who may
not eat regular matzoh should eat these matzohs on Pesach. However, someone who
is absolved from eating matzoh on Pesach according to the above-mentioned
definition, but who can eat either of these varieties of matzoh, should eat
them to fulfill the mitzvah on the first night of Pesach. Someone who can
tolerate both spelt and oat matzoh should eat spelt.
Regarding this topic, the following responsum by the great nineteenth century authority, the Maharam
Shik (Shu”t #260) is of interest.
Someone for whom eating matzoh or maror was potentially life-threatening
insisted on eating them at the Seder, against the halacha. The Maharam
Shik was asked whether this person should recite the bracha al
achilas matzoh before eating the matzoh and al achilas maror before
eating the maror!
The Maharam Shik
responded that he is uncertain whether the patient may recite any bracha
at all before eating the matzoh and the maror, even the bracha of
hamotzi! His reason is that consuming harmful food is not considered
eating, but is considered damaging oneself, and one does not recite a bracha
prior to inflicting self-harm! The Maharam then questions his
supposition, demonstrating that someone who overeats recites a bracha, even
though he is clearly damaging himself. He therefore concludes that one does not
recite a bracha when eating something that causes immediate damage.
However, when eating something where the damage is not immediate, reciting a bracha
before eating is required.
Pursuant to the
original shaylah whether one recites al achilas matzoh before
eating the matzoh and al achilas maror before eating the maror,
the Maharam Shik concludes that one should not recite
these brachos in this situation. Since the patient is not permitted to
eat matzoh and maror which is dangerous to his life, he is not
performing a mitzvah when eating them, but a sin of ignoring the proper care
his body requires, and one does not recite a bracha prior to transgressing.
In conclusion, anyone
to whom these shaylos are, unfortunately, relevant should discuss them
with his/her rav. We found that the Shulchan Aruch rules that one
is required to fulfill arba kosos, even if one will suffer a severe
headache as a result, and certainly if one despises the taste. However, should
one become bedridden as a result or suffer severe health consequences, there
are authorities who permit forgoing drinking wine or grape juice and
substituting a different beverage that qualifies as chamar medinah.
Similarly, there are authorities who permit forgoing consuming matzoh at the
Seder if one would suffer severe health consequences as a result — even if the
situation is not life-threatening.
Although not everyone
may be able to fulfill the mitzvos of eating matzoh, maror, and arba
kosos, hopefully, all will be able to discuss the miracles that Hashem
performed when removing us from Egypt. In the merit of joyously performing the mitzvos
of Seder night, may we soon see the return of the Divine Presence to
Yerushalayim, the rededication of the Beis HaMikdash, and be zocheh
to fulfill all of these mitzvos, including the korban pesach!