Indigestible Matzos, or Performing Mitzvos When Suffering from Food Allergies
Question #1: I have acid reflux, and 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 to 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 when the only variety available is straight horseradish?
Consuming matzoh, maror, wine or grape juice is uncomfortable for many people for a variety of reasons. Consumption of these foods exacerbates many 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 whether 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 pesach.)
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 to grain may not consume matzoh or any other grain product – ever — and this prohibition applies fully on Seder night.
NOT DANGEROUS BUT UNPLEASANT
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? As always, our column is not intended to provide psak halacha; that should be left for one’s personal rav. Our goal is to provide halachic background.
RABBI YEHUDAH’S HEADACHE
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 tells us the following anecdote:
Rabbi Yehudah 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.
However, several 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 harm (in Hebrew, mazik) one must undergo 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 freedom?
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 does 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 could not apply under these circumstances.
(There may be a difference in 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?
Some authorities contend that one fulfills this 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 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 very 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 stricter, that any added water renders our wines into 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 still fulfills 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 chamar medinah.
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 medinah.
SOME PRACTICAL SUGGESTIONS
Thus far, we have concluded that someone who will become 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 more 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 to gluten. Am I required to eat matzoh on Pesach, and if so, how much?”
Our previous 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, that 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 must someone ill 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.
DIFFERENCE BETWEEN 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.
In addition to the above leniencies regarding matzoh, there is an additional lenience regarding the arba kosos. Someone who will become sick enough that they will become 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 also extends 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.
No discussion of this topic is complete without mention of the following responsum by the great nineteenth century authority, the Maharam Shik (Shu”t #260). Someone for whom eating matzoh or maror is 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 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 since it 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 instead 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 and the rededication of the Beis HaMikdash, and be zocheh to fulfill all of these mitzvos including the korban pesach!