When Saving Lives Trumps Tradition


The original source describing the law of fasting on Yom Kippur brings to mind the story of a great rabbi who broke with tradition by eating on the holiday to save lives during a plague.

The most distinctive observance of Yom Kippur is fasting, prescribed in Acharei Mot, at Leviticus 16:29: “[It] shall be to you a law for all time [that] in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall practice self-denial [fasting].” However, the value of preserving life outweighs fasting on Yom Kippur.
The Talmudic sages interpreted another verse in Acharei Mot (Leviticus 18:5) to permit the relaxation of rituals when life is at risk. The verse reads: “You shall keep My laws and My rules, by the pursuit of which human beings shall live … ” The Babylonian Talmud Yoma 85b adds the amendment, “You shall live by them but you shall not die because of them.” 
David Frischmann (1859-1922) wrote a short story, “Three Who Ate,” which takes place “not on an ordinary day … but on the Day of Atonement; not hidden where no one could see them, but openly, in the great synagogue, before the entire congregation … Nor were they strangers, but the most honored citizens of the community: the Rav and his two dayanim. And yet they remained, even after having eaten in public on the Day of Atonement, the most honored citizens of the community.”
Why did the chief rabbi and his two associates commit this public violation of the fast? During the summer, an outbreak of cholera caused the death of hundreds. “… [T]he worst of its grim work the plague did in the Jewish ghetto. Like flies people fell, young and old. There was no house but had its dead. … They who buried the dead grew weary.
The corpses lay upon the ground, body against body, yet people no longer cared.”
Yom Kippur came during the epidemic. After Kol Nidre, the Rav ascended the bimah. One would have expected him “to deliver a sermon to console the mourners and strengthen their faith.” Instead, “he intoned a prayer for the recent dead” and called out their names. “The minutes passed one after another, and there seemed to be no end to this enumeration of the victims.”
At noon on Yom Kippur, the Rav and his dayanim stood on the bimah and announced permission for everyone to eat and drink. No one stirred. Then the Rav ordered the people to eat. No one stirred. Then the Rav summoned the shammes and whispered in his ear. In a little while, the shammes returned from the Rav’s home with wine and cake. Then the three rabbis ate and drank before the entire congregation.
Frischmann concludes the story by calling the rabbis heroes. “Who can measure the struggle that must have torn their hearts? Who can weigh their pain and suffering?” What did the congregation do? They “ate — ate and wept.”
Frischmann no doubt had in mind the bold action of Rabbi Israel Lipkin Salanter (1810-1883). In 1848, a cholera epidemic swept through Vilna. Salanter gave permission for Jews to do relief work on the Sabbath and when Yom Kippur came, he ordered the congregation of the Great Synagogue in Vilna to eat.
When many Jews ignored his ruling, Salanter stood on the pulpit of the synagogue at the end of the morning service, took out wine and cake, said the blessings and then drank and ate before the entire congregation. Torah-observant Jews who saw Salanter drink and eat on Yom Kippur now felt free to break their fast and take sustenance. For the rest of his life, Salanter believed that his action had helped to save many lives.
Rabbi Fred V. Davidow is the chaplain at Glendale Uptown Home. Email him at: [email protected]


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