Another Perspective on Pregnant and Nursing Women Fasting

Guest post by Miriam Gedwiser

[I’d like to thank Maharat Rachel Kohl Finegold for giving me this forum to respond to her post, and more generally to parallel conversations going on in various fora.]

Last year around this time my daughter announced to her preschool class that I was not fasting on Yom Kippur because I was nursing.  In fact I was planning to fast (and did), but I had mentioned to her that it would be a difficult one for me, and I was planning to spend most of the day in bed.  The physical drain from nursing her toddler brother was minimal at that point, but (unknown to her) I was pregnant.  When her pronouncement made it into the class newsletter I worried that I had indirectly, and inadvertently, contributed to the misconception that the pregnant and nursing women should, as a default, not fast.

Before I had children I shared that misconception.  When I got pregnant with my first child, I started to research the halachot and was shocked to learn that there was no blanket permission for pregnant women to eat – small quantities or otherwise.  Then my surprise turned to anxiety.  Like some many women in their first pregnancies, I was immersed in the American culture of aggressively safeguarding the prenatal environment from even a whiff of danger.  I got anxious from just walking past someone smoking in the street, lest the tar reach the baby.  How could fasting be OK?  I called a female advisor thinking that perhaps there was some off-the-books permissive ruling, only to get the same answer:  otherwise healthy pregnant women should fast, resting as much as possible, and break their fast if there was concern for the baby.

At this point I was, perhaps, a poster child for the inadequate approach to these questions Maharat Rachel Kohl Finegold is pushing up against.  Faced with what seemed an uncompromising rule, I felt scared and alone, but I didn’t feel like I had a choice.  I fasted on Tisha B’Av by spending the day almost entirely in bed.

By Yom Kippur we had told our families about my pregnancy and I asked my mother what she had done when pregnant with me.  My due date was near my birthday so she would have been around the same stage of pregnancy when Yom Kippur came around.  She told me that she fasted and davened normally, which gave me some hope.  In the end I stayed home for most of the day out of an abundance of caution, coming to shul only for neilah.

I have been at various stages of pregnancy, nursing, or both every Tisha B’av and Yom Kippur since then, and have fasted each one (with, crucially, childcare support).  That this has worked for me does not mean it will work for everyone, of course.  But my story causes me to question Maharat Rachel’s assertion that no one can convince a pregnant woman to “FEEL differently” about fasting.  While the halachic advice I received did not succeed in changing my feelings directly, it did indirectly.  Fasting despite my apprehensions taught me that my body was capable of more than I expected, and that I did not need to be cut off from the central experience of the central day of the Jewish calendar during my childbearing years.

Of course I would have appreciated some more sensitivity along the way – perhaps the authorities I consulted could have suggested I speak to women who fasted about the experience (as I eventually did with my mother), or even shared their own stories.  Further, lack of sensitivity and poor communication might lead people who should not be fasting to fast and harm themselves or their babies, and I think Maharat Rachel has given powerful voice to that concern.  But there is an opposite concern that I fear is lost in the rush for sensitivity:  Overemphasizing subjective perceptions and anxieties will lead women who could have and should have fasted to eat instead.

The Shulchan Aruch (OH 617:2) rules that if a pregnant woman experiences a craving on Yom Kippur, the first step is to whisper in her ear that today is Yom Kippur.  If that works to pacify her, all the better.  If not, she is fed until her mind is settled.  What the contemporary equivalent of such a whisper would be for a woman gripped not by an irrational craving but by fear for her fetus is a delicate pastoral question.  But we can’t skip the whispering step.

Which brings me to shiurim.  The reason it is preferable for those who must break the fast to eat and drink in small quantities is not that small quantities are not really forbidden.  The halachah follows R. Yohanan’s position that “hatzi shiur assur min hatorah,”* even partial servings are biblically forbidden.  If even minimal quantities are forbidden biblically, just like larger servings, why are so many people going to sit with shot glasses of liquid and stopwatches this Yom Kippur, making sure they never consume a full shiur within the allotted time?  Because the smaller amounts, while still forbidden, do not accrue punishment – in the case of Yom Kippur, the punishment of karet (“excision”).

Ponder that for a minute.  The tradition treats eating on Yom Kippur with such trepidation that even those with a perfectly legitimate medical dispensation are advised, if possible, to eat minimal amounts. Just in case they really should be fasting, they will not be liable for the punishment.  This sense of dread is perhaps what led many generations of pregnant women, or infirm elders, to fast despite medical and rabbinic advice to the contrary.  It is what led my father, a”h, to look visibly shaken when he learned that his elderly aunt had been given her required medicine on Yom Kippur not with water (the doctor- and rabbi- approved plan), but with a high-calorie drink.  But more than that, the dread, the trepidation, the awe, are part of what leads people to stand in shul all day, to cry, to aspire to be like angels.

If the days of awe are to live up to that name, the discussion of fasting needs to take place under the constant shadow of fear and trembling, not just ways of peace.  It needs to recognize that while the consequences of someone fasting when they should not can be terrible, not fasting when one should is also terrible.  Sometimes a rabbinic figure’s job is to dissuade vulnerable people from endangering themselves.  But sometimes, his or her job is to persuade people –  like myself of six years ago – that pregnant people are still people, that people still need atonement, and that (unless medically counterindicated) we should fast.

May we all merit to observe the upcoming shabbat shabbaton (ultimate sabbath) in its fullest, and achieve a gmar hatimah tovah for ourselves, our families, and everyone.

 

Miriam Gedwiser teaches at the Drisha Institute for Jewish Education and is admitted to the New York bar.  She lives in Manhattan with her spouse and children.

 

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