Should I fast if I get migraines - Matan - The Sadie Rennert

Should I fast if I get migraines Rabbanit Debbie Zimmerman

Tammuz 5782 | June 2022

Topic : Three Weeks , Fast Days , Shayla ,


At some point on most fast days, I get a horrible migraine, sometimes it’s so bad I start vomiting. Nothing helps except if I eat a bit and lie down in a dark room and do nothing until it passes. Since I often have to break my fast and I feel awful, should I even start fasting on minor fast days?


To answer your question, we first have to understand the source of the obligation of what have come to be referred to as “minor fast days” – 10 Tevet, 17 Tammuz, and 3 Tishrei – Tzom Gedalia.[i] Then we’ll need to understand who is exempt from these days and where the illness you describe fits in.

The source of the obligation

Fasts in these months are first mentioned by the prophets.[ii] The Gemara (Rosh HaShana 18b) explains that the nature of these days is determined by the wellbeing of Jews worldwide. In times of shalom (peace) they become days of celebration; when Jews are persecuted, they are obligatory fasts; and in the absence of both peace and persecution “if they want – they fast, if they want – they don’t fast”. The Gemara explains that Tisha B’Av is stricter because of the many great tragedies that took place; therefore, the fast is obligatory until it becomes a festival in a time of peace.[iii]

There is much discussion about the definition of shalom and persecution, as well as the nature of the obligation in modern times. Many Rishonim defined shalom as a period when the Beit Hamikdash stands.[iv] Therefore, even though we live in unprecedented times, modern poskim (halakhic authorities) generally agree that these fasts are still relevant.

Supposedly, in such times the Gemara states “if they want – they fast, if they want – they don’t fast”. Tosafot, however, explain that even though these fasts were once voluntary they have since become compulsory; since previous generations took upon themselves to fast in times when there was no persecution this has become binding as a rabbinic obligation for future generations.[v] Shulchan Aruch (OC 550:1) rules that these fast days are obligatory, and no one should deviate from the traditional behavior.

Exemption for the sick

There is a general rule that “the rabbis did not include the sick in their decrees.” Consequently, Shulchan Aruch (OC 554:6) rules in accordance with Ramban that on all rabbinic fast days, including Tisha B’Av, “a sick person who needs to eat does not need to be evaluated (by an expert), rather he is immediately fed, for the rabbis did not include the sick in their decree.” Rema comments that one should not be worried about acting leniently and Mishna Berura (ibid 16) adds that one should not be stringent.

Aruch HaShulchan (ibid 4) explains that this “choleh” is obviously not someone who is so dangerously ill they are bedridden, since such a person does not fast on Yom Kippur – when there is a strict Torah obligation – it is clear they are not obligated to fast rabbinic fasts. Rather, this refers to what is often known as a “choleh she-ein bo Sakana” or just a “choleh.” Therefore, anyone who is sick or recovering from a serious illness which fasting can exacerbate should not fast. However, someone who is not actually sick but merely doesn’t feel well and can mostly function, is considered “meichush be-alma” and is still obligated to fast. The line between these definitions can be fine. For example Chayei Adam (II 135:2) states that someone who is generally weak, even if it is not dangerous, should not fast.

Mishna Berura brings a similar halakha about the “minor fasts” from a different direction. Rema (OC 550:1) states that pregnant or breastfeeding women who are severely uncomfortable do not fast on these days. Mishna Berura (ibid 4) learns that a “choleh she-ein bo sakana” is an even more severe case and is therefore certainly exempt from fasting and “may not regard themselves stringently”.

In summary, a “choleh” is generally understood to be a person who cannot function because of illness, or for whom fasting will lead to such a state. Therefore, someone suffering from a severe, debilitating migraine or for whom migraines are triggered by fasting, is certainly exempt from fasting on “minor fast days” and possibly also on Tisha B’Av.[vi]

“Minor fast days” – What should you do?

On the “minor fast days” you are certainly exempt, and you should not be strict with yourself and possibly make yourself sick.

Nevertheless, there are two distinctions that should be made if there is a way to avoid getting sick. First, while someone who is likely to suffer from a migraine should not fast on minor fast days, someone who can probably avoid them if they are physically prepared may want to try to fast under certain conditions. For example, if someone only gets migraines when they are dehydrated, they may want to try drinking extra water for the three days before the fast, eating a proper meal before the fast with a balance of protein, complex carbohydrates, and fruits with high water content, and avoiding heat and strenuous activities on the fast day.

Should you try this?

Because you are exempt on minor fast days, I only recommend you try this if you’re able to stop your migraines from progressing once you start to feel ill. In this case, you may start the fast day if you make sure that you have whatever you need to break your fast and avoid any escalation and do so the moment you start feeling any precursors for a migraine. However, if your migraine comes on with little warning and you’re unsure you’ll be able to stop it, then you are not only exempt, you may not fast on the minor fast days.

If the above is confusing or you are uncertain what applies to you – do not fast. As we saw above many halakhic authorities oppose “being strict” and attempting to fast when it could lead to ill health.

A note on being stringent

Some people insist on fasting even when this makes them sick or sicker. Rav Moshe Sternbuch strongly opposes such a practice and brings the following anecdote:

Rav Chaim of Brisk zt”l explained that since the decree of the fast does not apply, even if one fasts it would not fulfill the mitzva of fasting on Tisha Be-Av, because the fast does not apply. (And I remember walking one time with the Gaon of Brisk Rav Yitzchak Ze’ev Soloveitchik (HaGri”z) zt”l and he saw a Jew who passed by us who was sick with diabetes, and HaGri”z chased after him and said to him – I am worried you will fast on Tisha Be-Av. You should know that you are sick and should not fast.) (Teshuvot v’Hanhagot Vol. IV 130)

Feeling the fast without fasting

One should not feel guilty if they are exempt and eat on a fast day. In this case eating on a fast day is the way to fulfill the will of our Creator. Eat and drink normal foods as needed, although not in excess.[vii] Most of all, I urge you to remember that many of our great thinkers understood the fast to be an important means, and not the goal of the day.

Rambam Hilchot Taaniyot 5:1

There are days that all of Israel fasts because of the tragedies that happened on that date, to awaken the hearts and open the paths of repentance and it should be a remembrance of our evil deeds and the deeds of our forefathers that were like our deeds now, which caused these tragedies to befall them and us. And upon remembering these things we will return to do good as it says “They will confess their sins and the sins of their fathers.” (Vayikra 26)

Mishna Berura 549:1

Therefore, every person should take to heart on those [fast] days, and search their actions and return from them. For the fast is not the essence, as it is written about the people of NInveh: “God saw their actions,” and Chazal said: It does not say “their sackloth and fasting” but rather “their actions,” because the fast is nothing but preparation for repentance. Therefore, those people who take walks and do idle things have seized onto what is secondary and cast aside the essence.

I pray that this teshuva will soon be irrelevant as these days will become “days of joy and happiness and festivals.” Zecharya does not say this will happen because we fast, but rather “this is what you should do: a man should speak truth to his fellow and you should judge truth and peaceful justice in your gates… love truth and peace.” Just as one can refrain from eating without properly observing the fast day, one can eat and still embrace the introspection and repentance incumbent on the day.


[i] Ta’anit Esther is also considered a “minor fast day” and practically has many of the same rules, although the source of the obligation is different.

[ii] Zecharia Chapters 7 – 8:19

[iii] This is in accordance with Rashi’s explanation of the gemara.

[iv] Rabbenu Chananel 18b, Ramban, Torat Ha-Adam, Sha’ar Aveilut Yeshana, 243, Tur OC 550

[v] Megilla 5 “v’rachatz b’krona shel Tzipori

[vi] In some cases, where a choleh she-ein bo sakana may, as a result of fasting, become a choleh she-yeish bo sakana, there can be room for leniency with halachic guidance even on Yom Kippur. (Igrot Moshe OC Vol III 91) Migraines that lead to vomiting could lead to dehydration, so please follow up before Yom Kippur.

[vii] Mishna Berura 550:4

Rabbanit Debbie Zimmerman Debbie Zimmerman graduated from the first cohort of Hilkhata – Matan’s Advanced Halakhic Institute and is a Halakhic Responder. She is a multi-disciplinary Jewish educator, with over a decade of experience in adolescent and adult education. After completing a BA in Social Work, Debbie studied Tanakh in the Master’s Program for Bible in Matan and Talmud in Beit Morasha.

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