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In ריקאנטי number 166 (brought down here, #4), he brings a story about the ריב"א:

ושמעתי כי ריב"א חלה חוליו שמת בו וחל יוה"כ באותם הימים וא"ל הרופאים אם לא תאכלו ודאי תמות ואם תאכל שמא לא תחיה והוא ז"ל אמר ברי ושמא ברי עדיף ולא רצה לאכול ומת תנצב"ה

I heard that the ריב"א became sick with the illness that he would eventually die from. When Yom Kippur came, the doctors told him "If you don't eat, you will certainly die; if you eat, maybe you'll live." He said "ברי ושמא ברי עדיף (a certain thing and an uncertain thing, the certain thing takes precedence -- a Talmudic principle)," he didn't want to eat, and he died.

The ריב"א is dead wrong, at face value -- of course we not only allow but require people to eat on Yom Kippur when necessary in order to preserve their lives, even when it's only a doubtful case of פיקוח נפש. (See, e.g. Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 328; Rambam, Hilchot Shabbos 2)

What might the ריב"א have been thinking?
Also, what is the "ברי ושמא ברי עדיף," what is the "ברי," and what is the "שמא"? The certainty that he would die? The certainty that he gets a mitzvah for fasting on Yom Kippur, and the uncertainty of his survival? His reasoning doesn't appear to make much sense.

  • Apparently, דבר יהושע ח"ב צ"ד discusses this question, but I don't have access to one at this point in time. – MTL Nov 24 '14 at 20:47
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    "The ריב"א is dead wrong" - +1 just for that line. – Scimonster Nov 24 '14 at 20:50
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    Related story. Reb Moshe was very stringent to sleep in a succah on Succos because his father Reb Dovid slept in the succah even when it was dangerously cold. So dangerous in fact that Reb Dovid actualy got sick from sleeping outside and died from that sickness. So Reb Moshe figured if his father was willing to risk his life for this mitzvah, then he should be machmir as well. – user6591 Nov 24 '14 at 21:16
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Shaalos Uteshuvos Radbaz 3:444 says that perhaps the Riva felt that his time was up and knew that he would die either way and therefore did not eat.

"אפשר דריב"א ז"ל הרגיש בעצמו דאפילו שיאכל ימות ד'לב יודע מרת נפשו', והיינו דקאמר: ברי ושמא ברי עדיף. כלומר: הברי שלי [שאמות] עדיף משמא שלכם [שאולי תצילו אותי], ולפיכך לא רצה לאכול".‏

The "ברי" was the fact that he felt he would certainly die, whether he ate or not; against the שמא that the doctors thought that eating might heal him.

Thanks to http://www.daat.ac.il/mishpat-ivri/skirot/111-2.htm for this answer.

  • I've been thinking this through....this is still wrong, though, because יודע מרת נפשו, AFAIK, is a reason to treat a patient on שבת, even when a doctor says it's not needed; ימ"נ is never used to withhold treatment, at least not that I know of -- we try to convince patients of the need to be מחלל שבת, and if they don't listen, "אף כופין אותו" (Shmiras Shabbos K'Hilchasa 32:5) – MTL Nov 25 '14 at 14:51
  • I think that is why the Radbaz says that "perhaps", as even he finds it difficult to accept this as a reason for doing this. – Gershon Gold Nov 25 '14 at 14:55
  • Could be. Also, I haven't really looked at any sources earlier than שש"כ yet, so for all I know that particular ruling is not universally held in ראשונים. – MTL Nov 25 '14 at 14:57
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    I don't think the ברי was that he would die - it wasn't ברי he would die, if he ate he might live. The ברי was the violation of Yom Kippur. It was a ברי that if he ate he would be violating Yom Kippur and a שמא that he would survive. cc @Shokhet – Y     e     z Jan 9 '15 at 5:08

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