Note: According to the Etz Chaim bulletin, the fast of Tzom Gedaliah ends in Kew Gardens Hills, New York, in this year, 2008, at 7:17 PM.
I was reading through Sh"ut Maharil over Rosh Hashanah, and encountered a few interesting teshuvot. Here, in teshuva 45, is one which bears some relevance to an ongoing topic, which I put aside for a while (but is still a work in progress) -- the series on the obligation, or option, or else prohibition, of fasting nowadays during the four fasts (Tzom Gedaliah included -- see the label shivasar betammuz).
I was actually reading it in a critical edition of Maharil, which noted alternate readings from difference printings, such as who it was addressed to, etc.
But anyway, the teshuva, as printed to the right, captures most of the essence. It is not made absolutely clear what the she`eilah was. But it seems to me that the situation was similar to the case presented before Shlomo haMelech, though with only one woman. (Though this is only my best attempt at reconstruction. See below, in parens.)
That is, a woman who was found by her a child that died -- perhaps when she awoke, and the thought was that she rolled over and smothered it by accident. According to the Geonim, such an instance is not just a tragedy, but one for which the woman is responsible -- it is an accident close to meizid, deliberate, in that it was an act of negligence, perhaps. Nowadays, we may or may not agree with this assessment. (See this Wikipedia article on co-sleeping.)
It also seems that in such a case, they were machmirim. That is, they were stringent upon her to perform some kind of physical atonement, some practical suffering or self-affliction as a means of atoning for meizid or near-meizid. And this would involve fasting. (I wonder at the usefulness of such a practice. In general, today, we do not engage in such self-affliction. Here, it has the effect of making the woman feel guilty for this incidence of SIDS -- which they obviously felt she was, and perhaps she was. But giving a definite fixed course of approved action in which one beats oneself up and then is declared to have atoned may -- or may not -- have a positive psychological effect.)
In the expanded teshuva, the Maharil says "tzar li" on the incident. And as we see here, he explains that he is conflicted. On the one hand, the Geonim said what they said. On the other hand, the woman in question is pregnant, and he says that he is not able to be machmir upon a pregnant woman that she should fast, for there are some women who -- the critical edition brings printings which inject "from the many fastings" -- lose the pregnancy.
That, I would note, would of course double the tragedy, besides for the fact that just for penance we would not put a fetus at risk. So he says he would not be machmir upon her in such a case.
(As noted above, this was only my best attempt at reconstruction of the case. If you have an alternative reading, please drop me a comment. For example, perhaps it is not an accidentally smothered infant, but rather a miscarriage, and the question is if she is at fault, such that it is shogeg karov lemaizid. But perhaps we can fault fasting for this miscarriage, which is why he is generally not machmir? There are difficulties with this reading.)
This may bear relevance to a post which exists two posts ago in this series, in which I discussed possible justification for a modern rabbinic position stating that pregnant and nursing women should not fast on Tisha BeAv. This despite the fact that there is an explicit gemara in which Rava states that pregnant and nursing women should fast (and complete/compensate for the fast, on Tisha BeAv). The other three fasts, we saw justification for not fasting, and I elaborated on that and showed how a new assessment of the teva might raise their level to that of cholah, such that they should not fast. See there.
What this teshuva would contribute is a historical acknowledgment that fasting can cause miscarriage, and a resulting halachic reluctance to prescribe fasting. This could then provide halachic precedence (not that any such is needed) for such a scientific realization, a different appreciation of the metziut. On the other hand, there are those alternate girsaot which make clear that this is the result of many fasts -- just as some studies show an impact on premature labor from prolonged fasting, such as for Ramadan. But back on that first hand, if other studies were to show that there is indeed an impact from such a fast as Tisha BeAv, then the same justification may apply. And back to that second hand, one could possibly draw a distinction from imposing this optional fast of affliction for shogeg karov lemeizid, as opposed to a required fast such as Tisha BeAv. And back to the first hand, if there is indeed a real danger, one may easily argue that the same reasoning should apply.
I should stress, not halacha lemaaseh. But I thought that this teshuva of the Maharil brings something interesting to the table in terms of this discussion.