Mental Health Risks Override Shabbos (Shabbos 29)

King Shaul, the first king of Israel, was an incredible individual. Standing head and shoulders above most people, his towering presence was matched by his righteousness. A powerful military leader, he led the Israelite nation in a successful campaign against their arch-nemesis, Amalek. But then one day, something went wrong. Due to personal and work-related pressures, combined presumably with an internal chemical imbalance, he became depressed.

Shaul’s courtiers said to him, “Depression has overcome you. Let our lord give the order, and the courtiers in attendance on you will look for someone who is skilled at playing the lyre. Whenever depression strikes, he will play it and you will feel better.” So Shaul said to his courtiers, “Find me someone who can play well and bring him to me.” One of the attendants spoke up, “I have observed a son of Yishai the Bethlehemite who is skilled in music; he is a stalwart fellow and a warrior, sensible in speech, and handsome in appearance, and Hashem is with him.”

King Shaul sent messengers to Yishai, saying, “Send me your son David, who is with the flock.” Yishai took a donkey laden with bread, a skin of wine, and a goat, and sent them to Shaul by his son David. David came to Shaul and entered his service. Shaul took a strong liking to him and made him one of his arms-bearers. Shaul sent word to Yishai, “Let David remain in my service, for I am pleased with him.” Whenever depression overcame Shaul, David would take the lyre and play it. King Shaul would find relief and feel momentarily better.

מַתְנִי׳ הַמְכַבֶּה אֶת הַנֵּר מִפְּנֵי שֶׁהוּא מִתְיָרֵא מִפְּנֵי גּוֹיִם וּמִפְּנֵי לִיסְטִים, מִפְּנֵי רוּחַ רָעָה, מִפְּנֵי הַחוֹלֶה שֶׁיִּישַׁן — פָּטוּר
One who extinguishes a lamp on Shabbat because he is afraid of gentile attacks or thieves, or depression, or for a sick person to be able to sleep, is patur (not liable).

Generally, when our Sages use the term ‘patur’ (not liable), they mean that it is nonetheless forbidden. In this instance, however, the Gemara teaches that all of these situations are actually permissible to engage in. In fact, the Ritva points out that if there is any doubt whatsoever that there may be danger to life, one is not only permitted, but obligated to engage in these activities.

Of note is the Mishnah’s recognition that mental health concerns are entirely valid grounds for overriding the basic laws of Shabbos. If we have so much as a doubt that someone is suffering from mental health issues and there may be devastating consequences resulting from their inability to sleep properly, their health needs take priority over Shabbos and we must extinguish the flame.

Judaism has always recognized that mental health concerns are just as real as health concerns affecting any other limb of the body. We never tell a person, ‘Don’t worry, you’ll get over your broken arm.’ Likewise, it is reckless to say, ‘You’ll get over your mental health issues.’ We treat such matters with the utmost seriousness. Thank God, modern medicine has progressed since the time of King Saul, and we have various treatments for many mental health conditions. Nevertheless, science still has a long way to go for many who are struggling.

Mental health ailments can strike anyone at any time. While some may be at greater risk of chemical imbalances, challenging circumstances may trigger an upset in the internal balance of any individual. We must be ever-vigilant about protecting the limb of every person’s health, external and internal. If we have so much as a doubt that their health is dangerously at risk, we must do everything possible – including overriding Shabbos – to keep them safe.

This week, we are celebrating Pesach in unprecedented circumstances. We are all isolated from one another physically. Some are fortunate to have immediate family members living with them. But many people are anticipating the “Three Day Yom Tov” (the colloquial name for when Yom Tov and Shabbos run back-to-back) with fear and dread, at the thought of being cut off from any human contact for three days.

In our community, we are doing our very best to arrange for volunteers to check on people who will be alone for Yom Tov. That’s helpful, but it’s not fail proof. At any moment, an individual might find themselves overwhelmed by loneliness and terrified. If you are in such a situation, know that you are not alone. Rav Schechter, Rosh Yeshiva at YU, has made it clear that even if one is in a state of slightest doubt of danger, including mental anxiety, they must pick up the phone. Likewise, if you know of anyone that might be in such a situation, you are obligated to pick up the phone to them to check on them. At Hampstead Garden Suburb Synagogue, we will have a dedicated phone-line, staffed by Mark, our facilities manager. He will be available 24/7 and able to help with whatever you may need, even if it’s just to chat with a familiar voice.

Shabbos and Yom Tov are of paramount importance to Judaism. We want to make sure that you’re able to keep many more Shabbatot for many more years to come. May you always place every area of your health, physical and mental, as the top priority in your life!

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Daniel Friedman is the author of The Transformative Daf book series.
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