Mental Illness and Mourning, a Halachic View

With the 17th of Tamuz and then the three weeks and then 9 days of Jewish mourning coming up starting next week, I wanted to give a public service announcement regarding mental health and Judaism and specifically the laws of mourning. (Sorry will be using lots of Hebrew words. Will try to translate at the end. If I missed any, ask me what words mean.)

First off, I wanted to share that if you’re depressed, it’s not ‘fulfilling the mitzva of mourning’. Depression is not the same as halachic mourning and you aren’t supposed to be depressed during this time, and the minhagim of the time aren’t supposed to increase your depression but just to get you to acknowledge the loss of the temple. If you struggle with mental health, it’s a greater mitzva to do things to help make you happy than things to make you sad. Ask a rav about this but I was given a blanket psak from a chareidi rav that I was allowed to publicize that if you listen to music to help your mood you’re absolutely allowed to listen to it during the three weeks, nine days, and sfira and don’t need to ask specific heterim.

Secondly, you may be surprised at how many things may be allowed for mental health reasons that wouldn’t be allowed otherwise. For example, I was told that my anxiety that gets worse without eating enough food is enough of a reason not to fast on Tisha bav, that even if nothing bad would happen to me, even if I wasn’t in danger, I still shouldn’t fast. This however isn’t a blanket psak for others, you’d need to ask a specific rav about this for yourself, but I am happy to put you in touch with a chareidi rav that is very understanding about mental health and gives piskei halacha and heterim accordingly.

Third, I want to combat the misconception that heterim for mental health only come into play when things are life or death. Judaism is a beautiful religion and it isn’t about martyrdom. The Torah says vichai bahem, and you should live by them [the laws] and that doesn’t mean just literally live and not die, but actually have a beautiful life. Derachecha darchei Noam, the torahs ways are ways of pleasantness and as such there is lots of room for heterim when it comes to mental health especially when the mitzvot are derabanan which the 3 weeks/nine days and sfira are. If your mental health will suffer from following a certain psak speak to a rav, don’t assume that God wants you to suffer.

Which brings me to my last point, point four. I’m pretty vocal about sharing mental health psaks I get and others have gotten. Some people would be critical of that because piskei halacha and heterim are individualized especially when it comes to mental health.

I’m sharing specifically for two main reasons.

The first is because people with mental health issues are far less likely to ask for a heter about these kinds of things, because they believe a number of myths around the subject, including:

– they think they aren’t worthy of a rabbis time

– they think they deserve to suffer

– they think God wants them to suffer

– they don’t have enough mental energy to call up a rav to ask for a psak, especially if they think a rav won’t take them seriously

The second reason, which is really an extension of the first, is because hopefully someone who needs it will see my post, and it’ll prompt them to contact their rav and talk to them about mental health issues and relevant heterim.

Please, if you suffer from mental health issues, speak to a rav about your situation about how to approach these Jewish mourning periods and these fast days. If you don’t have a rav you can speak to, I can give you my rav’s number.

Three weeks /nine days /sfira =different times on the jewish calendar when we follow mourning customs.

Mitzva (plural mitzvot) =commandment

halachic =following Jewish law

Minhag (plural minhagim) =Jewish customs

Psak=halachic ruling (piskei Halacha is plural)

Chareidi=ultra orthodox /extemely strict interpretation of Jewish law

Rav=rabbi

Heter (plural heterim) =rabbinic dispensation within the bounds of Jewish law allowing you to do less/differently than standard because of prioritizing other Jewish laws

17th of tamuz and Tisha bav=two Jewish fast days connected to the destruction of the holy temple in jerusalem and other sad things in our history.

Derabanan= rabbinic laws vs biblical laws (dioraysa)

About the Author
Ronit Peskin is a chareidi single mother of 4 living in Kochav Yaakov, activist for mental health awareness, blogger at PennilessParenting.com about living a life with mindful spending, and foraging instructor, attempting to make a kiddush Hashem every day via her interactions with others.
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