The crossover from Pesach cleaning to OCD

Before Pesach, we go on a mad cleaning spree. Some people start two weeks before, and some people start two months before. We get into all the nooks and crannies of our homes. We wash the floors, check all the kids’ pockets, and take half a day to vacuum the car. We may go ahead and meticulously scrub every square inch of our homes.

In some communities, we will even find furniture outside peoples houses because they were thinking of buying a new couch, table, or dresser. If they are thinking of replacing anything in their home this is the best time to do it, even if the old one is perfectly fine, because it’s easier to throw something away than spend hours cleaning it.

Is this a bit over-the-top?

Let’s consider some facts. In Jewish law, chametz the size of an olive should not be in our possession. An olive is actually pretty big when we consider the meticulousness of our cleaning regimen. I’ve known people who unscrew the mouthpiece of their phone (back when we had phones with mouthpieces) and clean it because it is possible crumbs may have entered the mouthpiece while they were talking. Now I don’t know of any mouthpiece of any telephone large enough to hold chametz the size of an olive.

Why do we do this?

Pesach, anxiety, and OCD

Going above and beyond in cleaning for Pesach is for some an act of love. It’s for our tradition; we want to show our devotion and do the best we can. In this case, our cleaning is an aspect of our observance and if there is not too much distress involved, this can be seen as a good thing. However, if cleaning for Pesach causes considerable stress and anxiety for the sufferer and for those around him and her, the ritual of cleaning may have passed its function of religious observance and is moving into a symptom of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD).

OCD causes obsessions and compulsions that can cause distress in our regular daily experience, but when it comes to Pesach, for the religious, the holiday can become a source of serious distress. During Pesach, OCD can manifest itself as repeated checking and excessive cleaning.

Obsessive thoughts repeat themselves and cause distress. Most people with OCD are aware that their thoughts are unusual or unreasonable. A person with OCD who continuously checks does not expect to actually find what they are checking for. The reason they do it is because the act of checking reduces anxiety. In the context of Pesach, repeatedly cleaning a piece of furniture, a room, or even the entire house, can cross over from religious observance into the realm of obsessions and compulsions.

Observance or obsession: how can you tell the difference?

Interestingly, one of the criteria for the diagnosis of OCD is awareness of irrational behavior. People with OCD know that it is not rational to check the stove over and over again, but they do it because it reduces anxiety. A part of them knows the stove is off, but another part jumps in with the anxious thought “is the stove off?” The rational part of the person knows the answer is yes, but this part of the person is not as strong as the anxious part. When the anxious part asks “are you sure?” the person can only answer “no”. The answer is no because he or she is not actually standing in front of the stove, and the only way to be positive is to turn around and check.

This situation, unfortunately, causes much distress in people who have OCD. They know, yet they don’t know.

This same strategy can be applied to Pesach cleaning. You have cleaned a piece of furniture and a part of you knows it’s clean. If you have another, more anxious part of you urgently asking “are you sure?” and it’s easier to clean it again than to confront that anxious part, you may be struggling with OCD.

OCD is treatable with both therapy and medication. If Pesach cleaning has become too much of a burden and a part of you knows you are going overboard, you may benefit from reaching out to a professional.

About the Author
Marcia Kesner is a Licensed Professional Counselor and Licensed Mental Health Counselor with over 25 years of experience and has offices in Brooklyn, New York and the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Her practice focuses on treatment-resistant, self-harming, and self-sabotaging behaviors and addictive disorders, as well as healing from the after-effects of trauma and abuse. Marcia has recently been incorporating more of an emphasis on shame resilience, vulnerability, and self-compassion into her work.
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