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Does prioritizing one's mental health supersede adherence to Torah commandments until they have under control / recover from the intense mental health issues at hand?

For instance:

  • If attending synagogue causes anxiety.
  • If a man can only handle one child though peru urivu is more then that.
  • If wearing Tefillin serves as a trigger and negatively impacts one's mental state.
  • If fasting on Yom Kippur leads to depression.
  • If wearing Tzitzit brings back traumatic memories of abuse.

I acknowledge that the severity of these examples varies, but these are the examples that come to mind at the moment.

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  • Shalom has given a better answer than I ever could. It should be added that there are general principles that Torah is darchei shalom, it's ways are pleasant and peaceful, and it is supposed to be a cure, not a disease. There's much to be said that if something about the Torah is causing harm, it might be because it's not understood or applied properly, as the Torah intended. Deeper study and getting to the truth can help in the healing process so having to avoid the above all of one's life doesn't have to be inevitable.
    – Rabbi Kaii
    Commented Jun 13, 2023 at 13:22
  • A better proof is Yevamos 64b, following the Ben Yehoyada's approach (which actually makes for a simple pshat). "Wisdom gives life to its bearer"; if it's killing you, it's probably not wisdom. sefaria.org/… HOWEVER someone could attempt to say "pleasant ways" means I can eat cheeseburgers because I will feel only 99.99% as calm without one. Hence the need to get a sanity check (pun intended) from an outside expert.
    – Shalom
    Commented Jun 13, 2023 at 16:46
  • @Shmuel of course ... but some people may be in such difficult shape clinically that "go learn Torah" is not going to do it for them. Most of Mishlei is addressing normal psychology.
    – Shalom
    Commented Jun 13, 2023 at 19:08
  • The Rambam says when it comes to what degree of mental illness disqualifies someone from being a witness, basically says "the rabbi has to look for himself and make a determination." Same thing here -- each case will be different.
    – Shalom
    Commented Jun 13, 2023 at 19:09
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    @TheGRAPKE that's why you have to talk with a rabbi and a mental-health professional. There is "anxiety", and there is "anxiety." That's why you can't let every Tom, Dick, and Tzvi Hirsch decide these for themselves however they please. (There will be destruction both l'chumra and l'kula.)
    – Shalom
    Commented Jun 14, 2023 at 14:56

2 Answers 2

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In theory, the mitzvah to preserve a life overrides almost every other mitzvah, and serious mental health is certainly included in that. The Talmud talks about extinguishing a fire on shabbos if someone is suffering from depression and it's causing them anguish in a way that could be life-threatening.

A not-uncommon example today? A lot of people with eating disorders should not be fasting on Yom Kippur. It can trigger a bad cycle of "if not-eating is holy, then I can be extra holy by doing lots more of not-eating!" (To take it a step further: if someone tells the rabbi they're mentally sound but have issues with their blood sugar, the rabbi may ask if they can measure the food in small amounts and eat it every ten minutes. If someone has an eating disorder, any encouragement of "measure/cut/time" is not going to lead to healthy behavior.)

Practically, these calls should be made involving consultation with a competent mental-health professional, plus a rabbi who understands the mental-health concerns -- or better yet, get the rabbi to talk with the mental-health professional.

If you leave this to any individual to try and make their own call, some are going to declare it a mental health emergency when it's not... and a lot more are going to put themselves at risk in ways they shouldn't be.

Lastly, the hope and plan is that this condition will not be a permanent one. Maybe someone is currently in a bad state that they can't go to synagogue ... but the goal would be to work with competent professionals to get to the point that they could.

Some of your examples, by the way, are violating "thou shalt not"s, while others are omitting "thou shalts", for which the threshold may be different. (Pru urvu is a complicated issue with a lot of other considerations -- talk to a rabbi.)

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    Jewish organization dedicated to helping people with eating disorders: magenavrohom.com Commented Jun 13, 2023 at 14:21
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The question is based on a faulty premise. Taking care of one's health is a mitzvah, and the halacha is clear that taking care of one's health supersedes many other commandments. So if one is sick and recovery means not doing XYZ, that is not considered not adhering to the Torah's commandments. On the contrary, it is adhering to the Torah's commandments; not taking care of one's health would be violating the Torah's commandments.

The Sages spent great effort setting out the laws for the specifics of how to handle conflicts between laws, including health and other commandments. All cases must be asked of a rabbi, as Shalom says. If the rabbi says to prioritize health, then that is the Torah's desire, and it would be sinful to do the opposite and compromise one's health for other considerations.

Mental health is part of health, and follows the same rules. But one should consult with a professional, as what is beneficial to one person might not work for another depending on circumstances.

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    Mental health is part of health, and follows the same rules. Is that true? How do we know? What are the parameters? I think you've glossed over the heart of the question.
    – shmosel
    Commented Jun 14, 2023 at 18:51
  • I heard this from Rav Tzvi Berkowitz, shlit"a, among others. There are many cases in halacha where we are lenient for people dealing with mental health issues. CYLOR for personal cases.
    – N.T.
    Commented Jun 15, 2023 at 3:06

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