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Feb 01 2012

Depressed on Shabbos

[TMI Warning]

This past weekend, I participated in an overnight retreat with a Jewish education program I’m involved in called the Maimonides Leaders Fellowship. In Jewish parlance, the trip is called a shabbaton as it takes place over the weekly holiday of Shabbat (“Shabbos” is the Ashkenazi variant of the word, in case you’re confused).

On shabbatons, the custom is generally to observe Shabbat in accordance with Jewish law. Although this is commonly interpreted as not doing any “work,” our rabbi pointed out that the actual rule is that you cannot “act” on the physical world. For observant Jews, sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday is a time when writing, using electricity, driving a car, tearing paper, cooking, exchanging money, and tons of other activities are all forbidden.

Anyway, I won’t go too far into the religious significance of Shabbat, since I’m sure you can read about that elsewhere and I’m not really the best authority on it anyway. But from the discussions we had as a group, I gathered this much about Shabbat, which I didn’t know before: it’s not only a time of rest, but of reflection. The idea is that you don’t do much of anything except be with your friends and family, eat good food, and think about how your life is going.

All of this sounds awesome in theory. Everyone could probably use some time to just think.

However, for people who struggle with depression, as I do, there is literally nothing worse than to have to spend a day doing nothing but eating, socializing, and thinking.

In fact, Shabbat is tragically full of the very things that depressives should generally try to avoid. For instance, like most Jewish holidays, it revolves around eating and drinking. The amount of food that it’s customary to consume at a Shabbat lunch or dinner could probably feed a family for a week. While this does theoretically sound awesome, overeating takes a huge toll on my mental state.

A similar issue is the compulsory socializing. Although not all depressives are introverts, many are, and the disorder sort of turns everyone into a bit of a loner. I wish I could spend hours with people and feel good about that, but I just can’t. After an hour or two, I start to sink into a funk and desperately want to escape. Unfortunately for me, Shabbat meals last for hours.

The prohibition on writing hits me hard, too, because writing is the main outlet I have for channeling my emotions in a positive way. It’s one of the few things that helps when I’m very upset. Reading is an okay substitute, but it’s just not the same.

Thinking, however, is the worst. Depressives can’t really “think,” they can only ruminate–which means endless, circular thoughts about why they’re terrible people unworthy of love. If I had to sit down for a while and think about how my life is going, I would probably become very, very miserable, and that’s exactly why I vastly prefer doing things to sitting around and thinking about them.

And indeed, on Saturday night when Shabbat was over, I didn’t feel refreshed and at ease like I was told I would feel. I didn’t feel stressed, either, but then I rarely do. Rather, I felt vaguely overwhelmed, like my mental capacity had been drained. Later that evening, I burst into tears for literally no discernible reason, and that’s not something that happens to me often anymore.

Unlike certain other religions, Judaism does not want its adherents to suffer or put their health at risk. That’s why, for instance, those who are sick or pregnant are not obligated to fast on the Jewish fast days. That’s why Jews are not only allowed, but obligated to break Shabbat in order to save a life.

However, the entire concept of mental health has only really been around for the past century, whereas the laws of Judaism were written thousands of years ago. I can no more expect Judaism to make allowances for people with clinical depression than I can expect it to, say, condone same-sex marriage.

Religion in general isn’t particularly kind to the mentally ill. When it’s not telling us that we’ve brought this upon ourselves and it’s God’s punishment, it’s telling us that we ought to be able to drag ourselves out of it on our own by praying, repenting, being good wives and husbands, or just sheer willpower. One of my favorite bloggers refers to depression as “spiritually incorrect,” capturing perfectly the way I feel about the intersection between my faith and my mental disorder.

I hope that as I learn more about Judaism, I’ll discover ways to make it work with the person that I am. That person will probably never be able to enjoy a full day of eating and being with people; I’m just not built that way. But I know that Judaism does have much to tell me about living well.

However, I doubt that I will ever be willing to observe Shabbat the “right” way. Spending one-seventh of my life without the ability to do the one thing that always makes me feel good seems like a waste. Ultimately, I don’t believe in God and I don’t believe in an afterlife, so this is the only one I’ve got.

15 comments

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  1. 1
    Jane

    I’m not observant, but I am very proud of being Jewish. I treat Shabbat as a chance to have a “screen-free” day — when I don’t use the computer and hardly use the phone. But I think it’s very easy for all of us to fall into the trap of thinking that there’s a “right” and a “wrong” way to observe Shabbat. Yes, some Jews who are observant of the Orthodox tradition comply with 100% of the ancient prohibitions. Yet we have to be cognizant of the fact that many branches of Judaism are more in line with our modern world and treat the traditions as recommendations rather than outright rules. I’m in this camp, I don’t think of “acting on the world” as breaking Shabbat. I treat Shabbat as a time with my family, a time for relaxation. If writing relaxes you, I say go ahead and engage in it. Moreover, as a colleague of mine always says, your level of observance and practice (or lack thereof) is still an authentic Jewish experience and should bring you pride because of it being authentic to you, your circumstances, and your personality.

    1. 1.1
      Miri, Professional Fun-Ruiner

      Good points. When I’m done with my education and no longer compelled to spend every waking minute studying, I’d be happy to turn Shabbat into a screen-free day like you have.

      However, as much as I believe that one can have a fulfilling Jewish life without being Orthodox, I’m not exactly sure how this works. I feel an overwhelming amount of judgment from those who are more observant than I am. And while normally I don’t really care about others’ approval of me and my life, the entire point of religion is to belong to a community. I don’t feel that I can belong if I believe, among other things, that separating milk and meat from each other is entirely stupid and pointless. I also don’t feel that I can belong knowing that those who are more observant than me probably consider me simply too lazy and noncommittal to follow the religion properly.

      Anyway, that’s just something I’ve been thinking about lately. I’m sure I’ll resolve it in my mind eventually, as you seem to have done.

      1. 1.1.1
        ben goldberg

        Miriam,

        I really enjoyed your post and it gave me a lot to think about regarding how Shabbat’s “benefits” don’t necessary apply across the board to all people.

        I would suggest that you explore beyond the boundaries of Orthodoxy, especially in the Reform and Reconstructionist communities. They are much closer to where you seem to be ideologically and practically, and might give you most of the benefits of Judaism that you have identified without the drawbacks in your particular situation.

        And there are plenty of non-Orthodox people, myself included, who lead fulfilling Jewish lives.

        1. 1.1.1.1
          Miri, Professional Fun-Ruiner

          Ben–

          Thanks for reading, and I’m glad to hear you find your Jewish life fulfilling (though I would’ve figured that given how involved you are with Jewish stuff on campus).

          Ironically, I think the reason I probably know so much more about Orthodox styles of observance is because Orthodox people seem much more eager and willing to tell me about it. I know many more Reform Jews than Orthodox Jews, but the former don’t seem to really care whether or not I observe Judaism, whereas the latter are always looking to encourage non-observant people like me to get more into it.

          I don’t really know what to do about this situation since I can’t really sit my Reform friends down and have them explain to me how they observe their religion and what sort of meaning and benefits they derive from it…but if there are any books or bloggers you can recommend, please feel free.

      2. 1.1.2
        Jane

        I actually keep kosher style (so we don’t eat pork or shellfish but do separate meat and milk — we never serve the two together though we don’t have separate dishes). But it’s not for religious reasons at all. I think of Jewishness as belonging to a people, so I derive my sense of community from participating in rituals and creating new ones, knowing that other Jews throughout the world have done this, are doing this, and will be doing this (here’s hoping!). So for me (and this is obviously a very individual position), it’s about having that sense of belonging to the Jewish people through some sort of action. Whether it’s lighting Shabbat candles to mark an official end of the week or having a meal with friends on a holiday, I find meaning in engaging with the tradition on my own terms. That’s why I’ve put together my own Passover haggadah (one that takes the lessons of the Exodus and applies them to the modern world), and why I’ve led alternative Rosh Hashanah services with poetry by people like Yehuda Amichai — a secular Israeli poet whose work is still relevant to the themes of remorse and atonement. In any case, as another commenter already pointed out, there are legitimate Jewish traditions that recognize that Orthodoxy sometimes doesn’t fit into our modern life and rather than changing our lives completely to fit it, we engage with tradition differently (and still satisfyingly).

        P.S. My screen-free Shabbat is never perfect. There are days when I spend most of Shabbat evaluating homework from the Israel advocacy seminars I teach or putting together inspiration boards for various parts of my home. But I definitely strive for a screen-free Shabbat.

    2. 1.2
      Sifrina

      Jane, Beautifully put!

  2. 2
    Patches (@the_patches)

    Wow. I am not overly introverted, so I handle being around people well, but the idea of being alone and contemplative with my thoughts is a kind of nightmare to me. Not that you need my support, but I can see how you’d want to excise this from your life if the health negatives far outstrip the social/spiritual benefits.

    These observations give me some pause as I’ve also considered resuming (okay, maybe that’s a little strong for someone who barely practiced in the first place) Jewish practice looking forward to late adulthood…

    1. 2.1
      Miri, Professional Fun-Ruiner

      Well, I definitely don’t intend to discourage anyone from observing Judaism. As my friend Jane points out in a comment below, it’s quite possible to feel Jewish without doing everything by the book. Apparently, though, it’s not quite possible for ME, and that’s something I want to keep working on.

  3. 3
    zbraiter

    ” I doubt that I will ever be willing to observe Shabbat the “right” way.”

    Whatever way you decide to observe Shabbat, if that’s what you do, will be the right way.

  4. 4
    -A

    Its not easy sometimes. I understand and actually have some similar problems, specifically the writing and the too many people thing. More importantly you’re talking about a serious overwhelming intese social scene that isn’t necessarily the best way to do Shabbat every week. I love learning with only two people in depth because nothing else will be getting in the way on Shabs, at least for short periods of time. I only stay at the big Shabbatons every now and then specifically to socialize as much as possible in the least amount of time to keep relationships open when I feel like I’m shutting down too much (at the end of which I’m drained and run home to the quiet of my cozy room.)

    I’ve also been doing it all my life, I’m what you may categorize as Modern Orthodox (although exclusive terms like that don’t exist in the Sephardic tradition there is just more or less observant). While my family encourages me to come to the table and talk with them I get overwhelmed, so I take breaks. I come back and forth, insert a comment here and then move back to the couch.

    I also have a habit of using Shabbat as an escape and reading a lot. Instead of writing I read and read and read, which if im careful to use post-its to mark the page, I even participate in a small memory exercise of remembering why I was particularly inspired by this page.

    It sounds like you want to make the effort to try it in the fullest capacity – What helps me distance myself from the overwhelming intensity of “Am I doing this right? Why am I working so hard at this? etc” is by using less philosophical books and more fiction that places the characters in similar states versus emphasizing you, you, you to the point where it seems to crash onto you. Not even necessarily Jewish books – I love Madeline L’engle, my latest ‘Jewish’ book is actually and anthropology book on passing down memory. Shabbat comes along every seven days there no rush to get to the answers, enjoy the Friday night quiet too. I like pacing when everyone else goes to sleep, I have my tea and my book and the world is quiet, almost waiting for me when ever I want to remerge… or till Sat night… (i cant also sleep early for once…)

    Shabbat Shalom – sabath is a time to regain your inner peace.

    -A

  5. 5
    Sifrina

    Excellent post and so important for so many people, especially those who are struggling with depression or other mental illnesses. I came to this post looking for advice on how to handle Shabbat when things aren’t going well in one’s life.

    I’m a secular humanistic Jew. I’m not sure if I’m depressed but I’m definitely an introvert, going through a tough time with my elderly parents’ illnesses. So, I can relate to your need to escape the protracted socializing others crave. Even extended time in hospitals, to see my loved ones, is wearing me down. This is hard to explain to most people.

    For me personally, my weekly Shabbat is a special day to rejuvinate, connect with my husband and son (and/or friends if I so choose), and feel a link to my Jewish culture/ancestors/teachings/values. I also try to find a hopeful connection to all Jews and non Jewish humanity throughout the world. Reading and reflecting (and napping) work for me; however, I will also jog, do family crafts, cook, garden, read online, do some writing (like now), make love, and take long walks at the beach if that is what I choose to do with my special 25 hours. I do not work and I avoid the “mundane” tasks I have been forced to do all week. Basically, I choose the activities that bring me peace and serenity, and I avoid the ones that are not conducive to this. This is not Torah-true certainly, but then my motivations for remembering and honoring the Sabbath are not based on “what is written”. I am generally (but not always I must confess) refreshed and recharged by sundown on Saturday, and a guilty pleasure of mine is to extend Shabbat a bit if possible. I respect how religious Jews adhere to the rules, but this isn’t how I celebrate Shabbat.

    The statement that depression is not “spiritiually correct” is an important one because it is very important to avoid the activities that are not conducive to successfully battling one’s depression or other mentail illnesses. Strict Jewish law may not leave you with many good options on Shabbat, and can even serve to undermine your hard work in your fight against depression; however, I think with some creative experimentation you may find that there are ways to celebrate Shabbat in a manner that is conducive to you and your mental health. Shabbat Shalom!

  6. 6
    Sifrina

    Meant to write “spiritually correct” – oops.

    Also, check out the Society for Humanistic Judaism (shj.org) with lots of info on a secular, humanistic approach to Judaism and social action.

    1. 6.1
      Miri, Professional Fun-Ruiner

      Thank you so much for your insightful comments!

      I do actually consider myself a humanistic Jew, despite the eye-rolls that this earns me from people who consider themselves “real” Jews. Humanism resonates with me for many reasons, especially its emphasis on the preservation of human dignity. Except for the fact that humanists don’t necessarily believe in God, I feel like its actually closer to the “spirit” of Judaism than many of its more traditional forms are (I’m looking at you, Chassids).

      Thanks for reading!

      1. 6.1.1
        Mark

        Miriam,

        I came across your post because I too get depressed on shabbat and I have been struggling with this my entire life. I consider myself modern-orthodox and am part of a modern orthodox community. That being said, lately I have been increasingly dissatisfied with the way I feel on shabbat and my attitude towards it. What makes it hard is the fact that deep down I think I wished I enjoyed shabbat more but the sad truth is that I hate how it makes me feel. I have come to the conclusion that religion is all human made and the laws of judaism exist to keep the community together. Nonetheless, when I violate shabbat laws by playing guitar (a favorite hobby of mine) or checking my email, I don’t like the fact that I am somehow not living up to my religion. Were you raised with any type of religious observance ? Thanks for your reply.

        1. 6.1.1.1
          Miri, Professional Fun-Ruiner

          Hey Mark,

          Sorry to hear you’re having trouble with this too. I was raised secular with virtually no observance of any kind (except holidays, I suppose), but maintaining some sort of Jewish identity was very important to me, so I decided to learn more about the religious side of things. It didn’t really “work.” I still love going to Shabbat dinners and to holiday services, but following the Shabbos rules just isn’t right for me (especially since I’m also an atheist, so I’d be doing it for the sake of tradition only).

          However, my brother and sister-in-law consider themselves Modern Orthodox and they don’t observe Shabbos fully, either. They’re very strict with Kosher rules but they use the internet on Shabbos and stuff like that. If you’d like, I could ask them what went into that decision and get back to you. But it seems like it’s working well for them and they feel like they’re part of the community without compromising the lifestyle they want.

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