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Disorderly Devotion

Written by Rabbi Yehoshua Alt, 3/5/2020

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Fascinating Insights—The Sefer (in English)

Disorderly Devotion

Many people suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorder, known as OCD. One way it is expressed is through never-ending uncertainty about the satisfactory completion of tasks. Those with OCD are prone to repeatedly washing their hands due to concern of germs. For those who are Halacha observant, OCD can be especially severe since Halacha is demanding and detailed. Observant Jews with OCD may be unable to complete Brachos or Tefillos since they are in doubt as to whether they pronounced the words properly, which will make them recite the text repeatedly. Pesach preparations can be extremely stressful for those with OCD when they are cleaning for Chametz.[1] Typically treating OCD involves “exposure and response prevention” where the patient is trained not to respond compulsively to the situation that causes obsessive thoughts. So for one who is observant, it can mean not to repeat the Bracha or Tefilla text even if he knows he recited it improperly.


The Torah addresses not going overboard. The Mishna says אין חוששין שמא גררה חולדה מבית לבית וממקום למקום דאם כן מחצר לחצר ומעיר לעיר אין לדבר סוף,[2] we aren’t concerned that a weasel may have dragged Chametz from house to house or place to place, because if so, then let us be concerned from courtyard to courtyard and city to city. There would then be no end to the matter. We must realize that לא ניתנה תורה למלאכי השרת, the Torah wasn’t given to the ministering angels.[3] We are expected to be human, not perfect.


Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski related that one who suffers from OCD may not necessarily be reassured by the opinion of Halachic Authorities. One woman with OCD threw out three sets of dishes because she couldn’t accept the Rav's ruling that the dishes were perfectly Kosher, saying, “The Rav didn’t understand my question.”[4]


A boy named Yosef was admired by many boys in his Yeshiva since he Davened such a long Shemoneh Esrei, intensely engaged in Tefilla. However, his Rebbe knew the truth: Instead of davening with kavana, most of Yosef’s time in Shemoneh Esrei was spent agonizing over the possibility that he missed or mispronounced a word, compelling him to carefully repeat words and phrases over and over. Yosef was engaged in a torturous battle with himself. He sought the advice of his Rebbe, who tried to assure him not to worry. One time, his Rebbe told him, “I guarantee that you won’t be held accountable for missing a word of Tefilla. I promise that I will take you out of Gehinnom. Stop worrying!" Yosef continued to worry, but he was afraid to bring it up anymore with his Rebbe. As a result, he suffered in silence. This surely isn’t what the Torah wants as the Torah is דרכיה דרכי נעם וכל נתיבתיה שלום, its ways are ways of pleasantness and all of its pathways are peace.[5]


The question has been asked if restoring mental health is a good enough cause to knowingly allow one with OCD to fail to observe Mitzvos? For example, can a therapist train a patient not to repeat Brachos even when the patient is sure he missed a word? Can one with OCD continue Shema if he mispronounced or omitted some of the text? This question was addressed by the Steipler[6] (1899-1985) who wrote that the patient should be instructed to Daven from a Siddur and not to go back to recite any text that he fears may have been recited incorrectly or skipped. It is clear that according to Halacha one isn’t obligated to do more. The Steipler also says that a rabbi shouldn’t explain to one with OCD why he ruled it is permitted. Just say it without a reason. Otherwise, the person with OCD will counteract the ruling. 


This question was also posed to R’ Asher Wiess[7] who ruled that the OCD patient[8] must follow his therapist’s instructions for overcoming his disorder even at the expense of observing Mitzvos. He writes that man’s primary obligation is to do everything that is necessary for him to cure his illness, and to this end he is allowed even to violate the Torah’s commandments.


R’ Wiess says that Halacha absolves one from fulfilling a Mitzva when this is necessary to avoid illness. Just as one isn’t required to pay more than 1/5 of his assets in order to fulfill a Mitzva,[9] one is similarly not required to subject himself to physical harm or debilitation for the sake of a Mitzva. So if a person suffers from a debilitating mental illness, and his mental health professional determines that his recovery requires suspending Mitzva observance, then the patient should comply as long as he is only neglecting the observance of Mitzvas Asei (affirmative commands) and not transgressing prohibitions. This is permissible for the sake of restoring his mental health.[10] R’ Wiess later says it would also be permitted even if the treatment for OCD requires transgressing a Torah violation.[11] This is because since without recovering from his disorder, an OCD patient who can’t complete Brachos or Tefillos[12] will likely never have the ability to properly fulfill these requirements. It is therefore preferable to have him knowingly suspend his observance of these Mitzvos for the purpose of treatment,[13] which will enable him to fulfill them properly throughout the rest of his life.[14]

Rabbi Alt merited to learn under the tutelage of R’ Mordechai Friedlander Ztz”l for close to five years. He received Semicha from R’ Zalman Nechemia Goldberg. Rabbi Alt has written on numerous topics for various websites and publications. He lives with his wife and family in a suburb of Yerushalayim where he studies, writes and teaches. The author is passionate about teaching Jews of all levels of observance.

[1] Those with OCD may not even get any joy out of their religious practices which are so important to them.

[2] Pesachim 1:2.

[3] Yoma 30a.

[4] See the Ramban in the laws of Nida 9:25 where he writesומדיני החציצה: לא טוב היות האדם מחמיר יותר מדאי ומחפש אחר הספיקות לפסול טבילתה בדבר הקל, כי אם כן אין לדבר סוף..., Among the laws of Chatzitza: It is not good to be overly strict, seeking doubts to disqualify her immersion for a light reason, for there would be no end to it…

[5] Mishlei 3:17.

[6] Kraina D’Igrisa 373.

[7] Minchas Asher 2:134.

[8] This was a Talmid Chacham that suffered from OCD. He was instructed by doctors not to repeat words during Davening even if he thinks he mispronounced them. He asks whether he should listen to them and, assuming he should listen to them, should he take measures to minimize the problems that may result from possible improper recitation of Brachos, such as never eating a כדי שביעה of bread so that he never has a biblical obligation to recite Birchas Hamazon.

[9] See Ravad, and others, to Baba Kamma 9b. Also see Orach Chaim 656 with Mishna Brura and Biur Halacha.

[10] A similar line of reasoning is found in the Igros Moshe (Even Haezer 4:32:4) where he permits a young divorced woman to leave her hair uncovered so that people wouldn’t realize that she had been previously married. Just as Halacha doesn’t require one to incur a loss of more than 1/5 of his assets for the sake of a Mitzva, a divorcee is not required to compromise her ability to find a new husband for the sake of a Mitzva. Therefore, if she truly believes that covering her hair would lower her chances of remarriage, then she is absolved of the hair covering requirement.

[11] See the Beis Yitzchak, Even Haezer 39.

[12] We say in Shemoneh Esrei (in שמע קולנו) כי אתה שומע תפלת כל פה, Hashem hears the prayer of every mouth. כל פה includes the Tefilos of those who can’t pronounce the words as they should.

[13] Concerning not eating a כדי שביעה of bread so that he never has a biblical obligation to recite Birchas Hamazon, R’ Wiess cautioned against trying to minimize Halachic problems, as the constant search to avoid Halachic doubts and dilemmas will just feed his obsessiveness when the point of the exercise is to help him learn to live with it.

[14] This is similar to what the Gemara (Yoma 85b) says חלל עליו שבת אחת כדי שישמור שבתות הרבה, violate one Shabbos so that many more will be observed.

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