Bipolar Disorder and Judaism

Image: David Plays for King Saul (Ernst Josephson, 1878), public domain

What does Judaism have to offer on the subject of bipolar disorder?

I’ve already written about the general topic of Judaism and Mental Illness, as well as Judaism and Depression. Today I’m going to look at Judaism’s take on bipolar disorder, also sometimes known as manic-depressive disorder.

Just as there are examples in Jewish scripture of depression (e.g. Psalm 38), there is also an example of bipolar disorder. No less an authority than the British Journal of Psychiatry has suggested that perhaps that was what was troubling King Saul in the Book of Samuel. King Saul was sometimes terribly sad and withdrawn, and his servants regarded it as an “evil spirit” come upon him. (1 Samuel 16) Saul’s illness increased, so that he was plagued with both depression and with bursts of energy (1 Samuel 18).

Verses in 1 Samuel 10 describe something that sounds like a manic episode. King Saul comes upon some prophets, and is himself caught up in a prophetic frenzy. People who witnessed this episode commented that it was not typical of King Saul. Over time, Saul became paranoid, sure that David was going to seize his kingdom by treachery. King Saul was a man of great charisma and promise who ultimately committed suicide on Mount Gilboa. (1 Samuel 31)

The Book of Samuel accounts for Saul’s behavior by talking about the “spirit of God” descending upon or removing itself from Saul as punishment for his disobedience to God’s orders. Characters in the book wonder if he is possessed by an evil spirit at times. Modern day Jews do not believe in “evil spirits” and instead see behaviors like Saul’s to be manifestations of mental illness. We don’t believe that mental or physical illness is a “punishment from God” – rather, both are medical conditions with natural causes. 

It is a sacred duty, a mitzvah, to treat any person with mental illness with compassion. That duty extends not only to others but to ourselves.

Also, because it is a mitzvah to care for the body, if one suspects they have bipolar disorder, it is a mitzvah to seek medical care and to take the advice of one’s doctors seriously. This can be very challenging, since mental health care is by no means as easily available as it should be, and there is much room for improvement in treatment protocols.

Treatment for bipolar disorder can be a challenge. Therefore it is up to the rest of us, to friends and family and community, to support anyone who suffers with the illness to whatever extent we can.


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Rabbi Ruth Adar is a teaching rabbi based in San Leandro, CA. She has many hats: rabbi, mom, poodle groomer, and ham radio operator K6RAV. She blogs at https://coffeeshoprabbi.com/ as the Coffee Shop Rabbi.

16 thoughts on “Bipolar Disorder and Judaism”

  1. This is important information. I am Sephardic.

    Based on family legend the Sephardic blood line was important to the generations that preceded my parents.

    Many years ago I read that Sephardic Jews have a very high incidence of depression and bi-polar disorder. I can’t remember where I read this but it clearly made an impression.

    My family was also deeply ashamed of any hint of mental illness even though my Father had a twin Sister who pent most of her life in long term care.

    I’m convinced that both of my parents had serious mood disorders that went untreated.

    The result was years of pain and loss.

    Mental illness, or shall I say the stigma of mental illness destroyed both of my parents. I hope you won’t mind if I reblog this.

    Thank you for posting this.


  2. By golly, you’re right! I never put the two together, which is surprising considering I facilitate a class for NAMI dealing with Bipolar Disorder and it runs in the family. But, absolutely, Saul’s behavior is classic. I have often wondered a bit about David, however . . . which would also make sense. Hmmm.


      1. Probably more a general impression, since I haven’t read the actual story in years. Impulsivity certainly. Creativity, despondency coupled with bursts of energy. Writing that is often over the top dramatic . . . I’ll have to do some more thinking about this.


        Liked by 1 person

  3. It’s a very interesting insight. Often, I see little to nothing about mental illness covered in religion or spirituality. It makes more sense to look at his behavior in that light.


    1. In the past, what we would call mental illness today was often attributed to “evil spirits” or “possession.” Even though we don’t believe that any more, I think that legacy contributes to the heavy stigma that mental illness still carries.

      Thank you for reading and commenting, Christina!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Interesting topic… I consider myself an “honorary Jew” (I hope that wouldn’t be offensive to anyone!) because my God is the God of Abraham, Issac and Jacob! So I’m curious, why would modern day Jews not believe in Evil spirits? Do you still believe that Satan exists? … And what do you think the role of childhood trauma plays in “mental illness” such as bipolar? Just curious on your thoughts!


    1. The figure Jews know as “haSatan” (“the adversary”) and Christian notions of the Devil are quite different, due to the differences in theology between the two traditions. Most modern day Jews believe that anything science can explain, science does explain – no need for “evil spirits.” As for those things that cannot be explained by science, there are many questions and as many answers.

      I am not a psychiatrist or psychologist, so I would not venture to make pronouncements about nature vs nurture when it comes to illness.

      Thank you so much for reading and commenting!


  5. Thank you for this! Much needed. I must say that the Orthodox Jewish world has very different views on mental illness, which is still very much stigmatized.

    A common Talmudic explanation for Saul’s falling down and beginning to prophesy himself while en route to kill all the prophets, was that the Ruach ha’Kodesh was so strong in that place that Saul became overtaken by it. After having the prophetic experience himself, he no longer wanted to kill the prophets (whom he took, ironically, to be necromancers), but brought them close to him and learned from them. Ultimately, after having been stripped of his kingship for disobedience to God (too complicated to go into here), his teetering mental health took him over the edge.

    This story fascinates me, too. I wrote a post about it a while back


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