Depression and Jewish Tradition

Image: A somber landscape with rocks, trees, and ponds. (FrankWinkler/Pixabay)

Although there is a beneficial aspect to sadness it prevents people from becoming overly joyous over the pleasures of this world. Nevertheless one should not pursue the state of sadness, since it is a physical disease. When a person is despondent, he is not able to serve his Creator properly. – Yonah ben Avraham Girondi (1200-1263)

Jews have known for centuries that depression is an illness, not a moral flaw. In the 13th century, this great Jewish ethical teacher was unequivocal: “it is a physical disease.” He understood that it interferes with one’s most basic functioning. (I am talking about clinical depression, as I suspect the rabbi was, more than a mere “bad day.”)

One of the things that often happens when a person is depressed is that they fall behind on tasks. It is difficult to focus, and they miss deadlines. Then, having fallen behind, shame enters the picture: “Not only am I depressed, I am a rotten person.” Thus the pain of depression snowballs into an avalanche of the spirit.

It is miserable to grow depressed over one’s depression.

The first thing to know is that science has proven Rabbi Yonah right: Depression is a physical disease. When we are depressed, connections are not being made properly in our nervous system. This is no more a moral failure than any other illness.

When I have struggled with depression, I have not been able to “snap out of it” or pray my way out of it. What does help is understanding that my brain does this sometimes, and it is not the end of the world. What helps is taking my meds, talking to a therapist, and knowing that this, too, will pass.

If you are reading this because you are currently suffering, or because someone you love is currently suffering from depression, know that the situation is not hopeless. Know, too, that you are not alone. This is an illness that has plagued humanity since ancient times. Fortunately help is available! Reach out, or ask someone to reach out on your behalf. You are not bad, you are suffering, and you deserve care.

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Rabbi Ruth Adar is a teaching rabbi in San Leandro, CA. She has many hats: rabbi, granny, and ham radio operator K6RAV. She blogs at and teaches at Jewish Gateways in Albany, CA.

5 thoughts on “Depression and Jewish Tradition”

  1. Thank you for posting this. It’s such an important topic.I wish people would learn that depression is  exactly how you described.Unfortunately, my mother and another brother thought it wasn’t and thus assisted my twin brother in his suicide. My twin was very depressed and wanted to end his life. He knew the two people who would help him.I’ve written all about it in my memoir, Beside Myself-Recovery From My Family Betrayal and Estrangement.Pamela Fender, Author

    #yiv4582415861 a:hover {color:red;}#yiv4582415861 a {text-decoration:none;color:#0088cc;}#yiv4582415861 a.yiv4582415861primaryactionlink:link, #yiv4582415861 a.yiv4582415861primaryactionlink:visited {background-color:#2585B2;color:#fff;}#yiv4582415861 a.yiv4582415861primaryactionlink:hover, #yiv4582415861 a.yiv4582415861primaryactionlink:active {background-color:#11729E;color:#fff;}#yiv4582415861 | rabbiadar posted: “Image: A somber landscape with rocks, trees, and ponds. (FrankWinkler/Pixabay)Although there is a beneficial aspect to sadness it prevents people from becoming overly joyous over the pleasures of this world. Nevertheless one should not pursue the state o” | |

  2. Rabbi, I needed this very much tonight. I’ve suffered from sever depression for almost 20 years now. I even tried to kill myself more than once. Thank God I never succeeded. This blog post has alleviated much of my suffering. I’m very grateful for you!

  3. As far as I know, suicide is a sin in the Jewish tradition, and may result in not being buried in the appropriate way. But if depression is a sin and someone succeeds in such an unfortunate effort, will it be treated as something that couldn’t be helped as a result of sickness, or as a sin?

    1. Hi, Dayna,
      As Rabbi Ruth described, depression is not a sin. It is a sickness. Suicide due to depression is not a sin, so it does not negatively influence Jewush burial.

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