Thursday, May 23, 2013

Can Yirat Shamayim Make You Neurotic?

This is an honest question. Can the "fear/awe of heaven" make you act in a neurotic way? My gut says yes, when we internalize certain mitzvot in a OCD fashion. 

Not sure what this question even means? Let me give you an example from my own life.

I've realized that I don't use hot water during the week. It doesn't even occur to me to turn on the hot water tap. Not on yontif, and not on any day ending in Y. (Minus the two obvious uses: washing the dishes and taking a shower.)

I'd been living this way for at least two years before I really realized what I was doing. And the reason came immediately: I don't use hot water because I'm afraid I'll automatically turn it on during Shabbat. I know that I am a creature of habit and that I operate on autopilot for many common actions during the day. Flipping the bathroom light switch on Shabbat while still half-asleep is still a serious concern for me, but you can't NOT turn on the bathroom light all week. But hot water? You can do almost everything without it. So my brain decided to tackle this problem independent of my conscious mind.

I suppose there's no harm in it?


  1. I would think not using the hot water is less hygienic. You could tape down the bathroom light before Shabbat so it can't be turned on accidentally over Shabbat.

    I have never seen any research, but I doubt whether Yirat Shamayim can make you OCD or neurotic in a clinical sense (as someone who is no stranger to mental health issues), though it may be the way such tendencies manifest in a particular person.

  2. I can totally connect, same thing for me with turning on garden lights and taking escalators. Really silly though, isn't the point to make shabat different from the rest of the week?

    1. I don't think the point of the prohibitions is to make Shabbat different from the rest of the week. The point is that they're forbidden.

    2. For me, not using hot water during the week would be ridiculously difficult. People tape light switches to remind themselves not to turn them on or off; you could tape the faucet, I guess. And many people don't even install single-handle faucets anymore, for fear of accidentally switching to the hot-water side.

      You could use tissues all week long for fear of ever ripping toilet paper. I don't see anywhere for this to go but snowball.

  3. Sorry if my previous comment sounded harsh. I didn't mean that you have mental health issues, but that extreme manifestations of excessive caution or obsessive ritual acts would be indications of underlying problems rather than caused by halakha or yirat Shamayim.

    I don't think not using cold water during the week is an OCD problem, just over-caution. It didn't occur to me until after I had turned off my computer last night that what I wrote might be misconstrued that way.

  4. Can Yirat Shamayim Make You Neurotic? Depends on the person.

    In Judaism there is definitely a precedent for "building fences" around mitzvot to safeguard against breaking them by accident. For example, in relation to kashrut chicken is not meat according to actual halacha and may be eaten with milk. However, the rabbis were afraid that, due to the similarity between chicken and animals that are regarded as meat, people could make errors in their milk and meat consumption and accidentally break the laws of Kashrut. Therefore, as a safeguard, a fence was built around the halacha and we are to consider chicken as meat in order to avoid any confusion.

    So in that sense, if getting into the habit of not using hot water works as a safeguard for an individual I don't see a problem with it in and of itself.

    On the other hand, it is also stated in the Torah that one should not take away from the Torah and also one should NOT ADD to the Torah--basically, do not remove halacha and also do not create our own halacha. The Rabbis back in the day had the authority to build these fences around mitzvot (I was never quite clear on what gave them that authority, perhaps someone else could explain?) but we do not have that authority. So it is important that little things we do for ourselves as safeguards remain just that, little things we do for ourselves, and they do not become thought of as halacha. If they did then what we were doing would not be much different than actually breaking the mitzvah that we were so cautious about in the first place.

    Sadly, I have seen well meaning Jews who have created their own safeguards become so obsessed with their safeguards that they actually started to regard them as halacha. Some to the extent of telling other Jews that they too must be observing the safeguards and nagging at people to no end. When taken to this neurotic extreme, one could could actually be breaking the Torahs requirement to not add to the words of the Torah. And they could even be committing a chillul Hashem in that they are representing observance to be something that it is not.

    My opinion, for what it is worth, is that Yirat Shamayim can make some people neurotic. Probably not most people, but some people. This is why it is important to have a good Rav, or a good community/circle of friends (or a blog?) to keep one grounded. Especially for people who tend to scrutinize things to every last detail.

    As for the hot water thing, if it works for you, go with it. I see it as no different than someone who ties a string around their finger to help them remember something. If it works for you than that's great. Just don't start telling me to tie a string around my finger.

  5. A radical point of view: the Talmud says we don't build fences around fences. It follows, if you erect a fence around a fence you are not following in the daat of the rabbonim. The chumro brigrade will of course scream that its middot chassidut to be extra-strict. However, there are several problems with this. First, if you have a genuine safek (most don't know what does and doesn't qualify) you are obligated to seek an answer be it through your own ability to learn, or that of a trusted Talmud hokham. Just being strict because you don't know isn't hassidut - its am haaretzut. If it remains a safek after investigation, the chazal gave us a clear directive: safek d'oraita l'chumra and safek d'rabbanan d'kula. A pious Jew will be strict when they tell him to be, and lenient when they tell him to be. As for middot hassidut, a careful examination of this in halakhic literature will show that it is found in hiddurim - cases where people go above and beyond out of a genuine love of the mitzvah - and that it has little, if anything, to do with chumrot. I would recommend that any Jew genuinely concerned with knowing when stringency is and isn't required push their rabbi to give a shiur on the discussions of what is and isn't safek in rabbinic literature, and then to determine whether a given question is d'oraita or d'rabbanan. That alone - without having any other information - will help you determine whether you are 1) being neurotic, or 2) need to do more research. In my experience, after fifteen years of being hareidi / hardali - the chumro brigade are the destroyers of worlds and ruin people's lives. You have to be able to live without undue worry. Part of that is becoming informed, but another major part of it is rooted in hashkafah. We do not follow Beit Shammai. We follow Beit Hillel. Honestly though, are you sure this isn't just habituation and lifestyle? I generally only use hot water for showering and dishes during the week, but it has nothing to do with yirat shamayim...

  6. B"H

    Hi Kochava! I learned a wonderful strategy for the bathroom hot water facet from my roommate (providing it is a double and not a single faucet). Thought I'd share it if it might help you and others:

    Just place a plastic or styrofoam cup over the hotwater facet as a gentle reminder not to turn it on over shabbos by mistake!

    My you be inscribed and sealed for a good year!
    Gratefully as always - Dovid.

  7. No one said you need to keep Shabbat during the week so that you will keep it on Shabbat. Just imagine keeping away from Chametz when it's not Pesach - no one does this.

    The Halacha is a book of rules that remind us to act in a certain way that will complement spiritual thinking and acting; it is not a book of excuses for extra stringencies that we can all make up today.

    The Rabbis of old (Sages of the Talmud) decided on some simple laws that keep you away from transgressing the Torah's prohibitions. For example, the Torah says you can't heat water on Shabbat, so the Rabbis said you can't bathe as usual in a bathhouse that was heated before Shabbat. But we don't need to make extra rules for ourselves.

    On occasions it makes sense to go to the root of an issue that comes up, for example, if you REGULARLY turn on the hot tap on Shabbat, then it might be a good idea for you to put a sign on the tap on Shabbat to remind you that it is Shabbat. That would be a personal choice that must not drive you or anyone else crazy.

    Remember to live life as normal, and to smile! Keeping the Torah should give you energy and a new life!