Rabbi Yoni Rosensweig is trying to remove stigma from mental health, one ruling at a time


At first, Rabbi Yoni Rosensweig was just looking for some answers to some questions he was asked about Jewish law and mental health. It quickly turned into a book and then a center, which he helps run and which has already trained dozens of rabbis.

“This topic kind of chose me. I fell into it and I realized that there is something to do. And before I knew it, I saw that there was a significant response from the community. So I said to myself, if it’s so important to people, maybe I should do it,” Rosensweig told The Times of Israel on Sunday.

Although primarily focused on this connection between mental health and Jewish law, Rosensweig wears many hats. Ordained by the Orthodox Yeshivat Birkat Moshe in the Maale Adumim settlement, he leads the community of Netzach Menashe in Beit Shemesh, teaches at the progressive Orthodox Midreshet Lindenbaum in Jerusalem, has written several books and maintains a significant following of his work as ‘a cut, a rabbi who makes practical rulings on Jewish law, or halacha. His ask-me-anything sessions before Passover, for example, are not to be missed. (Full disclosure: He also officiated at this reporter’s wedding in 2019.)

Rosensweig’s journey into the field of mental health began about five years ago when he received some questions from his community. To better understand the subject, Rosensweig and dr. Shmuel Harris, a psychiatrist and the head of Machon Dvir, a behavioral health clinic in Jerusalem, spoke.

“My goal was to answer just a few questions. But when I got into it and realized that there was still a lot of work to be done here, we decided to write a book on this topic,” said Rosensweig.

The book the two wrote together, “Nafshi B’She’elati,” was released in Hebrew in 2022 by Koren Publishers. An English translation is not expected to be published until later this year, but his work has already made headlines in English-speaking communities in Israel and around the world.

“There are many topics in halacha that I could choose to look at. But this one affects hundreds or thousands of people every day. It is actually incredible to me that such a book has not been written before. It is something that is so monumentally important to people, that directly affects their quality of life and sometimes their own lives,” he said.

The 512-page “Nafshi B’She’elati” is aimed at rabbis and other professionals, with detailed explanations of technical terminology – both psychological and rabbinical – and footnotes that are often longer than the main text. But even for the casual layman, it’s still a fascinating read, addressing topics such as schizophrenia, depression, eating disorders, phobias, autism and dementia.

With the release of the book, Rosensweig also founded Ma’aglei Nefesh: The Center for Mental Health, Community and Halacha, which helps connect people with mental health issues to therapists and rabbis, produces literature on mental health and halacha and 50-hour training sessions for rabbis on mental health topics.

We know how to talk about cancer, not depression

Although he is far from the only rabbi to consider the connection between mental health and halacha, Rosensweig has emerged as a prominent voice on the subject, speaking about it at least once a week either within religious communities—in synagogues or seminaries—or for medical or mental health professionals, in hospitals, or to groups of social workers.

Rosensweig held such an event Sunday night, speaking about his work at the Neve Habaron Synagogue in the northern town of Sichron Yaakov, where he was joined on stage by a religious woman who shared her experiences dealing with anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts.

The talk was about the need for communities to expand their thinking about mental health and what considerations go into his rulings on halacha.

Rosensweig said her hope is that through events like this, communities will learn the vocabulary needed for open conversations about mental health, as they already have for physical health.

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Or discuss her struggle with mental health at the Neve Habaron synagogue in the northern town of Sichron Yaakov on January 22, 2023. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

“Even if you don’t have professional, medical training, you can talk about physical health. If you find out that a person has—heaven forbid—cancer, someone will say, ‘Have you seen an oncologist? Have you started chemotherapy?’ I don’t know what chemotherapy is, not really, but I can still talk about it and sound sensitive and knowledgeable so that the person feels like they can talk to me about it. If I run into them on the street, I can ask how they’re doing, how they’re feeling,” said Rosensweig.

“But when it’s depression, we don’t know what to say. That’s the problem. I know that five years ago I didn’t know how to have that kind of small talk about mental health. When you find out someone has depression, you often don’t know what comes next. Are you seeing a psychologist? A psychiatrist? A social worker? How long does it last? What is the process? And when you see that person, what do you ask, ‘How is your depression?’ What is the right and sensitive thing to say?” he said.

Halacha and mental health

For religious Jews, halacha governs most aspects of their lives, such as how and what they eat, how they interact with family, and how they spend Shabbat. Those religious laws can in some cases be challenging or even dangerous for people with certain mental health issues. Fasting on Yom Kippur can cause a potentially serious relapse for a person who has dealt with an eating disorder, for example.

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A copy of Nafshi B’She’elati by Rabbi Yoni Rosensweig and Dr. Shmuel Harris. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

“Nafshi B’She’elati” and much of Rosensweig’s work focus on digging deep into the source material to find which aspects of halacha are flexible, where exceptions can be made, and which are unequivocal divine prohibitions that cannot be superseded . Some of these are based on the nature of the commandment – does it come directly from the Bible or was it later developed by rabbis – and some is based on the effect it would have on the person – is it life-saving or merely palliative?

Although much of “Nafshi B’She’elati” deals with the granting of halachic concessions to people with various mental health conditions, Rosensweig emphasized that rabbis should also not be blindly permissive to ensure that the person feels they are still following Jewish law. and is still part of a religious community.

He noted that no one is forced to follow Jewish law. The people who come to him do not seek to get out of religious obligations; they want to follow them.

“People want to fast on Yom Kippur. If you tell them they can’t, they feel rejected by the group, by the community. They want to be a part of this holy and wonderful day. When someone is told they can’t fast, it’s not good news for them — it’s hard news,” Rosensweig told the three dozen or so people gathered in the Sichron Yaakov synagogue.

Rosensweig offered an example, a relatively common one, of a person with depression or anxiety being helped by listening to music. What can such a person do on Shabbat, when the use of electricity is restricted?

In theory, Rosensweig said, a rabbi could simply allow such a person to use their phone or computer to listen to music on Shabbat. However, doing so will not necessarily make the person feel that they are observing the laws of Shabbat.

“We are trying to fight stigma. We want people dealing with mental health issues to feel seen and understood, not to feel that they are apart of the group, that they are rejected, that they are second class. Every exception made for a person for mental health reasons feels like a failure to them, like they’re not really keeping Shabbat, that they’re not strong like everyone else,” he said.

Instead, he recommends that the person put a playlist on loop before Shabbat so that if they need to listen to music, they only have to put in their headphones without actually turning anything on.

“You have to find a balance in how you rule on halacha,” he said.

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