Ask the Rabbis | Does Jewish Wisdom Offer Help in Coping with Depression?

By | Feb 01, 2024
Ask the Rabbis, Cover Story, Winter 2024


The prophet Elijah is in a deep depression. He is stuck, and his personal life has come to a sudden standstill. Where he’d once felt the power of God filtering through him, he now feels abandoned, alone. He has no idea what to do or where to go. What he does know is that he needs to keep moving, because “darkness is the walk of the spirit”—that is, the darkness is not an absence of response from God but a withholding of it—and that to gain access to that response one must move on, even when the darkness obscures one’s direction. The journey can become tiresome; it can wear us down.

The weight of Elijah’s depression finally crumbles him in the shade of an ancient broom tree. He is tired. He is wondering: How many more steps must he walk for the withheld to release itself? He just wants to die. Then an angel shows up and makes him a nice hot meal of cakes and offers fresh water. Elijah responds with a jolt of hope and renewal of energy—temporarily. He eats and drinks but then lies down again. The angel then lets him in on a little secret about life that stands him back on his feet: The journey we are on is indeed bigger than we are, but it’s not our job to finish it, only to walk it (First Kings, Ch. 19).
Rabbi Gershon Winkler
Walking Stick Foundation
Golden, CO


Humanistic Jews, like all humanists, view depression as a complex medical condition that requires professional healthcare. With this in mind, rabbis or other spiritual leaders must exercise extreme caution with people experiencing depression. It is not a “spiritual disorder” that can adequately be treated by engaging with Torah and Jewish tradition. Treatment must be grounded in modern medicine and psychology.

This by no means rules out Jewish or any other wisdom tradition or practice as a supplement to medical care. Many mental healthcare professionals recommend engaging with traditions one finds helpful. This could include practicing meditation or prayer, participating in meaningful community activities or studying Jewish or other traditional wisdom. As long as these practices are not viewed as substitutes for medical care, individuals experiencing depression may find great value in exploring tradition. The key lies in ensuring that it is integrated under the guidance of mental healthcare professionals as part of a holistic treatment approach.
Rabbi Jeffrey Falick
Congregation for Humanistic Judaism
of Metro Detroit
Farmington Hills, MI


People often say exercise helps with depression. But if you’re depressed, it’s very hard to get up and exercise, or even go for a walk. Judaism teaches what I would call “accompanied walking.” You see this most clearly in bereavement. The community forms two lines at the cemetery for mourners to walk through on their way back from burying a loved one. Friends walk a mourner to the end of the block when their shiva period is over.

Accompaniment helps not only with sadness but with depression that has a biological component. Even if pharmaceuticals work, people with depression fare better if they are accompanied through their journey—by a trusted therapist or healer, by friends and family, by a supportive community, or by God, if the sufferer is able to access a comforting connection to God.

The Baal Shem Tov offered a three-step healing process for depression. The first step is hachna’ah/yielding, a kind of spiritual surrender to the chaos of one’s mind, an acceptance that there is a spark of the divine within, even in the despair. The second step is havdalah/separation, an act of will to sift through and discern the chain of negative thoughts and their source. The third step is hamtakah/sweetening, like slowly adding honey to a bitter cup of tea—by consciously recalling moments of pleasure, by allowing the senses to be awakened. These three steps can be ongoing and simultaneous, and all are helped by having someone loving by one’s side.
Rabbi Gilah Langner
Congregation Kol Ami
Arlington, VA


“The great mitzvah is to always be happy,” said Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav—unrealistically, as the famously depressive Rebbe well knew. Two centuries later we know depression to be a medical condition, a neurological reality for a certain percentage of people, and not a choice or a mood they might wish away. For those struggling, Jewish values may offer some strength. Consider kesher, connection, relationship; kehillah, the power of community; histapkut, sufficiency, knowing that we have enough to persevere and that we ourselves are enough; and tikvah, hope itself, holding out for better days to come, even for redemption.

Still, facile suggestions from rosier-disposed folks to just “cheer up” or “snap out of it” can be dangerously counterproductive. Depression must be taken seriously, addressed lovingly and cautiously. In spending time with those tormented by it, we practice bikkur cholim, the imperative to visit the sick. We show up, remaining present, reminding them we’re here; we let them take the lead, while gently encouraging medical and therapeutic approaches. And we practice pikuach nefesh, saving lives (of those who suffer near us, or those known to be vulnerable, like LGBTQ+ youth) through awareness, action and, above all, our love and support.
Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb
Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation
Bethesda, MD


Our ancient texts recognize that part of the human experience is to feel a range of emotions, including sadness, anxiety and shame. Traditional texts often consider such emotional states to be the result of committing sin. Today we know that depression emerges not from moral failing but from real physical, psychological or spiritual challenges or trauma.

Those confronted with health challenges traditionally recite psalms. The God of the Book of Psalms is theologically multifaceted; read metaphorically, psalms also provide opportunities to compare the poet’s struggles to wrestling with depression. They offer words of validation for despair: “My God, I cry out all day, and You don’t respond; all night, and I don’t get respite.” (Psalms 22:3) They offer words of motivation and hope: “You have placed joy in my heart greater than the seasons whose grain and oil pour out in profusion.” (4:8) They offer words to ask for support and care: “Protect me as though I were the pupil of Your eye, Find me a secret place in the shadow of Your wings.” (17:8)

One dealing with depression should also seek out the help and support of a mental health professional. This too is taught by our tradition.
Rabbi Dr. Laura Novak Winer
Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion
Fresno, CA


Ours is not the first generation to deal with depression and sadness, as evidenced in the Psalms. “Out of the depths, I cry to you, O Lord, hear my voice; let Your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications.” (Psalms 130:1) “Weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning…You turned my mourning into a dance for me, You undid my sackcloth and girded me with happiness.” (30:6,12) The words alone are evocative and reassuring, reflective of the human condition and inspirational. When coupled with music, as psalms were originally, words and melody can fuse, bringing comfort and support to the soul. Actions, too, provide sustenance: Hakarat hatov, “recognizing the good” and offering blessings and praise, can help a person see what is good in life and help reframe the genuine struggles of depression.

As a congregational rabbi with a minyan that meets twice daily, I would be remiss if I did not mention fixed, communal prayer. The daily minyan may be the original “support group.” The prayers and the people offer structure to the day, exposure to important ideas that can help us frame our highs and lows, our past and our hopes, and are a critical opportunity to be with others who share this journey of the soul.
Rabbi Amy S. Wallk
Temple Beth El
Springfield, MA


Jewish wisdom can give a good outlook on life. The tradition encourages us to embrace life and to uphold its sanctity and preciousness in all of our behavior. Judaism’s religious vision is optimistic. It teaches that in partnership with God, humans can repair the world and even turn it into a paradise.

I am tempted to say that Jewish wisdom can help us avoid depression or the feeling that this world is a hopeless, lost cause. However, I am leery of offering Jewish wisdom as a “cure” for depression. Depression is a clinical reality. This condition often has chemical and biological factors as part of its causation. Therefore, depression is best treated by trained professionals, whose approach may be helped or enriched by Jewish wisdom. However, “treating” depression with Jewish wisdom or offering such wisdom as the answer to a suffering person is likely not to help, and it can hurt. Jewish wisdom tells the rabbi or would-be family helpers: Know your own limits and reach out to find better guidance—from someone who is trained to help.
Rabbi Yitz Greenberg
J.J. Greenberg Institute for the
Advancement of Jewish Life/Hadar
Riverdale, NY


For clinical depression, I would answer no; rabbis should stay out of the territory of professionals. But for depressing thoughts, the kind of heaviness all of us are dealing with right now amidst war and antisemitism, traditional Judaism prescribes what many have called the single most difficult mitzvah in the Torah—bitachon, trust in God. Part of our pain and suffering is the feeling that nothing we do can really control the events of our lives. Bitachon tells us that’s not true: Whatever happens to us, we are not merely balls on a billiard table getting randomly struck by the cue of God. That doesn’t necessarily ease the pain or the suffering, but it does lift the feeling that we are lost in a sea of randomness. We can’t know the mind of God, but traditional values tell us God knows what he is doing.

The Talmud says, kol de’avid rachmana letav avid, all that God does is for the best. Many of us have been in situations that were horrible, that we ran from, that we agonized over, sometimes for years, only to discover that those years of agony actually were important to becoming the people we are. The Gemara cites a line from Tehillim (Psalms), hashlech al hashem yehavcha, take your concerns and throw them to God. One rabbi in the Talmud says he never knew what it meant until he was traveling with a donkey driver while holding a heavy pack, and the driver said to him, “Just fling your pack over the back of my donkey.” Every person has his pack of problems and worries. With bitachon, you still have to travel with the pack, but you can put it on God’s shoulders.
Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein
Los Angeles, CA /Jerusalem


The Tanakh is the ultimate self-help guide. It offers a comprehensive roadmap for creating a meaningful, purposeful life, which in turn can serve as a preventive measure against falling into depression.

The Tanakh and Judaism generally emphasize the importance of community, Shabbat, self-inspection, listening to and learning from elders, knowing our history and thinking about our future, free will and the ability to do teshuvah (repentance) for healing and repair. These are values that help create friendship, familial ties, a just society and a sense of self-worth.

The Tanakh teaches us to love ourselves, recognize our talents and then use them to help others. I am created in the image of God, and therefore I am great, but so are all other humans. Helping others creates a sense of satisfaction and direction and generates a desire to maximize one’s potential so as to help others as much as possible.

In Ecclesiastes 4:9-10 we read, “Two are better than one, for if they fall one will help the other rise.” This may seem obvious, but it also suggests that although we may sometimes feel worthless or unable to achieve what we dreamed, if we are focused on helping others we will not allow ourselves to sink into depression and self-pity, because people out there need us. In that sense, it is the knowledge of others who need me that helps me get up, go on—or start all over if necessary.
Rabbi Haim Ovadia
Torah VeAhava
Potomac, MD


Judaism not only offers help for depression; it actually mandates a joyful demeanor.

King David writes in the Psalms (100:2) that we should “serve G-d with joy and come before Him in gladness.” Seems like some extra words there: Why joy and gladness?

Hasidic thought focuses on how every person has two inclinations, or influences, upon their personality. One, the yetzer tov, urges us to do good. The other, the yetzer harah, urges us to do bad, or transgress. Worse, after convincing us to do so, it depresses us into thinking we are now worth less. For when one is “down,” one is more prone to do things one shouldn’t. And then the downward spiral continues.

Positivity is the key antidote to this. As the Lubavitcher Rebbe teaches, we need to heed the psalm and “serve G-d with joy,” realizing that “serve” and “work” stem from the same Hebrew root word.

It isn’t always easy to be joyful. Sometimes our yetzer harah gets the better of us and reminds us too much about things to be unhappy or depressed about. The obligation is ivdu!, “work!” to get yourself to a joyful place again, perhaps by reminding yourself about what you have to be happy about. And then come before G-d—and all the world—in gladness.

It’s a spiritual “upper.” Not always easy, but always necessary.
Rabbi Levi Shemtov
Executive Vice President, American Friends of Chabad (Lubavitch)
Washington, DC

Opening picture: Prophet Elijah in the Desert, Dieric Bouts, 1464 (Photo credit: Dieric Bouts)

2 thoughts on “Ask the Rabbis | Does Jewish Wisdom Offer Help in Coping with Depression?

  1. H. Steven Moffic, MD says:

    Thankfully, many of your respondents understand the need to be cautious in intervening when someone is clinically depressed and needs professional help. However, even so, one of the most serious risks of clinical depression is not mentioned once: suicide risk. Moreover, it is easy to be fooled by someone who looks better, but only because they have decided to commit suicide, and end up doin so, evoking the response of “but he seemed better”. Also missing is how different sorts of clinical depression emerge: unipolar depression, bipolar depression, post traumatic stress disorder, etc.

    I would think you now need to canvas some mental healthcare professionals to convey some expert advice about getting the professional help needed. There have been newer treatments emerging, including the psychedelics like ketamine that your readers should know about. You can literally help save a life by doing so.

  2. hag says:

    A better question… is there any thing as Jewish wisdom… (and that’s after reading the answers)

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