Feeling Strapped: Why Tefillin and Depression Don’t Mix

Sunday was a trapdoor day. Woke up and wanted to fall through the floor.

I was supposed to lead shacharit, but the moment I opened my eyes, I knew it wouldn’t happen.

I made it to minyan in time for the middle of Yishtabach. Guilt, then relief. There was no way I could have handled having everyone’s eyes on me when I felt like a blight on the universe.

I stood there and tried to put on my tefillin. Tried and tried again. No luck. And I realized: You can’t wear tefillin when you’re feeling this way.

Even the Gemara agrees. In Moed Katan 15a we read: “A mourner is forbidden from putting on tefillin from what God said to Ezekial: ‘Put on your splendor’ — from which we deduce the general principle that it is forbidden to the rest of the world.”

Moed Katan, which deals largely with the laws of mourning, frequently draws on Ezekial 24 for proof texts. In this chapter, God announces to Ezekial that He is about to take his wife from him. But Ezekial is commanded: “You shall not lament or weep or let your ears flow. Moan softly, observe no mourning for the dead.” God proceeds to enumerate all those activities that Ezekial should not perform, which the rabbis interpret as a list of activities prohibited during shiva. Among them is the mysterious injunction “pe’ercha chavush me’alecha.” JPS traslates this as “put on your turban,” though “pe’er” is most commonly translated as “splendor.” The rabbis understand pe’er to be a reference to tefillin. This understanding is reflected in the Artscroll translation of Anim Z’mirot, where “pe’ero alay” is translated as “His tefillin-splendor is upon me.” This image is drawn from Brachot 6a, where we learn that God adorns Himself with tefillin as a sign of His love for Israel, and Israel wears tefillin as a sign of its love for God.

A mourner, in his tremendous grief and sadness, is relieved of the responsibility of adorning himself with tefillin. And now I think I understand why. In wearing tefillin, we bind ourself in devotion to God. We also convey the sense that we believe our bodies are worthy of adornment. In some ways, laying tefillin reminds me of putting on a fancy necklace or some other accessory; it’s not necessary, but it’s an added ornament. (NOTE: That is not to say that tefillin is not halachically mandated; it’s just that it has always seemed to me like something additional, sort of like musaf in that sense — hence the “musaf walk,” etc.).

In order to put on tefillin, you have to be in the right mood to adorn yourself. If you’re in mourning, or even just feeling down, it’s a great struggle. Just like I can’t bring myself to go through the effort of putting on a funky necklace when I’m feeling blue, I also can’t bear the thought of putting on tefillin. It’s just not where I am. To sit there and wrap those straps round and round…ugh, the sheer pointlessnes of it all, God help me….

And so every so often (and often more often than knot), I accept that His tefillin splendor will not be upon me. So it goes.

One thought on “Feeling Strapped: Why Tefillin and Depression Don’t Mix

  1. Salome says:

    I’m sorry Sunday was such a difficult day for you, Chava, but I’m glad you were able to bounce back quickly—you sounded much better when we spoke earlier today. I had no idea you had been down in the depths until I read this post!Thanks also for sharing the bit of Talmud in this entry… reading your blog will make me a very learned person.. and not just in Jewish matters!


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