I read the May 10 letter in your column from H.S. (Depression: Not A Hopeless Malady) regarding her husband’s rabbi’s view about depression, and your response to it.
First, the term “machalah shachor” that H.S. quoted the rabbi as saying about the “D” (depression) word. I believe that there is a misunderstanding and misquoting of what the rabbi may have said because there is no such thing in Hebrew as “machalah shachor.” The phrase is a very bad grammatical mistake that our Sages would have never made. The Hebrew word “machalah” (sickness) is a feminine noun, and the word “shachor” (black) is a masculine adjective. The Hebrew grammatical rule is that the adjective must always match the gender and the quantity makes the noun, i.e., singular or plural (but not both), with some exceptions. Therefore, it is incorrect to say “machalah shachor.” Instead, one needs to say: “machalah shechorah.”
Thus, I deem that the rabbi in this Pirkei Avot class called depression, “marah shechorah,” not “machalah shachor.” This is because there is no such saying in Hebrew, and the expression “marah shechorah” describes depression.
What does “marah shechorah” literally mean? It means “a black gallbladder” (or black bile). While the normal color of the gallbladder is green, our Sages say that when the gallbladder is black (or secretes black bile) it causes depression or deep sadness.
As many know, the word “mar” means “bitter,” with “marah shechorah” meaning “dark bitterness.” This is supposed to describe the mental condition known as depression. I don’t know what the gallbladder’s color has to do with depression, but I’m confident that our Sages knew.
Second, in regards to H.S.’s statement that her husband’s rabbi said that people with such a sickness – depression – should be sent to live in the desert with the wild animals, I found this very disturbing. The husband should ask his rabbi if he understood him correctly. I am not a rabbi, but I read a lot of books on Jewish thought, plus I asked a scholar from my shul about this. The scholar told me that he doesn’t know who ever said such a thing and where such a thing would be written. Only in a case of leprosy does the Torah mandate that a person be sent outside of the community.
Judaism teaches mercy and compassion. Accordingly, I can’t believe that there are any Jewish sources that suggest placing depressed people in the desert with wild animals. This is not the Jewish way of treating the sick.
As for remedies to fight depression, there are some types of severe depressions that need to be treated with therapy and medication. It is also accurate to say that listening to music and engaging in happiness-inducing activities can help improve our moods.
I once asked the Lubavitcher Rebbe about the issue of sadness. His reply: “Bitachon amiti ve’emunah baHashem, va’avodat Hashem b’simcha – one should have true faith in Hashem, and act in their service to Hashem with joy.”
I followed the Rebbe’s advice, and whenever I was upended by sadness, I played music that I favored and forced myself to have feelings of simcha. It was really very helpful.
Dr. L. G.
Dear Dr. L.G.:
Thank you for your astute lesson in Hebrew grammar. I agree that there are many ways to upend sad feelings. Additionally, it is obvious to me that H.S. is extremely sensitive to the word “depression” due to some family history issues.
In addition to music, exercise is also helpful in toppling sad or depressed feelings. Walking, swimming, dancing, or doing any type of exercise is a natural anti-depressant and raises endorphin levels in the body.
Talking about one’s feelings can also be helpful. It is important to fight feelings of depression (as much as one can) before they become overwhelming and all encompassing. Early signs of depression are frequent bouts of sadness, whereby life looks bleak and there does not seem to be a way out of the situation. Life’s normal ups and downs cause everyone to feel sad from time to time, but a person who is feeling depressed is likely to feel an emptiness and feelings of despair that do not seem to go away – at least not for a significant amount of time. A person suffering from depression has difficulty getting through the day and functioning on a daily basis.
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