Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Tamar Epstein: The Torah shows sensitivity to the mentally ill

I just came across an interesting article that Tamar Epstein wrote when she was a senior at Stern College. It deals with how the Torah shows sensitivity towards the mentally ill and enables them to integrate as much as possible in the world of business and marriage. The full article is found here. YU Torah Lectures

[...] In all instances Beis Din has the authority to determine who is a shoteh and what restrictions apply to him [4]. 

A shoteh is not only freed from mitzvos, but he is also not held accountable for damaging property to the same degree as normal people. For example, if an ox of a shoteh gores an ox from a normal person, the shoteh is not required to pay the fee that would be demanded of a normal person (Baba Kama 4:4). Similarly, if a shoteh's ox injures a person, or if a shoteh directly harms a fellow Jew, he is not required to compensate the victim (Baba Kama 87a). The Mechilta, under certain conditions, even extends this exemption from responsibility to murder (Mechilta, Mishpatim 4) [4].

The Torah provides a comprehensive model for integrating the mentally ill into society that is both compassionate and realistic. Halacha is sensitive to the limitations of a shoteh and requires the community, and specifically Beis Din, to provide him with care and support. In an effort to maximize a shoteh's quality of life, the Torah exempts him from the mitzvos, but at the same time allows him to integrate into society through commerce and marriage and other activities according to his abilities. Halacha appreciates the varying degrees of handicap and, therefore, offers a flexible system for Beis Din to apply case by case. The halacha is also sensitive to society's need for order and control. Beis Din, therefore, has the authority to prohibit the mentally ill from participating in business and marriage and other sorts of communal activities if the individual can not assume those responsibilities. We must emulate the Torah's example and treat the mentally ill with the same degree of sensitivity and respect.

[l]Margaret Talbot. "The Executioner's IQ Test." New York Times Magazine, 29 June 2003: 4.

[2]Zivotofsky, S. (1992). The Shoteh: A Discussion of the Jewish Rabbinic View of Insanity. Pharos. 55:13-16.

[3]Nitzavim - Mental Incompetence. Videocassette. Frand, Y. Yad Yechial Foundation, (1990).

[4]Ibin Ezra, Volume I, Responsa 120, Section 2.

[5]Strous, R. (2001). Halakhic Sensitivity to the Psychotic Individual: the Shoteh. Jewish Medical Ethics. 4:30-34.


  1. Whats the point? Are you saying that Ahron Freidman is mentally ill?

    1. Chav V'shalom. In all the discussion in the last few years I haven't seen or heard any one suggest such a possibility.

      I found her conclusion to be interesting - that a shoteh apparently is not an absolute disability for either business or marriage.

  2. There are different levels of shoteh as various levels of IQ's. There's a shoteh who is meabed ma shenosnin lo, and a shoteh assur lerachem alav.

    Here is a graph of the evolution scale from thesaurus: idiot, dumbbell, dunce, fool, ignoramus, imbecile, jerk, kook, moron, muttonhead, ... a moron is a stupid person with a mental age of between seven to twelve years.

  3. What is this moredes Epstein up to these days? Is she still doing her protests and stuff?


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