Monday, November 2, 2015

A Response to Ami Magazine’s Assertion that an Early Amorah Was Mentally Ill

update: The understanding of Berachos (5b) is the crux of the matter. Here is the Soncino Translation:
R. Eleazar fell ill and R. Johanan went in to visit him. He noticed that he was lying in a dark room,13 and he bared his arm and light radiated from it.14 Thereupon he noticed that R. Eleazar was weeping, and he said to him: Why do you weep? Is it because you did not study enough Torah? Surely we learnt: The one who sacrifices much and the one who sacrifices little have the same merit, provided that the heart is directed to heaven.15 Is it perhaps lack of sustenance? Not everybody has the privilege to enjoy two tables.16 Is it perhaps because of [the lack of] children? This is the bone of my tenth son! — He replied to him: I am weeping on account of this beauty17 that is going to rot in the earth. He said to him: On that account you surely have a reason to weep; and they both wept. In the meanwhile he said to him: Are your sufferings welcome to you? — He replied: Neither they nor their reward. He said to him: Give me your hand, and he gave him his hand and he raised him.
I don't see anything there indicating mental illness. Commentaries indicate that he was depressed because of his suffering and his belief that he would soon die. Depression as a realistic reaction to diffcult events is not mental illness. Read this Huffington Post  for examples of clinical depression

However Yungerman below claims that Rav Nachman understands it to be mental illness.


ברכות דף ה: רבי אליעזר חלש, עאל לגביה רבי יוחנן חזי דהוה קא גני בבית אפל, גליה לדרעיה ונפל נהורא. רצה לומר שראה שהתגבר אליו הקטנות והעצבות ומרה שחורה
Was Rabbi Nachman too a reformist? What stupidity and rechilus this article by Hoffman is!

I could not find the source for Yungerman's quote using DBS and Bar Ilan. This citation  apparently is not from Rav Nachman but is claimed to be based on his writings. In fact there is nothing there about mental illness but rather reaction to sin and the proper attitutde to avoid depression from being sinful - that is not mental illness!

It is possible that Rav Nachman is saying that it is mental illness but it could also be understood like the other commentaries that it was a realistic reaction to suffering and impending death. If his understanding of Rav Nachman is correct - then it apparently is the only such comment and it clearly differs from everyone else. Depression as mental illness is independent of events.

The Alshech for example says that Rabbi Eleazar was suffering from yesurim shel ahava which were overwhelming. He didn't want to request that they be removed until Rav Yochanon asked him. The gemora ends with the suffering being removed by Rav Yochanon. Nothing at all to do with mental illness.

Until someone can show an unequivocal commentary that his living in a "dark room" meant that he was depressed independent of what was happening to him (i.e., mentally ill) - then Rabbi Hoffman's criticism stands.

 It is simply accepted universally practice not to give a derogatory interpretation to the actions of a talmid chachom as long as the facts don't strongly indicate such. It is simply not acceptable  that the gemora is simply reporting the actions of a mentally ill person who happens to be an Amora - and thus not relevant for anyone else.
The problem is not in claiming that a great man was susceptible to mental illness - the gemora acknowledges the possiblity. [As noted before Rav Yaakov Kaminetsky had no problem with saying that he thought the Maharasham was senile. His problem was that he realized the fact that he justified this belief was wrong.] The problem is Ami Magazine's claiming that the gemora states that the Amora was in fact mentally ill - when there is absolutely no support from the text or from any commentaries. In fact the only other source for this understanding of the gemora is a Reform rabbi.

Five Towns Jewish Times     By Rabbi Yair Hoffman

Generally speaking, we should be open and tolerant of views and interpretations of others that may differ from ours.


Sometimes, however, when we perceive a breach in the Mesorah of the interpretation of a passage in the Talmud and it is presented as fact, it is incumbent upon others to vocalize their dissent. This is particularly true when the misinterpretation has no substantive linguistic indication to that effect within the text.

The essay stated that Rabbi Elazar, of the first generation of Amoraim, was suffering from mental illness. The essay was penned by Rabbi Yitzchok Frankfurter, the editor of Ami Magazine, whom I generally consider a Talmid Chochom. Nonetheless, the particular essay (issue 237 entitled “A Look Inside Psych Wards”) struck this author as troubling.


Rabbi Frankfurter based this assertion on a passage in Brachos 5b which states as follows:

Rabbi Elazar once became sick. Rabbi Yochanan came to visit him and saw that he was sleeping in a dark room. Whereupon Rabbi Yochanan uncovered his own arm and immediately the room grew light. Rabbi Yochanan then noticed that Rabbi Elazar was weeping. Rabbi Yochanan asked, “Why are you weeping? Is it because you have not learned Torah sufficiently? Behold we are taught, ‘No matter whether one offers much or little – only the intentions of one’s heart counts for the sake of Heaven.’ Is it because you are in need and poor? Not everyone receives a table in the world to come and a table here. Is it because of trouble from your children? Here is a bone from my tenth son. “I weep,” responded Rabbi Elazar for that beauty which will ultimately decay in the earth.” Rabbi Yochanan responded, “For that you really ought to weep.” Both wept together. Rabbi Yochanan then asked of him, “Do you love afflictions?” Rabbi Elazar answered, “Neither them nor their rewards.” “Then give me your hand.” Rabbi Elazar did so and was made well.


Rabbi Frankfurter writes, “It is clear that Rabbi Elazar was suffering on a psychological level from a pall of darkness enveloping his mind, rather than from physical disease.” He bases his interpretation on the fact that Rabbi Yochanan did not ask Rabbi Elazar if the reason he was crying was on account of poor health or physical pain. Rabbi Frankfurter then suggests that Rabbi Yochanan is engaging in “existential psychotherapy” in his discussion with Rabbi Elazar.


There is an unfortunate tendency for people to, at times, get caught up in their mada studies, in their Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Rank philosophies, and then retro-inject them into various Gemorahs and Midrashim that they come across with forced readings. Existentialist psychotherapy is strictly an early 20th century phenomenon. Injecting this type of therapy into the interpretation of a Gemorah with no Meforshim backing it up is anachronistic.

The results are not just incorrect readings of Torah texts, but there are two other repercussions as well: There are grave methodological missteps where, for example, an early Amorah is labelled as someone who is mentally ill; and the traditions of the classical commentators on our texts are entirely ignored. [...]


  1. Let us all remember that no matter which side you support we are all still bound by the laws of Lashon Hara. Any word that is Lashon hara we will have to answer for. The fires of hell are very hot!!

  2. Yitschok frankfuter can say that the amoraim were deranged and belong in mental asylums and he will get pass
    Because he writes nicely about skver and munkatch

  3. To point out a mistake in understanding a gemara is by no means Lashon Hara.

  4. Both Ami and Mishpacha magazines (but slightly moreso Ami) have been left-of-center publications that are, at most, borderline Chareidi views. Thry frequently post non-chareidi views on controversial issues. They throw in some bones on less or non-controversial issues that can be considered Chareidi views.

    They exist to sell papers. Whatever headlines, pictures or articles that will sell the most will be printed. The almighty Greenback is their only Rav Hamachshir.

  5. Ahhhh. So motzie shem ra on great Amoraim - who were able to revive the dead - gets a free pass, to you? The halachos that it is required to correct the misconceptions and mistakes, are completely overlooked by you? You do, however, have your own book on "lashon hora?" Of course, your book greatly differs with the sefer Chofetz Chaim?

  6. True, but to unnecessarily throw in the guilt by association, that it comes from a Reform Rabbi's blog sure sounds like motzi shem ra, at least to me.

  7. I couldn't agree more. I was only pointing out before everyone starts posting comments to remember that we have to be really careful not to include any words of LH. I'm sure you all agree. Rabbi Hofffman might be 100 percent. And one May commoner to that affect. But there are many ways how to write it and what and how many words to use. As I said, the fires of hell are very hot!!

  8. I would caution you to read the original article before posting this article because you will find, as I did, that Rabbi Fankfurter is being misquoted. Nowhere did he say what he is alleged to have said and what he did say is not nearly as controversial as Rabbi Hoffman makes it sound.
    If Hoffman did not contact Frankfurter before attacking him, you at least, owe it to Frankfurter to read the article in the original before being party to this.

    FYI - I do not read AMI or Mishpachah and have no relation to either Hoffman or Frankfurter. Judging by past writings, I tend not to trust Hoffman and therefore made an effort to search out this article. I was very disappointed to see how badly he misconstrued Frankfurters actual words but not surprised. Judge for yourself.


    Rabbi Eidensohn. There are many sources for Rabbi Frankfurter׳s pshat. Most Mefarshim understand the Gemara that he was trying to cure him from a spiritual or psychological dilemma rather than a physical illness. The most clear one is Rabbi Nachman of Breslov and the Ohr Hachaim that this Hoffman cited. In fact the Ohr Hachaim says he lost his will to live. Which is a very depressive state. Please see above link in regards to Rabbi Nachman. His whole article is but an attempt at character assassination.

  10. ברכות דף ה: רבי אליעזר חלש, עאל לגביה רבי יוחנן חזי דהוה קא גני בבית אפל, גליה לדרעיה ונפל נהורא. רצה לומר שראה שהתגבר אליו הקטנות והעצבות ומרה שחורה

    Was Rabbi Nachman too a reformist? What stupidity and rechilus this article by Hoffman is!

  11. The Ohr Hachaim Hakadosh says that Rabbi Elazar lost his will to live. That's a state of depression. BTW depression is an illness caused by a chemical imbalance.

  12. Rabbi Eidelsohn: If Rabbi Frankfurter would say to you that depression is the mental illness he was referring to, as he actually says in his piece, is all well? What I'm getting at this is but a witch hunt of someone who is clearly a talmid chacham, as Hoffman acknowledges. Why all this nit-picking to call someone kofer? Aren't we better than that?

  13. Where is this quote from?

  14. I was saying that maybe that is precisely what Rabbi Frankfurter was alluding to when he said that he suffered from depression. Namely that depression is a mental illness

  15. Yungerman - where is this quote from I could not find it with DBS or with Bar Ilan?

  16. BTW depression is an illness caused by a chemical imbalance.

    What is your source in for this?
    What is your source in Chazal for this?

  17. Yungerman - spiritual or psychological dilemmas are not mental illness.

    Being depressed as a reaction to events - is not mental illness. It is mental illness to have be depressed no matter what is happening

  18. Yungerman - the citation you provide apparently is not from Rav Nachman but is claimed to be based on his writings.

    In fact there is nothing there about mental illness but rather reaction to sin and the proper attitutde to avoid depression from being sinful - that is not mental illness!


    Please see the above link how the Rishonim understood depression. They referred to it as "marah schochorah" which means black bile. That is a certain type of chemical if someone has an excess of is prone to various illnesses including depression.

    Rabbi Frankfurter says(as do many other accepted mefashim) that Rabbi Elazar's illness was marah shcorah (which manifests itself as a mental illness), rather than a physical one.

    Hoffman omitted the whole concept of depression, and HE is the one who is proclaiming in the name of Frankfurter that Rabbi Elazar was simply a mental case.

    Again whether one agrees with the pshat of Rabbi Frankfurter or not, it is not novel, and certainly not a breach of our mesorah.

  20. Yungerman - I don't understand your point.

    The term marah schochorah in reference to Rabbi Eleazar is not from Chazal, Rishonim or Achronim - it is from those who claim to understand Rav Nachman's writings (ie., the link you provided).

    If a person is depressed because of chemical imbalance - he is mentally ill. The cure requires a proper chemical balance. If in spite of having a chemical imbalance he is able to overcome his depression he is not mentally ill.

    Secondly who are the many accepted commentaries who you claim say that he had marah shcorah?

    Thirdly please show me a clear source that marah shchorah corresponds to what we would today call clinically depressed i.e., crippled by depression which is not simple an appropriate reaction to specific lift events

    Bottom line: where are the comentaries which say that Rabbi Eleazar was mentally ill as he was suffering from severe depression - either because of chemical imbalance or neurology that was a permanent feature of his existenc and was not simply an appropirate reaction to certain life events?

  21. It's not even association, it is simply two people saying similar things. If you say for example that Colgate is the best toothpaste, and a Reform clergy member also says that Colgate is the best toothpaste, then by Hoffman's logic you are a reformer.

    In addition to everything else, did anyone ever hear of the concept of judge each person favorably?

  22. Frankfurter's words reek of heresy. Rabbi Hoffman did a great job of smelling the undertone.
    However, more disturbing is the language he uses. 'It is clear.......' Clear to who? No sources, not a mention of an earlier pirush. Nothing! Just אני ואפסי עוד!
    Mr. Frankfurter, you would do well to learn סוטה דף ד' & ה' very well. Your גאוה is what's going to ultimately be your undoing.
    Mark my words!

  23. In addition to everything else, did anyone ever hear of the concept of judge each person favorably?

    Frankfurter has no right to ask for that after the way he has not kept that.

  24. The words quoted by Hoffman, “It is clear that Rabbi Elazar was suffering on a psychological level
    from a pall of darkness enveloping his mind," do not necessarily mean "mental illness." R' Frankfurter could simply have meant that he was depressed, melancholy. Hoffman is reaching. He must have needed an article.

  25. Don't talk about things you know nothing about. There is zero evidence for the "chemical imbalance" theory of mental illness, and it has been pretty thoroughly discredited.

  26. Hoffman didn't say Frankfurther is a Reformer, let alone say Franfurter is a Reformer because a Reform clergyman said a similar saying. Hoffman simply noted a Reform clergyman happened to come up with a similar sevara. He didn't then deduce that therefore Frankfurter is a Reformer. That is your own misinterpertation of Hoffman.

  27. Lakewood Yeshiva GuyNovember 2, 2015 at 5:27 PM

    What nonsense you talk, kishkeyum!
    Frankfurter's whole point is proving that mental illness "has been around since the beginning of time"

  28. I am in a rush and will respond to your queries later. But before I go let me just say Hoffman very brazenly accused Rabbi Frankfurter for ostensibly breaching the mesorah. Whether or not you agree or disagree with Rabbi Frankfurter's pshat or think his sources say what he thinks they say: he clearly did not breach the mesorah. He understood that depression is a form of illness. Maybe he is wrong, but there is absolutely no reason under the sun to vilify him for thinking or writing so. I too believe too it is a form of illness, am I a heretic because of that?I highly doubt Reb Moshe zt"l would permit this vilification even in the blogosphere. Let's touch basis later.

  29. מאן דאמר, well said, to my mind, I think he's pretty much done, the question is how it will fall apart

  30. Who is the rav hamachshir? I bet you its r frankfurter for ami? And why did he leave his previous magazine (and his partners there?)

  31. what does the Gemara say about R' Yochanan when his students prayed for him to die? And can we have a "kosher" psychological assessment of that situation?

  32. And if he was suffering from mental illness so what?
    If the gemara told us he had back pain and somenoe commented on it no one would get outraged. If the gemara told us he had chest pain when he exerted himself or wheezed in cold weather we'd make it a trivia question on cheder exams.
    But mental illness? Chas v'chalilah you should think so.
    No, we can' retrofit our modern ideas like psychotherapy onto the gemara but mental illness exists and did exist back in those times as well. It's an illness, no different from asthma, heart disease or arthritis. If I said a certain Chazal had one of those conditions no one would freak out. Why? Because it doesn't change our opinion of him in terms of his piety, knowledge and spirituality. But imply that he had mental illness? That's saying he's a bad person and you can't say that!
    But having mental illness doesn't make you a bad person. Thinking that it does is the problem.

  33. the issue is not whether mental illness existed then - it clearly does.

    The problem is dismissing or distorting the message that the gemora is trying to convey by saying it was nothing but depression or mental illness

  34. I didn't read the article, only Hoffman's quote, which makes no mention of mental illness. If indeed Frankfurter calls this mental illness, I withdraw my comment. If he does not, I don't.

  35. I believe you're thinking of rebbi.

  36. There is a gemara which does seem to say an amora had a mental illness (I assume it depends on your definition of it though). The following is from Bava Metzi'a 84a:
    ‎נח נפשיה דר' שמעון בן לקיש והוה קא מצטער ר' יוחנן בתריה טובא אמרו רבנן מאן ליזיל ליתביה לדעתיה ניזיל רבי אלעזר בן פדת דמחדדין שמעתתיה אזל יתיב קמיה כל מילתא דהוה אמר רבי יוחנן אמר ליה תניא דמסייעא לך אמר את כבר לקישא בר לקישא כי הוה אמינא מילתא הוה מקשי לי עשרין וארבע קושייתא ומפריקנא ליה עשרין וארבעה פרוקי וממילא רווחא שמעתא ואת אמרת תניא דמסייע לך אטו לא ידענא דשפיר קאמינא הוה קא אזיל וקרע מאניה וקא בכי ואמר היכא את בר לקישא היכא את בר לקישא והוה קא צוח עד דשף דעתיה [מיניה] בעו רבנן רחמי עליה ונח נפשיה

    רש״י: ‎ דשף דעתיה. נעקרה ממנו דעתו ונשתטה

  37. Existential angst that leads to a חשבון הנפש is not mental illness since it has a constructive purpose.

    The experts struggle to define the term, whether "Illness" refers to disability, or to "harmful dysfunction", etc. If it doesn't disable and it isn't harmful, etc. it isn't illness.

    Lately, the field has been dividing stress into a "good" and "bad" type. Some have coined the term "eustress" to describe constructive stress.

    "Normal" reactions to extreme trauma, social degradation do nevertheless cause disability/dysfunction, so the boundaries are much murkier. The bully (or society) can't blame the fellow who got bullied for being "mentally ill", but the doctor can still tell him that he can relieve his distress - assuming the good doctor has superior tools to do so.

  38. As to the disagreement between R' yair Hoffman & Frankfurter - I simply don't get it.

    didn't R' Elazar clearly state why he was crying "להאי שופרא דבלי בעפרא קא בכינא", so why all the conjecture?

    The straightforward pshat is that R' Elazar reason for crying had to do with the fact that R' Yochanon will some way pass away, and such a beautiful creation that is a reflection on מה רבו מעשיך ה' כולם בחכמה עשית will cease to exist.

    The maharsha finds it hard to learn that this would be a reason to cry, and mentions another pshat - that this had more to do with זכר לחורבן, since r' yochanon was the last one alive at that time who saw the ביהמ"ק.

  39. Unless i am mistaken, was the Yochanan/Resh Lakish story. After Resh Lakish died, Yochanan becomes highly distressed and suffers , whereby his students prayed for him to die.

  40. The issue of depression, etc. relates more to R' Yochanon's הוה אמינה - and he too clearly states three possible reasons why he thought R' Elazar was crying, a-not learning enough, b-financial difficulties, c- problems with children. All three effect a persons ability to serve Hashem, and reflected on them is meant to bring a person to want to come closer to hashem.

    Yes, all three are indeed issues of חלישות הדעת, but each of which can be interpreted as being מקיים what the rabeinu Yona says (שער ג' אות י"ז)
    ומה תקות הנברא אם לא ישים עמל נפשו ועיקר עסקו בדברים שנברא בעבורם

    There's a famous story of an old chosid who inadvertently found out that his Tefilin had always been pasul, after a sofer checked his tefilin by mistake. He made a סעודת הודאה for the זכות of finding out!

    That's also the difference between עצבות and מרירות, with the latter being a positive, since it leads to positive things...

    The concept of Teshuva is something that could turn all existential angst into a positive. (there's actually a religious but not Jewish Dr. Wong who advocates "Positive existential Psychology").

    Where did Frankfurter see that R' Yochananon thought that R' Elazar used his depression in a non-adaptive corrosive manner?

    Disclosure; i don't read Ami, so I didn't see the original, and i hope I'm wrong.

  41. The issue is not the crying but the "dark room"

  42. i didn't see the original Ami article, but RYH says that

    "He [meaning Frankfurter] bases his interpretation on the fact that Rabbi Yochanan did not ask
    Rabbi Elazar if the reason he was crying was on account of poor health
    or physical pain".

    What I'm trying to say is that neither the reason that R' Yochanon explicitly state, nor the reason that R' Elazor later gave - neither constitute the Torah nor the clinical definition of depression.

    It makes no sense to search for hidden connotations when the facts are spelled out. Whatever "dark room" alludes to - it doesn't contradict what the gemara clearly states.

    Both R' yochanon's הוה אמינא and R' Elazor's מסקנה give ample reason for angst, and for being in a dark room for the purpose of introspection. such introspection is NOT mental illness, whether it's purpose is חשבון הנפש, צער על האי שופרא דבלי בעפרא.

    Frankfurter's "proof" (as RYH quotes him) that why didn't R' Yochanon ask him about physical pain / poor health is a non-starter. Are we supposed to believe that R' Elazor wasn't מקיים S"A O"H רכ"ב:
    חַיָּב אָדָם לְבָרֵךְ עַל הָרָעָה בְּדַעַת שְׁלֵמָה וּבְנֶפֶשׁ חֲפֵצָה,
    כְּדֶרֶךְ שֶׁמְּבָרֵךְ עַל הַטּוֹבָה?

    In my humble opinion THIS is why frankfurter deserves the most censure - to build a Pshat on the assumption that an אמורא had a hard time being מקיים the S"A... It must be mental illness (sic) because otherwise it would have "normal" for R' Elazar to be depressed because of his health???

  43. By r yochanan it was "rabbis" not students

  44. Rabbi E. You seem to be confusing mental illness with "chronic mental illness." Rabbi F never said that Rabbi Elazar was a chronically mentally ill person. He said that the nature of illness the Gemara says he had was psychological in nature rather than physical. So I see nothing wrong whatsoever with his piece.

  45. his point was that our sages understood the human condition better than the modern day practitioners of medicine. it is a shame that he was vilified for that on orthodox websites.

  46. How about Shaul Hamelech?
    שמואל-א ט"ז פסוק יד, ורוח ד' סרה מעם שאול ובעתתו רוח רעה מאת ד
    See the Radak and the Malbim there.
    Not as extreme as R' Yochanan, but a case of extreme depression.

  47. As I said - Read the original. He said nothing that "reeks of heresy" and I could't detect much of an undertone of anything similar. One need not agree with his approach, but slow down before openly proclaiming a person a heretic. At a minimum - read the original. Until you have, you're far worse than a heretic.

  48. There is an old sefer Zecher Avraham based upon the teachings of Rabbi Nachman. See Siman 6 where you'll find that quote.

  49. I think the key problem with frankfuter approach is that once we see an amora suffering from clinical depression is, how do act toward his statements band desicions...... After all he may have been depressed and judgement inaccurate

  50. There is an old sefer Frankfurter and Baloney, which exposes those who misquote the teachings of Rav Nacman. See siman 6 where he debunks the authenticity of that quote.

  51. For someone whose whole value to you is his intellect then saying he has mental illness is casting aspersions on every decision he made, after all how can we trust them perhaps they were influenced by his illness. It's like saying the person who we rely on for what physical therapy to do because he tested it on himself was physically deformed. It's not a matter of stigma but of the reliability of the system being thrown into doubt.

  52. Honesty: Can you please explain what you mean? Did you see the sefer? If you did can you provide us with a quote? Are you denying that the talmidim of Rabbi Nachman say that their master said as Rabbi Frankfurter did? If you do deny it then please explain. Otherwise you're just shooting from the lip.

  53. הרוצה לשקר ירחיק עדותו

    You claim to have a quote in a sefer. Either post a screen shot of the sefer, or provide a link to it in a reliable website. Otherwise you'll have to face the fact that my sefer debunks and denies the quote you concocted.

  54. Here is a link to the sefer:

    Whether or not it says what Yungerman claims, I am not sure.

  55. Thank you, I appreciate it.

    However, as you can see, it clearly does not say what Yungerman claims it says. This quote is just not there.

    רצה לומר שראה שהתגבר אליו הקטנות והעצבות ומרה שחורה

  56. I have no opinion on the matter, but I guess it would depend on how to translate those terms. Rabbi Nachman did not have the DSM 5.

  57. The reason why I've been so vocal here is because Rabbi Frankfurter is very brave in fighting the stigma of depression. One is not a mental case if he is depressed. He is ill like like anyone else who is ill. If the Gemara says Rabbi Elazar fell ill why is it so hard to accept that that illness was depression?


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