Can I See My Therapist on Shabbat? - Episode 60
Rav Avi: Hi, and welcome to Responsa Radio, where you ask and we answer questions of Jewish law in modern times! I'm Rabbi Avi Killip, here with Rabbi Ethan Tucker, Rosh Yeshiva at Hadar, a center for higher Jewish learning based in New York City. And we're recording, actually, this afternoon, live from Hadar, from Hadar's inaugural halakhah intensive. We've invited in a group of people to study halakhah for a week, so tell me, how's it going?
Rav Eitan: It's great — this is what everyone thinks my dream life is: sitting around all day just studying halakhah, talking about all the details of Jewish law. And it is actually pretty great!
Rav Avi: It's basically a week-long Responsa Radio that we have going on here. So the topic of the week here involves how we interact with non-Jews on shabbat, and that's a perfect frame, actually, for the question that we have sent in. We have a number of questions on this show that relate to shabbat, and one of the things I love about these questions is they all bring out different aspects of shabbat. And so I'm curious to see where this question takes us — I think it has a modern bent, I can't imagine you're gonna pull out a mishnah for me that addresses it exactly, but…
Rav Eitan: You never know.
Rav Avi: But you never know. Here's our question: "Can I see my therapist regularly on shabbat?" And here's the follow-up: "My non-Jewish psychotherapist maintains an office about two blocks from my shul, and sees patients there on Saturdays. It could be very convenient for me to see him after shul. Supposing I pay for my sessions on a weekday, can I schedule my appointments on shabbat afternoon?" And then they add as a follow-up: "Do your thoughts on taking medicine on shabbat have any bearing on this question?"
Rav Eitan: Really interesting.
Rav Avi: So for those who haven't heard it, I'll tell you, we do have an episode of Responsa Radio that we've recorded on the question of taking medicine on shabbat, and you're welcome to go dig that out of the archives and take a listen. But I don't know, is that even the frame for this question, or perhaps it'll take us somewhere else?
Rav Eitan: Yeah, so I think there's a couple angles here. It's a really interesting question. Like, most of the really interesting questions we get, there's a few angles. Maybe we'll start, actually, from the healing and medicine angle, which I do think is important, because in that earlier episode, one of the things we unpacked is that indeed there is a lot of rabbinic sources and settled halakhah that is very nervous and sort of opposed to various kinds of healing on shabbat. And so one thing you could ask is, well, is it appropriate to engage in this kind of mental health activity, this therapeutic activity, on shabbat? So, let me start there, because I think a lot of times, we break down questions of health and healing into this binary of, well, your life's in danger, so then of course, you know, you are not going to be concerned about the details of shabbat. And then on the other hand, like, well, you know, it's just minor stuff, some of the issues we raised in that earlier episode make it problematic. But one of the things that is interesting, and here I am gonna pull out a mishnah, is that there are a whole set of activities that really are about healing that fall somewhere in the middle. So, the mishnah has this really interesting ruling, where it says you are not allowed to go out on shabbat, which means to carry on shabbat, outside of an eruv or into the public space — you're not allowed to go out with an amulet that is not from an expert. A kameah she'eno min hamumkheh. Okay? Now, amulets not from an expert — there's a lot to unpack there. I'll come back in a second. But the main thing that it indicates is it seems like you are allowed to go out on shabbat with an amulet that is from an expert.
Rav Avi: Well, that's good news!
Rav Eitan: That's good news for the amulet-wearers among us. But it really, actually, then launches a conversation about, you know, what counts as an amulet, has some sort of expert power to it. And the Talmud gets into a whole discussion where, essentially, it's something that's had the power to heal three times.
Rav Avi: So that's — it proves that it works.
Rav Eitan: It proves that it works. It has some kind of track record, and interestingly, Rav Pappa in the Talmud sort of even splits it and says, you know, it can really either be that the amulet has worked three times, or that the person who wrote the amulet has cured three people with the amulets that they've written. And sort of splitting the person or the thing itself, as long as there is some kind of track record that is there, you're actually allowed — it's sort of very surprising — you're actually allowed to carry this thing outside in a way that is a normal violation of shabbat, and no one's really even raising the possibility that the fact that the amulet is, you know, healing or probably even, to be more accurate, it sort of like prophylactically protecting you against disease or some other misfortune, is somehow problematic on shabbat. The only thing they're concerned about is, is this effective enough to justify violating a separate category of shabbat observance, namely carrying.
Rav Avi: So, that sounds like the opposite of what I might have thought. I might have thought there's a prohibition against healing on shabbat, and therefore the amulet that does actually heal is problematic. It's the doctor that I do trust whose medicine I shouldn't take on shabbat, and this is actually the opposite — it's saying no, if you need that medicine, presumably to heal you, then fine, but don't take the witch doctor medicine, I guess?
Rav Eitan: Yeah, well, I think actually what you're pointing to is probably a distinction that's really important, and it'll be relevant for our psychotherapist case, which is I think one of the things it reveals is that when classical rabbinic sources talk about healing as problematic on its own, they really mean a physical activity that somehow alters the body or physically engages with the body, or you ingest something. And things that are about, you know, in this case, wearing an amulet, or maybe carrying something around, and I think where we'll go to maybe in that sense also, discussing things, and kind of talking about things — that just doesn't fall in the formal category of healing that anyone's forbidding on shabbat. And you see this with a number of other things that really are about the wellbeing of the body, there's no way to deny that that's what they're about. But because they are not, like, a physical alteration to the body, that's not the discussion they fall under. So, the other really fascinating case like this doesn't appear in the Mishnah, it appears in the Tosefta, but it gets codified in the Shulkhan Arukh centuries later — there's some kind of stone, an even takumah, which pregnant women would carry around with them so that they wouldn't miscarry. And it is a stone that —
Rav Avi: It's also a little counterintuitive.
Rav Eitan: A little counterintuitive, you want less weight…
Rav Avi: You wouldn't want to carry around a stone.
Rav Eitan: It seems like it wasn't the heaviest stone, it was sort of weighed out in some sort of exact proportions to match, you know, some sort of mystical piece. And the Talmud actually clarifies and says we want to be very clear, this could also be carried by a woman who is not pregnant, so that she won't miscarry when she eventually becomes pregnant. Now, that gives you, I think, a fascinating window both into the value that is being placed when you think something is actually effective on enabling you to kind of protect yourself, and the ways in which this kind of thing is just not considered healing on shabbat itself. And there's obvious — if we're talking about someone who's not even pregnant now, there's no danger to them right now, and there is something that is sort of much less than the threshold of protecting their life, but nonetheless is about their sort of bodily health and integrity going forward.
Rav Avi: So maintaining health and healing an illness sound like almost categorically different for this. The other thing, and I think probably it's a side conversation not relevant here, but that I find fascinating in the first story about the amulet, is that either I can trust the person, the healer, the expert, the writer of the amulet, or I can trust the amulet itself, and either one is good enough. It's like, I could see myself saying that about my own health, that, well, that doctor seemed a little weird, but Amoxicillin is something I've heard of, so I guess I'll take it, you know? Versus, well, this is a weird experimental drug you're suggesting, but I trust you as a doctor, and therefore I'll take it. That's a really interesting breakdown of category of what's healing you, the amulet or the healer who's writing the amulet, the expert? But maybe not necessarily pushes this conversation.
Rav Eitan: Yeah. I think it's a great translation to, I think, the way you described it is exactly how a lot of people feel, in that intersection between specific treatments that they trust and particular care providers that they trust. One thing that's maybe, like, an interesting coda to that, in terms of, like, who determines that they're an expert, the Yerushalmi in Tractate Shabbat in this discussion says, a doctor is reliable to say about himself that he is a mumkheh, and say, I've healed someone three times, and you then actually are able to take their word for that, which I think is also sort of a powerful mapping onto, you know, someone who is board-certified or they have a degree or something like that, even though, well, you don't necessarily have a track record with them. There's some sort of element of, well, I trust this person is reporting to me, and maybe even in that case is externally certified. And I do think that maybe helps us when we think about the psychotherapist in this case and in this question, you're dealing with someone who, the questioner feels, I trust this person, I want to seek them out, we're not even dealing with any shabbat violation here yet, we'll get to the payment in a second — I don't think that there's really, on that level, a concern of inappropriate healing on shabbat.
Rav Avi: And is it different if I don't really trust my therapist, or I don't really think that he's gonna heal me? Or maybe I don't trust therapy at all? Does that affect whether or not it is okay?
Rav Eitan: Right. So, we'll get to some of the emotional dimensions of this that I think are important in a minute. I think the questioner here is coming from the perspective of, they clearly do trust this person, and then they're asking, do I have to meet with this person on Thursday, or is there a way for me to fold it into my shabbat routine? And so I would say for the initial response to our question, when we think about the possible concern of, is this inappropriate healing on shabbat, it doesn't seem any more problematic than the kameah min hamumkheh, the expert amulet, or the even takumah, the stone that you're carrying around.
Rav Avi: Great.
Rav Eitan: Let's move on, maybe, to the payment question, which comes up here. So we actually also did an earlier episode, I think it was about, like, hiring a non-Jewish babysitter on shabbat or something like that. And we talked about there being questions of, you know, is it appropriate to pay someone who's not Jewish for working on shabbat for you? And we kind of came to a conclusion, I think I was suggesting, probably the right way to split that is to say you normally don't do that, but if you have a d'var mitzvah, if you have something that feels like a real positive Jewish thing that you're trying to uphold, that's enabling you to go to shul on the night of Yom Kippur, something, you could make more room for that. And, you know, this is probably in line, on some level, with that sort of question. And I want to say, like, initially my instinct is, well, unless it was like you really needed to set up this appointment in the middle of shabbat because there was something happening later on the day on shabbat that you felt you wouldn't be able to, I don't know, read Torah at mincha, or like, host people at your house for seudah shlishit, I would, my initial inclination of, why would you schedule it that day? You're talking about picking dates out of a calendar, and essentially the frame of the question is convenience. I have some initial resistance to that.
But I do want to kind of clarify, which I don't think we did in that earlier discussion — when you think of that question of someone being paid for something they're doing on shabbat, sure, there are cases like the babysitter where the person showing up, the entire task that they're doing happens within the confines of shabbat, and that's what you are paying for. But the Tosefta, when it takes up these questions of how do you think about paying people for stuff they do on shabbat, does rule that you actually are allowed to pay someone for work they do on shabbat, as long as it's folded into a larger time frame. Like, you hire them for a week. Or you hire them for a month. One of the days that they happen to work is shabbat — as long as it doesn't sort of stick out of, I hired you for that day, you can just say here's your fee for the week, here's your fee for the month, and I do expect you to show up and do these obviously otherwise shabbat-permitted activities. And that's considered what's called havla'ah, getting the payment sort of swallowed up in a larger framework of compensation that makes it okay.
Rav Avi: So that feels like it's sort of like if I said I'm going to my therapist on Tuesdays and Saturdays and I pay you a monthly rate for our meetings, then maybe that's what gets you around that?
Rav Eitan: That's right. And I think once you start going that way, there's other ways of thinking about it — you know, this is classically how rabbis and cantors and other people have thought about, well, how do they get paid or everything they do on shabbat?
Rav Avi: Hebrew school teachers…
Rav Eitan: All those jobs that really, I think, are opened up in a couple of ways. Sometimes, there are some people who will just say, when you're doing a mitzvah for the community you can just, you know, go ahead and pay those people. But the slightly more conservative response is to say no, as you said, I'm paying you for the month, it happens to be that one of the things is you have to show up for this, or the idea that I'm paying for the time you spent preparing. I'm actually not paying you to read the parsha, I'm paying you to learn the parsha and be ready to read it, and then you show up and you sort of read. You know, if you're doing that with full integrity, if someone is then sick and they can't show up that day, you still have to pay them because they prepared, and that's what you're paying them for. But it's a kind of a workaround that recognizes there are things that people sometimes need to do on shabbat, and it's appropriate to pay them for it, but we really want to avoid a culture and a feeling and an experience of, I just got paid, you know, for what I did on this shabbat or yom tov day.
Rav Avi: So within that, we'll dip — and maybe this dips directly into the theme of the week here at the halakhah intensive — is it different for you if I have the kind of therapist who just talks to me face-to-face, versus the kind of therapist who's writing down every word that I say in their notebook?
Rav Eitan: Yeah, that's a really interesting question. Right. Assuming that, as the question does, that we're dealing with someone who is not Jewish. So there, yeah, another important principle comes in — this person is acting based on their own preference and their own initiative to do the melakhah in question. And taking notes is a classic example of that, where it's actually for the convenience of the therapist on some level, that they are deciding to sit there and they want to take notes right now, they feel that's how they'll do their job better. Intrinsically they could decide that they have a different method where they just talk to you, or they could decide, well, this is a Jewish patient, I guess I'll write my notes down after shabbat. But once it's in the category where it's really not an intrinsic part of the service that you are receiving, that's really on their autonomous ledger, you know, to decide how they're gonna handle it.
Rav Avi: Okay, so in a recap, we don't necessarily have a healing problem, because this is just general good health practice, and we don't necessarily have a payment problem because we have a few different avenues we could take to get around that. What do we have left? Do we have any other hurdles that we want to overcome on this?
Rav Eitan: Yeah, I want to go to one last one, which really goes with what you raised before, which is the question on some level of, like, the emotional valence of what it is to go to a therapist. And this, I think, is very different for different people. It comes out from an amazing story where Rabbi Akiva's students see him crying on shabbat, and they say to him, what are you doing? It's shabbat! Like, you're not supposed to be crying! And he says, for me, it's oneg to cry. I get tremendous pleasure out of sitting and crying. And truth be told, I think if we were to translate that into slightly more experiential, psychological terms, Rabbi Akiva's really saying I achieve a certain catharsis from crying that actually makes it an uplifting part of my shabbat experience.
Rav Avi: So Rabbi Akiva would love therapy.
Rav Eitan: He might love therapy. But I think I would want the questioner, actually, to be cautious with this. The story there tells us two things. It tells us, one, that it is possible to have experiences that seem externally painful but that are internally cathartic, but that if they're not internally cathartic, you shouldn't be doing things like that on shabbat. And actually, that story is invoked in a really unusual way by medieval authorities who are dealing with people who love to fast all the time — it sounds a little odd to contemporary ears — and they are trying to find a way, they basically also want to fast on shabbat. And you're not really supposed to fast on shabbat, but the way they will justify it, they'll quote the story of Rabbi Akiva and they'll say, you see, if it hadn't been enjoyable for him to cry, it would be forbidden for him to cry on shabbat because it would upset him. These people are made miserable by eating, and therefore their oneg shabbat, if it's destroyed by eating meals, maybe actually you have to allow them to fast.
Rav Avi: I think the modern analogue to that, and I mean this totally seriously, would be people who are doing, like, a week-long juice cleanse and would say, I want to do the full week, and you might say, no no no, you're not drinking only juice on shabbat, that's not how shabbat works. And they would say, you're really making me upset, you're ruining this whole thing that I'm doing if you tell me I have to, like, have chicken for dinner and I'm trying to do this juice cleanse. It seems like it's crazy to me, but for those people, they actually seem to enjoy this practice.
Rav Eitan: Yeah, I think you're right, and I think that's part of the valence for the Rabbi Akiva story — it's almost meant to be, and I think the chuckles that that story can elicit is, that seems crazy to me, that someone would want to sit around and cry all day, but what are you gonna do? So I think that's the question I would put in front of the questioner, which is, if therapy feels like a really important thing for you to do, but actually it's like, kind of aggravating, and you only feel the results of it a couple of days later or in the long term, it's really probably not appropriate to do that on shabbat, despite all the other hurdles that we said you could get over. Whereas on the other hand, if the experience of therapy is, that's actually the best I ever feel, is when I walk out of that conversation and then the crud starts to build up again until the next appointment, maybe the best would be to go Friday afternoon, right, before shabbat starts, but I think that would be a way of addressing the concern that might be raised from this text as well.
Rav Avi: Yeah, I think the convenience, the way the questioner says, is it convenient for me to go on shabbat, makes me a little wary, right, it's a little different than saying, is it shabbat instead of Thursday because it was more convenient — I would happen to be free shabbat afternoon, what with not doing any other things on shabbat, or if this is, this would be something that would make me look forward to shabbat, if I could go by my therapist's office. I wonder if it feels different to you if the question had been physical therapy instead of psychotherapy. As I try to, like, tick off the answers, I'm like, okay, the same payment question probably would be fine, and you might also put that in the category of, it's not a healing of a specific problem. But I wonder if, does Rabbi Akiva crying, is there something inherent about the psychotherapy, or could I also say I feel better after physical therapy?
Rav Eitan: Yeah, well I think like we said before — and this might be a whole episode on its own — you know, think about yoga and things of that sort — when you start to get more physical and more, certainly, a person with skill pressing on the body, engaging the body, there are other rabbinic sources that talk about that, that start to talk about ways of pressing on the abdomen and other kinds of procedures that are understood to be basically problematic, unless maybe you're dealing with, like, a higher-level illness or disability where without doing that, you won't be able to function in a full bodily way. So I think that is a line, and I think that's a line that plays out in rabbinic sources in general, where, yeah, it feels like things that involve the body and eating things and consuming things and putting pressure on things, are different than things that may be about a mental state of health, even if we — and maybe even they — you know, understood that the mental and physical pieces, of course, are not completely detached from one another, but that they're significantly different enough on a day like shabbat, where so much of the way we act out our respect of creation is by refraining from physical activities, that actually, the line between physical and mental health, I think, is actually significant.
Rav Avi: It's validating, I think, to think of Rabbi Akiva's as a model of the catharsis, and I hope that all of our listeners find the right time in their week to enjoy therapy if that's something that they enjoy — I guess, preferably, not on shabbat, but if need be, on shabbat. Thanks.
Rav Eitan: Thank you.
Rav Avi: Have a halakhic question you want answered on this show? Email us at [email protected] Or you could leave us a voicemail message at (215) 297-4254. Responsa Radio is a project of the Center for Jewish Law and Values at Hadar, and is produced by Jewish Public Media, which produces, curates, and promotes excellent Jewish content.