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How I Approach the Jewish New Year as Someone With OCD

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Editor's Note

If you struggle with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741. To find help, visit the International OCD Foundation’s website.

This time of year marks the transition between the two major Jewish holidays, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Rosh Hashanah (between the evenings of September 6 to September 8) is for joyously celebrating the new year. We eat apples and honey to hope for a sweet year. Yom Kippur (between the evenings of September 15 to September 16) is then more serious and focused on atoning for wrongdoings. As a whole, the two holidays are about reflecting on how you spent the past year, and how can you be better in this next year. I find these holidays to be a beautiful concept. The goal is to spend time thinking about mistakes you’ve made, but you are also encouraged to directly apologize to people you have hurt.

I grew up in a Jewish household and regularly attended Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services. It was a tradition I expected each year, and being Jewish has always been part of my identity. Yet, I also found these holidays incredibly stressful as a child. We say that “on Rosh Hashanah it is written. On Yom Kippur it is sealed.” What is being metaphorically “written” is who goes in the Book of Life, and who will die in the following year. Now, I didn’t know I had obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) at the time. I wouldn’t know until college. Still, these phrasings about life and death, and it being connected to personal actions, got very stuck in my mind. My brain heard this and turned it into what I retrospectively know were OCD compulsions.

During services, I would make sure I didn’t miss reading or speaking a single word of a prayer. If something didn’t feel “right” or “complete,” I would then repeat the prayer in my head or under my breath. Inevitably though, the rest of the congregation moved on, so I would be stuck with my fingers marking several pages of prayers I had to redo. Then, for hours after we got home, I would continue repeating the prayers, trying to keep myself alive in the next year.

As with all OCD, the relationship to logic is tricky. OCD often has a nugget of truth in it, and that 0.0001% chance of doubt can fuel obsessions. This relationship is even trickier, though, when the individual is a child, without a fully developed adult brain, and when religion is involved. I was old enough to know that life and death weren’t so simple, but logic seldom works on OCD. Plus, it’s very common for OCD to get wrapped around religion, often called “scrupulosity OCD.” So many people struggle with this type of OCD.

As an adult now, my relationship with religion is still complicated. I consider myself more culturally Jewish than religious. I’m an atheist, but I will always be Jewish. I want to carry on practicing these traditions because it is part of my identity, even if I don’t necessarily believe what is behind these traditions. So, how then do I approach Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur now?

For a while, the stress around the High Holidays led to completely disengaging to avoid the painful memories from those childhood years. As I’ve gone through OCD treatment though and further fleshed out my identities, now I’m somewhere in the middle. I still make plans to attend, but I am gentle with myself, take a break if I need to, and overall engage in the ways that are best for me. I push myself to not avoid outright because of anxiety, to face my fears, but also to have self-compassion above all.

Religion looks different for everyone, just like OCD looks different for everyone. This means the relationship between religion and OCD is going to look a little different for any one person. For me, I have to be aware that if I feel the need to repeat prayers because of an OCD obsession, I remind myself of exposure therapy principles. I still engage with the community, while also giving myself permission to be flexible.

Getty image by Maglara

Originally published: September 13, 2021
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