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Is Over-Obsessing Okay?

Is Over-Obsessing Okay?

The Jewish take on becoming compulsive


Dear Rabbi,

I feel I have started to become neurotic about my religious observance.

I keep worrying if I am doing things 100% correctly. Did I say the correct blessing? Did I wash my hands correctly before the meal?

I am scared I am becoming compulsive. On the other hand, I do want to take Jewish law seriously.

Can I be fully observant and not go mad?


Being careful about fulfilling Jewish law is a very good thing. When it comes to fulfilling the divine will, every detail matters. But there is a limit. I learnt this when I was studying to be a rabbi. I had a powerful experience that forever changed my view of G‑d and His laws.

I was studying in Israel in a rabbinical school with several hundred other students. One morning, just after prayers, one of my friends came over to me with a concerned look on his face. "I think your tefillin may not be kosher," he told me. (Tefillin are phylacteries. I don't know what phylacteries are, but tefillin are two black boxes, with specially crafted parchment scrolls containing portions of the Bible, that we wear on our foreheads and upper arms during prayer.) I asked him what he meant, and he pointed out that my head tefillin didn't look perfectly square. It seemed that one of the corners was not an exact right angle.

This was serious. The hand-made leather boxes of the tefillin are supposed to be square. If they are not square, then they are not tefillin. They aren't even phylacteries. If my friend was right, if my tefillin were slightly off, then I hadn't been wearing kosher tefillin for years. I had been putting on “unsquare” “unkosher” tefillin every day, which is as good as not putting tefillin on at all.

I knew what I needed to do. I needed my head tefillin examined. I rushed straight away to an expert in Jewish law. He was a senior rabbi famous for his decisive and clear judgments in Jewish law. I brought him my tefillin and asked if he could advise me. I showed him the black leather box, pointing out the imperfect corner, and nervously awaited his verdict.

The rabbi inspected the tefillin, looked at me with his kind and wise eyes, and smiled. He responded with one line, a quote from the Talmud: "G‑d’s commandments weren’t given to angels."

I immediately understood what he meant. My tefillin were just fine. When the Torah says to make your tefillin square, it means you should make them as square as human hands are capable of doing. We are not angels who can make perfect angles. We are humans who can only do our best. And that is exactly what G‑d requires from us.

If G‑d wanted perfection, He would not have created us as fallible humans. So obviously that's not what He wants. He wants us humans, with all our imperfections, to make every effort within our means to fulfill our divine purpose.

That means our squares won't be absolutely perfect squares, and our angles won't be exactly right. It means, that while we strive our best to fulfill every commandment with utmost attention to its details, we all make mistakes and get it wrong sometimes. But that's alright. We are not angels. We are not expected to be. We must do whatever we can in following G‑d’s directives without becoming obsessive.

Artwork by David Brook. David lives in Sydney, Australia, and has been selling his art since he was in high school. He is currently painting and doing web illustrations.
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Anonymous September 18, 2017

I needed this article. I have scrupolosity OCD. I'm so fearful of making a mistake. It feels like we have to be perfect but we just can't be. More information and discussion should be done about this it helps to realize we are humans with flaws even when we try so hard Reply

Chava July 6, 2017

Thanks for this article, Rabbi. Much much appreciated! Reply

Leonard Texas June 28, 2017

Wow. The Rabbi has the "perfect" answer. :-) Reply

arthur yanoff June 27, 2017

how well our sages understood that as important as it is to study Torah, we must also be engaged in other activities. Reply

Anonymous Colorado June 27, 2017

This is a fascinating discussion with which I wish the Rabbi had gone further. Yes, we can't be perfect but I think the questioner was asking something else too. Especially to less observant observers, Orthodoxy seems almost, dare I say, idolatrous. There is so much OCD attention to the minutest detail that the larger meaning can be lost. Obedience couldn't be what we're after could it? Isn't it more meaning and purpose that we're after? Reply

Clifford Kraut Chicago June 27, 2017

"That means our squares won't be absolutely perfect squares..." and our lines may not be perfectly "straight"....

Leviticus 19:18 ― לֹא-תִקֹּם וְלֹא-תִטֹּר אֶת-בְּנֵי עַמֶּךָ Reply

Anonymous Pasadena, CA May 2, 2011

Perfectly Angelic "...and Avraham saw three men.", then later; "...and he (Avraham) saw three Malakim (Angels) departing..." There are people who serve G-d in the capacity of angels in our world. I have met some of them, you have probably as well. Being absolutely without flaw (vis-a-vis; perfect) is Not a requirement to be an angel either. Therefore, I could argue that the Torah was also given to the Angels; but they accept the fact that in each brushstroke of a master artists' work, there is a special flaw built right in. How else could we tell one artist from another? Precision is good, but perfectionism? We can't all be Mchelangelos, not even DaVinci, nor Raphael, nor Rembrandt could be some one they are not. It is our flaws that give us our individuality, it is why we need each other to complete the master's work. Our flaws are the factor that gives our Unity, a cohesiveness. Thereby our flaws are also part of G-d's creative perfection. To say otherwise is to judge G-d. Reply

Rox Pottsville, PA September 4, 2009

Beautiful :o) Thank you. :o) Reply

Rev. Mark Anthony Lester Amarillo,Texas July 8, 2017
in response to Rox:

Amen we are not robots we do have our flaws Reply

Anonymous Berkeley, CA September 4, 2009

Very nice message This is also exactly what I needed to hear. Thanks so much and Good Shabbos Reply

Anonymous Amarillo, Tx. July 8, 2017
in response to Anonymous:

A happy Shabbos Reply

Anonymous California, USA September 4, 2009

I am glad someone finally brought up this issue. I have noticed that some observant people are so concerned with having everything JUST right, that it seems to take away from the pleasure of the holiday or mitzvah. I hope that G-d realizes that we are only human and are doing the best we can. I think that if one does it with an honest heart and to the best of one's ability, that should be good enough. Reply

Anonymous September 18, 2017
in response to Anonymous:

Well said. Thank you Reply

David Reeder Los Angeles, CA via September 3, 2009

Tefillin Regarding "phylacteries", the word is borrowed from the christian bible where it appears all of once, in a paticularly offensive attack on our sages whom, it is alleged, put wearing the largest "phylacteries" ahead of spiritual pursuits. Enough.

It seems like a good idea that when we have a pefectly good Hebrew word for something, like tefillin, we learn what it means, store the Hebrew word in our memory bank, and move on. Examples include the names of the Avos (the "patriarchs", sorry). Once we have "captured" the names of Avraham, Yitzak, and Yaakov, and stored them in our very capable memory banks, we no longer need to refer to them as Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob ever again. Reply

Joshua Levy guatemala City, guatemala September 3, 2009

Phylacteries This word is an mistaken translation of tefillin, teffilin are anything but amulets, It is not right for a Jew to use that word as the defenition of tefillin. Reply

Shmuel Golan Heights, Israel September 3, 2009

A beautiful lesson That was exactly what I needed to read just now. Thanks so much. Reply

Karen Swanay Panama City, Fl September 3, 2009

Etemology of "phylactery" Phylactery
pl: phylacteries
From Middle English: philaterie
from medieval latin: philaterium
from the late latin: phylacterium
from the greek: phylakterion = amulet
and phylassein = to guard which is from the greek root phylak, or phylax (think phalanx)

Great story. Hope this helps with the word. =) Reply

John Lloyd Cambridge September 3, 2009

Phylacteries Inspirational and heartening words.

Phylacteries is derived from the ancient Greek phylakterion, meaning an amulet. Precisely why the word survives seems a mystery, since it very rarely seen other than in brackets right after tefillin (phylacteries)! Reply

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