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The Psychology of Jewish Mourning Practices

As a teacher and educator of Jewish children young and old, I am frequently asked about the reasons behind Jewish traditions.

This is especially true this time of year, when we observe the laws of mourning in commemoration of the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash (Holy Temple).

Rosh Chodesh Av (the Jewish month of Av) begins this week, and with it, the period of the Nine Days and all of its restrictions (no swimming, doing laundry, eating meat or drinking wine etc).

Many people wonder, how do we connect to events that happened so long ago? How do we tap into feelings of sadness that we are ‘supposed’ to feel during these days? How do we make sure we aren’t just going through the motions and harboring unconscious feelings of resentment for feeling restricted without understanding why?

Grieving is supposed to be a natural process that occurs after someone experiences tragedy and loss.

Sometimes the feelings completely overwhelm someone and they lose their sense of normalcy. When someone hears terrible news, they can go into shock. They might lose their appetite, have difficulty sleeping, and stop caring about their physical appearance. Things that used to give them pleasure might all of a sudden seem dull and meaningless. Over time and often with the help of psychotherapy, these intense feelings of grief subside and a healing process restores a sense of normalcy.

A basic tenet of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is that thoughts, feelings and behaviors are all interconnected and affect each other. Sometimes we have a negative thought which generates a negative feeling, which leads to unhealthy behaviors. Other times our feelings initiate the process and influence our thoughts and actions. This is often depicted nicely as a triangle (CBT loves handouts!):

The final direction of the triangle is how our behaviors affect our thoughts and feelings. This is a very important concept in psychotherapy because if a person can commit to engaging in more healthy behaviors, they will begin to think and feel more positively as well.

This concept exists in the Torah too, in the famous quote by the Sefer HaChinuch: אחרי הפעלות נמשכים הלבבות - the heart is drawn after the behavior. Which means that if we act a certain way even without fully meaning it, our feelings will eventually be ‘dragged’ along with it.

We can actually manufacture certain feelings based on our actions.

For instance, in the famous “smile experiment”, participants who were forced to smile by holding a pencil in between their teeth were more likely to laugh at jokes than participants who weren’t. That was because the mere act of smiling made them more likely to laugh, even though they were only smiling because they had a pencil in their mouth.

I believe that this is the purpose of our mourning practices during the Nine Days.

We are far removed from the events that happened 2,000 years ago, so we don’t naturally experience intense feelings of grief and loss. Instead, we utilize another corner of the CBT triangle and act as if we are mourning, in order to elicit the associated feelings.

We neglect our physical appearance and remain unkempt by not shaving or getting haircuts. We refrain from acts of pleasure such as drinking wine and taking luxurious baths. On Tisha B'Av itself, we sit on the floor and don’t speak to one another. The idea is that instead of waiting for the emotions to come along on their own, we create an environment with our actions which is conducive to sad feelings. Or as the kids like to say: "Fake it till you make it".

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