Dear Dr. Haimoff,

My mother is making us all crazy with Pesach prep. Every year she gets really intense about cleaning and goes above and beyond. I won’t get into the specific details of how and what she cleans, but suffice it to say that it is very extreme. I’m not a psychologist, but I think she has obsessive compulsive disorder. Her thinking is clearly irrational, and the level of distress she experiences seems to be unhealthy. My siblings and I all try to get her to calm down and take it down a notch, but that usually makes it worse and leads to flared-up emotions.

I’ve heard so many shiurim from different rabbanim about how to make Pesach cleaning simple and relatively stress-free, and it is so frustrating to see my mother suffer when she doesn’t even realize that there is an easier way. I also feel like preparing for yom tov is supposed to be a positive, uplifting experience, but this is quite the opposite.

Do you have any tips or suggestions?

A Concerned Son

Dear Concerned Son,

I am sorry to hear that your mother is causing so much stress in the home. It sounds like a delicate situation with no simple solution. It is very tricky to balance kibbud av va’eim when you believe that your parent is not well mentally. You are definitely not alone in your experience. Pesach cleaning is a major trigger for lots of families, and I’ve heard many stories of extreme cleaning methods (not to mention all the appliances that have been broken!). I’ll try to address your concerns as best as I can.

Firstly, let’s define our terms. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is “a common, chronic, and long-lasting disorder in which a person has uncontrollable, reoccurring thoughts (obsessions) and/or behaviors (compulsions) that he or she feels the urge to repeat over and over.” Obsessions are repeated thoughts, urges, or mental images that cause anxiety. Common symptoms include:

  • Fear of germs or contamination
  • Unwanted forbidden or taboo thoughts involving sex, religion, or harm
  • Aggressive thoughts towards others or self
  • Having things symmetrical or in a perfect order

Compulsions are repetitive behaviors that a person with OCD feels the urge to do in response to an obsessive thought. Common compulsions include:

  • Excessive cleaning and/or handwashing
  • Ordering and arranging things in a particular, precise way
  • Repeatedly checking on things, such as repeatedly checking to see if the door is locked or that the oven is off
  • Compulsive counting

As you can see, excessive cleaning and orderliness is a symptom of OCD, and many people with OCD have extreme beliefs and behaviors when it comes to hygiene and germs. It is easy to see how this would manifest itself with regard to Pesach preparations. Someone with OCD would likely feel extremely anxious about making sure his or her home and other properties are properly cleaned of chametz and will feel the urge to repeatedly check and inspect areas in order to confirm it in his or her mind.

There are certainly many Jewish sources and traditions that would seem to support excessive cleaning for Pesach. It is well-known that even a small amount of chametz on Pesach is problematic when mixed in with other food (chametz assur b’mashehu). We also have a minhag to be extra-strict when it comes to Pesach, which has led to many chumros over the course of history, such as regarding kitniyot and gebrokts. Many people will proudly tell you about how their bubbes from the alte heim would get on their hands and knees and scrub the cracks of the kitchen floor with a toothbrush.

So the question is this: how do we bridge these two seemingly competing values? On the one hand, we have halachos/minhagim, which clearly emphasize the severity of chametz, and on the other hand we have our mental health and sense of simchas ha’chag/shalom bayis, which emphasize the importance of being rational, healthy, and happy. Who is to say what is extreme and what is “normal” behavior?

I actually wrote a small piece about this in the Handbook of Torah and Mental Health. There is a Mishnah in maseches Pesachim (1:2) which seems to highlight the anxiety of cleaning for Pesach. It states: “There is no obligation to be concerned that a weasel may have dragged chametz from one house to another or one location to another. For if we were to be concerned about that, what if it went from one courtyard to another? Or from one city to another? And there would be no end to the possibilities.”

We see from here that Chazal were aware that a person could become obsessed with unlikely scenarios of accidently owning chametz, and they gave us permission to let it go.

OCD is sometimes nicknamed the “doubting disease” because it plagues people with an almost incurable dread of constant doubt. Things that seem unreasonable or farfetched to others could appear very real and distressing to someone with OCD. The good news is that many people with OCD benefit greatly from empirically supported psychotherapy treatments such as Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) therapy.

I realize I haven’t really answered your question yet, so I will add that if your mother really does have OCD, as you suspect, it is going to be difficult, exhausting, and frustrating for you and everyone else in your family to try to handle it on your own. In fact, many times people inadvertently exacerbate symptoms of OCD when trying to help someone who suffers from it. I would recommend seeking the help of a trained professional. If your mother is not open to hearing about the possibility of having OCD or going to therapy, or if you are hesitant about how to bring it up in a respectful way, I suggest the following. It is helpful for people to have an understanding of how their behavior affects those who love them most. In a loving and respectful way, try to bring up the pros and cons of your current dynamic. She is your mother, after all, and I’m sure her relationship with her family and children is important to her. If she is able to hear and understand your perspective, the next step would be identifying who to ask for help handling this problem. Wishing you a chag kasher v’sameach (in every sense of the word)!

Rabbi Saul Haimoff, PsyD, is a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice. He specializes in treating children, adolescents, and adults with anxiety and behavioral disorders. He is also the co-author of the “Handbook of Torah and Mental Health” and a public speaker on topics related to Judaism and psychology. For more information, visit rabbidrsaulhaimoff.com or email drsaulhaimoff@gmail.com.

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