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Your talmudic advice column

Dear Rabbi Zahavy,

I find it hard to cope with all the bad news of the current pandemic. I feel it definitely has been impacting my mental stability and even affecting my physical health. What’s your advice?

Reacting in Ridgefield Park

Dear Reacting,

The talmudic rabbis recognized, way back in antiquity, that some people are more sensitive than others to external stimuli. Some rabbis, like the great sage Rabban Gamaliel, were given leeway in their religious practices because they were categorized as istinis — a term some believe is derived from the Greek meaning not strong: a-sthenos; for example, a person of pronounced sensitivity to ugly or troublesome environmental stimuli, death or sickness.

Now I am speaking from my talmudic knowledge and my personal life experience here — and not claiming to be an armchair expert in any medical field.

I suspect you may be one of those vulnerable folks. And know full well that being delicate in some ways like this is not a weakness of body or of soul.

It appears that some images and narratives can and often do impact a sensitive person’s mental and physical state. And that can manifest in direct and sudden changes in that person’s heart and blood vessels and can affect their bodily blood pressure.

Talmudically speaking, there are two sides to this sensitivity. Some images or simple events may cause a precipitous drop in a person’s heart rate. We may have heard stories, like that of the hearty healthy robust marine recruit who gets a little inoculation in his arm and promptly pales and passes out.

Doctors call that a “vasovagal reaction,” where an image or event, like getting a shot or seeing blood, makes a person woozy or faint.

This is defined in the medical literature as a “reflex of the involuntary nervous system” that causes the heart to slow down, and at the same time affects the nerves to the blood vessels in the legs, permitting those vessels to widen.

I am susceptible to such reflexes. I recall the first time I became aware of this; I was a young boy, I was in my pediatrician’s office, and after I got a gamma globulin shot I took a dive to the floor.

Much later in my life, a few years ago, I became aware of a flip side of the reflexes that we can have to medical situations. I found my blood pressure rose whenever it was measured in a doctor’s office. I was told to relax and calm down, and that it might be spiking due to “white coat hypertension,” a.k.a. white coat syndrome, a condition where your blood pressure is higher when taken in a medical setting than it is at home.

Hello. Fast forward now to the pandemic of 2020.

In your formerly sheltered and comfortable home, where your blood pressure should be normal, if you (like me) constantly have had the TV news updates on, or were reading all the print news reports, you were subjected of late to a persistent parade of medical images of all sorts: doctors, nurses, hospitals, respirators, ambulances, accounts of widespread deaths and dying and morgues, over and over again throughout the day, virtually incessantly.

For most people all this information can and should be troubling, even alarming.

But for those of us (and perhaps for you, dear questioner) who have what the Talmud called the istinis sensitivity, this news and imagery of our situational circumstances can be affecting your well-being — even as you sit in bodily isolation in your own domicile.

I have heard anecdotal reports from friends during the past few weeks of sudden episodes of chest palpitations and sustained alarming periods of high blood pressure readings.

As we discussed these episodes, we realized that our secure homes in effect have been transformed of late into critical white coat medical settings by the marvels of our social and news media’s ubiquity.

Our all-pervasive media have brought the disaster that surrounds us outside, the catastrophe that envelops us, into the inner sanctums of our homes.

I do not know if anyone has come up with a diagnosis of a condition called “Pandemic Syndrome.” But it would not surprise me to hear that term coined soon, as a medical condition caused by reactions to the images of this suffering around us.

My advice to you, sensitive questioner, is direct and simple.

Turn off your TV and Internet news and stop reading the pandemic sections of your newspapers. You do not need to be subjected to continuous images and accounts of our medical crises.

And yes, the constant barrage may be damaging your health from a distance, without the direct effects of viral infection.

You will be well-served to practice isolation from the imagery and narrative of our awful current circumstances. Please try that out and see if it helps you regain your equilibrium.

Dear Rabbi Zahavy,

I am worried that our shuls are closed now. Won’t the lack of public prayers be detrimental to the well-being of the world?

Concerned about prayer in Paramus

Dear Concerned,

It is sad that we need to keep our synagogues and temples closed to avoid the spread of disease.

Certainly, we Jews believe that our prayers can and do have a salutary impact on us as persons and on our communities. And in this time of great distress we all may wish to turn to engage in our prayers with greater vigor.

But you may rest assured that according to our traditions, your prayers will be heard by God and will be equally effective wherever you recite them, at shul or at home, with others or by yourselves.

And be confident that even if you are not adept at prayers in Hebrew, you may recite them in any language. And if the spirit moves you, you may chant or sing your prayers to any tune you like and accompany them with appropriate music as well.

And in case you have not been praying much at all of late in your life, now would be a good time to engage in some supplication.

Indeed, it is a fitting time now to read up on the meanings and values of our prayers — especially in books, like those that I have written. (Permit me please a bit of timely self-promotion.) My most accessible recent book on the subject is titled “God’s Favorite Prayers” (available on Amazon.com in print or as a Kindle ebook).

Finally, even in our separate homes, let us all pray together right now for a speedy return to public and private health and to the end to this dark time that envelops us.

Tzvee Zahavy has been a distinguished professor of Jewish studies, religious studies, Talmud, halachah, Jewish law codes, and Jewish liturgy at major U.S. research universities and seminaries. He has published many scholarly and popular articles and books about Judaism and Jewish life. He received his Ph.D. from Brown University and his rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva University. Go to www.tzvee.com for details of the rabbi’s publications on prayer and Judaism.


The Dear Rabbi Zahavy column offers mindful advice based on talmudic analysis and wisdom. It aspires to be open and meaningful to the adherents of all the varieties and denominations of Judaism. You can find this column in the Jewish Standard, usually on the first Friday of the month. Please email your questions to zahavy@gmail.com

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