Winter Depression: Chanukah Edition

The following is a piece from the Refuat Hanefesh column “Struggling Together: Mental Health in The Torah”. In this column, Tzivia Appleman draws on her time studying in Israel, as well as her passion for enhancing society’s mental health views, to propose ways we can understand the emotional state and struggles of the characters and leaders of Tanach many of us grew up with. The opinions shared in this column as they relate to characters in Tanach are the author’s and do not necessarily represent those of Refuat Hanefesh.

Many of us look forward to the winter season. The festive lights, steaming hot chocolate, and the first snowfall are just a few of the highlights which come around this time of year. Often enough, however, we get caught up in the facade of the lights and artificial warmth, and we forget about the darkness and coldness that lurks in the crevices of winter.

Unfortunately, those “winter blues” are not so uncommon. The medical field refers to this as SAD: Seasonal Affective Disorder, “a subtype of depression or bipolar disorder that occurs and ends around the same time every year. Seasonal depression typically occurs when the seasons change and most symptoms begin in the fall and continue into the winter months.”

The First SAD

When was the first case of SAD? Can we find an example of “winter depression” in the Torah?
The Gemara found in Mesechet Avodah Zara (8a) quotes a Midrash (historical interpretation) from Avot Derabi Natan, regarding Adam ha-Rishon (the first man):

“…the Sages taught: When Adam the first man saw that the day was progressively diminishing, as the days become shorter from the autumnal equinox until the winter solstice, he did not yet know that this is a normal phenomenon, and therefore he said: ‘Woe is me; perhaps because I sinned the world is becoming dark around me and will ultimately return to the primordial state of chaos and disorder. And this is the death that was sentenced upon me from Heaven, as it is written: “And to dust shall you return” (Genesis 3:19).’ He arose and spent eight days in fasting and in prayer.”

According to this Aggadeta (story), Adam was depressed. He thought his sin meant that the world was ending, quite literally. However irrational those fears may be, that depression was real for Adam, causing him to lose some of his hope. Since the dawn of time, there has clearly been a negative association with the winter. Perhaps this penetrated into the psyche of humankind, which would explain the unwelcomed darkness that enters our existence during these short winter days.

However, this dark and gloomy story doesn’t end there, as the Gemara continues:

“Once he saw that the season of Tevet, i.e., the winter solstice, had arrived and that the day was progressively lengthening after the solstice, he said: ‘Clearly, the days become shorter and then longer, and this is the order of the world.’ He went and observed a festival for eight days. Upon the next year, he observed both these eight days on which he had fasted on the previous year, and these eight days of his celebration, as days of festivities. He, Adam, established these festivals for the sake of Heaven, but they, the gentiles of later generations, established them for the sake of idol worship.”

Adam’s Approach To Depression

Whether or not this tale actually occurred, I believe we can learn a very important lesson from Adam’s travails. What was the cause of Adam’s depression? Was it something in the weather, or perhaps was there a deeper reason? The natural phenomena of “the days getting shorter and the nights getting longer”, which is out of man’s control, caused man to be on alert and to introspect, ultimately leading to him repenting. Similar to the previous piece in this series (Dovid HaMelech and teshuva), the process of repenting will inevitably involve some sort of depression.

How did Adam deal with his depression? He didn’t stay in bed. He didn’t give up. He decided to take initiative through fasting and prayer, a process familiar to Jewish History. Depression, however, doesn’t always enable its victim to feel that moment of inspiration which Adam felt. We don’t always hear the call of the Divine in our daily lives, waking us up to introspect. What can possibly lift us out of our winter depression?

Rabbi Leibtag on Adam’s Depression

In his article, Chanukah: Its Biblical Roots, Rabbi Menachem Leibtag redeems us with a beautiful answer:

This Midrash already points to a thematic connection
between Chanuka (an eight-day celebration) and this time of
year (the winter solstice). It should not surprise us that
Adam ha-Rishon noticed this winter solstice, and properly
related this phenomenon to God Himself; while his offspring
(living in a pantheistic culture) instituted a pagan ritual to
mark this critical time of the solar year.

However, this Midrash also alludes to a human
psychological phenomena as well, i.e. what we call winter
depression. [It is well known that lack of sunlight leads to
depression.] Adam ha-Rishon did not simply give up [or get
drunk at a New Year’s party] at this depressing time in his
life; instead, he transformed it into a time for introspection
and repentance, with hope for a better future.

The Light of Chanukah

Chanukah is what lifts us out of the darkness. It’s what reminds us that even when all hope seems lost, when we think we’ve fallen too deeply into the abyss, when we can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel, when we feel on the verge of fading into the oblivion – there’s still one miniscule jug of oil. To quote the wisest man who never lived, Albus Dumbledore, “Happiness can be found, even in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light.”

Chanukah Sameach!

Facts about SAD
– The reduced level of sunlight in the fall and winter months may affect an individual’s serotonin, a neurotransmitter that affects mood. Lower levels of serotonin have been shown to be linked to depression. Brain scans have shown that people who had seasonal depression in the winter had higher levels of a serotonin transporter protein that removed serotonin than in individuals who did not have seasonal depression. [2,4]
– Melatonin, a sleep-related hormone secreted by the pineal gland in the brain, has been linked to seasonal depression. This hormone, which can affect sleep patterns and mood, is produced at increased levels in the dark. Therefore, when the days are shorter and darker the production of this hormone increases. Melatonin can also affect an individual’s circadian rhythm, or “biological clock”, resulting in ‘internal clocks’ being out of sync with ‘external clocks’, or the usual sleep/wake rhythms. This can result in some of the symptoms associated with seasonal depression.

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Tzivia Appleman
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1 Comment on “Winter Depression: Chanukah Edition

  1. Hi Tzivia, I found your piece very interesting and I liked the lesson you brought out. However, I am curious as to how you made the jump that Adam was depressed? I understand he was scared that the days were getting shorter and that might signal he would die, but does that truly indicate he had depression? I think we all get scared in unfamiliar situations, but that does not mean we have depression. Are there any commentators you are aware of that explicitly say Adam had depression?

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