Jewish Customs Showing Care for People who are Ill

Visiting the Sick

At BT Shabbat 127a, the Talmud notes that visiting the sick is counted as one of the mitzvot that is rewarded both in this world and also in the World to Come. 

Indeed, the conviction that visiting the sick, bikkur ḥolim (bikur cholim), could bring actual therapeutic benefit—the Talmud (at BT Nedarim 39b) cites Rabbi Abba bar Ḥanina’s rather fanciful theory that visitors take one-sixtieth of the patient’s illness away when they leave after a visit—caused bikkur ḥolim to be heralded as one of the principal mitzvot that pertain to relations among people. 

One should be considerate of the needs of the sick when visiting.

The visit should not take place when the individual is so uncomfortable that they cannot appreciate it.

Indeed, except in cases of very grave illness, one should only visit after three days have elapsed so as to grant the patient some initial privacy (Shulchan Arukh, Yoreh Deah 335:1). Also, any visit should be cut short if one sees that the sick person is uncomfortable or in need of rest.

It is traditional to recite a prayer of healing on behalf of the ill.

Normally, this is done in synagogue in the course of the Torah reading when a Mi Shebeirakh (also spelled Mi Sheberach) prayer for individual sick people or for the sick in general is recited. 

Since a large part of the effectiveness of such a prayer derives specifically from the patient knowing that they are in the thoughts and prayers of the community, visitors should let the sick individual know that these prayers are being offered on their behalf.

When the Mi Shebeirakh prayer is recited, there is a place in the prayer to add a name of the patient.

The general format of the patient’s Hebrew name is used combining their Hebrew first name and the Hebrew name of their parents. Traditionally, one’s mother’s name was used in lieu of both parents or the father’s name.

One commonly cited reason for this is that it was a mother who traditionally cared for her sick children. 

While this tradition is still dominant, at present, one can use whatever parent(s) names they wish, acknowledging that families don’t all look a certain way, and that sometimes family relationships are complicated. 

Does prayer really help the sick individual? 

In this matter too, there are different opinions.

Some believe that there is a direct benefit to be had from invoking God’s healing powers on the part of a specific individual. 

Others reject this thinking because it appears to imply that God might not intervene on behalf of someone for whom no prayers are recited, and the Bible teaches us at Psalm 145:9 that God’s mercy extends to all creation. 

But even for those who reject the notion that one can curry divine favor with prayer, praying for the sick can help by showing that the community cares about their fate and that their situation is weighing heavily on the minds of their friends and relations. 

Also, public prayer on the behalf of a sick individual makes people more likely to call on them, or to do other helpful things to ease their plight.

Adapted with permission from The Observant Life.

Authors

  • Rabbi Carl Astor
  • The Observant Life (Book)

    The Observant Life: The Wisdom of Conservative Judaism for Contemporary Jews distills a century of thoughtful inquiry into the most profound of all Jewish questions: how to suffuse life with timeless values, how to remain loyal to the covenant that binds the Jewish people and the God of Israel, and how to embrace the law while retaining an abiding sense of fidelity to one’s own moral path in life. Written in a multiplicity of voices inspired by a common vision, the authors of The Observant Life explain what it means in the ultimate sense to live a Jewish life, and to live it honestly, morally, and purposefully. The work is a comprehensive guide to life in the 21st Century. Chapters on Jewish rituals including prayer, holiday, life cycle events and Jewish ethics such as citizenship, slander, taxes, wills, the courts, the work place and so much more.

    View all posts

Authors

  • Rabbi Carl Astor
  • The Observant Life (Book)

    The Observant Life: The Wisdom of Conservative Judaism for Contemporary Jews distills a century of thoughtful inquiry into the most profound of all Jewish questions: how to suffuse life with timeless values, how to remain loyal to the covenant that binds the Jewish people and the God of Israel, and how to embrace the law while retaining an abiding sense of fidelity to one’s own moral path in life. Written in a multiplicity of voices inspired by a common vision, the authors of The Observant Life explain what it means in the ultimate sense to live a Jewish life, and to live it honestly, morally, and purposefully. The work is a comprehensive guide to life in the 21st Century. Chapters on Jewish rituals including prayer, holiday, life cycle events and Jewish ethics such as citizenship, slander, taxes, wills, the courts, the work place and so much more.

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