How To Visit the Sick, in Judaism

A rabbi offers advice about how to perform the mitzvah of visiting the sick with wisdom, discretion, and sensitivity.

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13. Don’t be afraid to sit in silence. As with any situation where we are trying to bring comfort and friendship to someone who is suffering, the primary statement we can make is not through any words we speak but through our presence.

14. Listen. Besides demonstrating our involvement by offering our physical presence, we can do so by allowing the sick to speak of their concerns. In fact, this is the main service we can offer. If people who are sick want to speak about their illness -- or about something else, then listen. All of us have a need to be heard most of all when we feel strained or ill.

15. Offer your hand. Don’t hesitate to touch the person. There is no more immediate way to demonstrate that you will not abandon a person to illness than by reaching out and placing your hand on the patient’s shoulder or by taking the person’s hand in your own. The calm, love, and stability that touch provides is without equal.

16. Offer to pray with the patient. Of all the events in a person’s life, illness is one that calls for the assurance of holiness and connectedness that Jewish tradition can provide so well. A willingness to observe Shabbat or other holiday and, more especially, a willingness to pray together can establish a living link to the Jewish community and to God. The rabbis of the Talmud often made a point of praying in the presence of the sick, some even claiming that a visit that did not include a prayer did not constitute bikkur holim.

·        Prayer can be informal. A simple wish of refu’ah sh’leimah (“complete healing”) or “God be with you” can bring a level of comfort that ordinary conversation cannot. Jewish tradition offers a brief prayer linking the experience of the individual to the broader community: “May God show compassion to you, together with all the other sick of the people Israel.”

·        If possible, visit before Shabbat or a holiday, and bring some item that will allow the patient to celebrate that holiday. Linking your visits to the Jewish holidays is an effective way to combat the disorienting quality of being sick and reconnect the suffering individual to what other Jews are experiencing beyond the walls of the sickroom.

·        Read a psalm together. This simple gesture can add tremendous depth to your visit. Psalm 23 (“Adonai is my shepherd”), or Psalm 121 or 130, can be a source of great comfort. By using their words of our forebears, we affirm a community of belonging that transcends illness, sorrow, and pain.

17. Offer to make two specifically Jewish gestures:

·        Attend a synagogue worship service and [to] have a mi she-berakh recited after the Torah reading. Mi she-berakh (literally, “may the One who blessed”) is a prayer for the sick. Find out the patient’s Jewish name and those of his or her parents. By asking for a mi she-berakh to be recited, you ensure that the community is informed of the illness, that more people will pray for that individual, and that the sick person has the comfort of knowing that a congregation of Jews cares.

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Rabbi Bradley Artson

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson is Vice-President of the American Jewish University in Los Angeles and Dean of its Ziegler School of Rabbinical Studies. He served as a congregational rabbi in Southern California for ten years. Rabbi Artson?is the author of The Bedside Torah and co-author of a children's book, I Have Some Questions about God.