Visiting the sick (bikur
holim) is considered an act
of loving kindness (gemilut hasadim). The concept of bikur
holim is first introduced in the Bible when God visits Abraham while he is recovering from circumcision (Genesis 18:1). It is
from this instant on that Jews are required to emulate God in visiting
the sick. Jews are required to visit all who are ill, including gentiles.
Today, making hospital rounds to sick congregants is also a major responsibility
of the local rabbi.
Rabbis believe that one who visits the sick “takes
away a sixtieth of his pain” (Bava
Mezia 30b). However, a person is discouraged from visiting the sick
where it would be a stress to the patient or cause embarrassment. It
is understood that the visitor will enjoy many blessings and a happy
life, filled with good friends and family. According to the Talmud,
one should not visit the sick too early in the morning or too late at
night and never stay too long because it may be too demanding for the
patient. Furthermore, relatives and friends should immediately come
to the side of the sick. The Talmud also states that the sick should not be informed of the death of a relative
or friend, as it may cause them heartache and more pain.
Many Rabbis debate whether Jews are permitted to visit
the sick on Shabbat, the day of rest and joy. While Beit Shammai prohibited
such a practice, halakhah agrees with Beit Hillel that visiting the sick on Shabbat is an extra
good deed. It is also permissible to travel on Shabbat if a close relative falls ill.
A visitor must also comply with the patient’s
needs and offer them spiritual guidance through prayers.
Prayers are permitted in any language that is comfortable to the visitor.
Those who visit the ailing should say an extra prayer for the sick man’s
healing and recovery. The rabbis even added in the Amida,
recited everyday, an eighth blessing for healing the sick. It is also
customary on Shabbat, during the Torah
service, for an ill person’s name to be read in the prayer
for the sick, Mi Shebeirakh. It is also traditional to recite
specific psalms on behalf
of the sick, including Psalm 119.
Sources: Eisenberg, Ronald L. The
JPS Guide to Jewish Traditions. PA:
Jewish Publication Society, 2004;
Literacy: The Most Important Things to Know
About the Jewish Religion, Its People and
Its History. NY: William Morrow and
Wigoder, Geoffrey , Ed. The
New Standard Jewish Encyclopedia.
NY: Facts on File, 1992.