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;
Telushkin, Joseph. Jewish Literacy: The Most Important Things to Know About the Jewish Religion, Its People and Its History. NY: William Morrow and Co., 1991;
Wigoder, Geoffrey , Ed. The New Standard Jewish Encyclopedia. NY: Facts on File, 1992.