Bookstore Glossary Library Links News Publications Timeline Virtual Israel Experience
Anti-Semitism Biography History Holocaust Israel Israel Education Myths & Facts Politics Religion Travel US & Israel Vital Stats Women
donate subscribe Contact About Home

Jewish Concepts: Visiting the Sick


Here's how the Talmud works. The Mishnah, which is our first written collection of Jewish legal concepts culled from a massive oral tradition, brings a case and then quotes how that case was decided among the legal authorities of the day. Subsequently the Gemara comes and expands on the concepts discussed. This expansion can go in many directions. The following case is a perfect example of this:

The Hebrew word Nedarim means vows. This Talmudic tractate discusses in great detail what happens when someone has made a vow invoking God's name, and then regrets doing so. The mishnah in our case describes a tragic, but all too familiar incident, the gemara then uses this as an opportunity to discuss the value of visiting the sick.

A person has had a quarrel with a friend. In his anger he swore in God's name to glean no benefit from his friend at any time. Any promise invoking God's Name is taken very seriously in Jewish Law. Now, this person hears that his friend is ill, he wishes to visit him, but he is bound by the oath that he has made. The Mishnah ascertains how one may visit the sick friend without violating the oath. The Gemara--which serves as a commentary to the Mishnah--analyzes the particulars of the case.

Babylonian Talmud, Nedarim 39a/b

Mishnah: One who swears that he will never take benefit from his fellow and then visits him when he is ill. He may stand when he visits, but he should not sit. He may soothe his soul, but he may not give money toward his healing.

Gemara: What is the nature of this case? If we are dealing with the property of the one who visits [the sick person], he should be able to sit. If we're talking about the sick person's property, he shouldn't be allowed to stand.

Shmuel said, "We're talking about the property of the visitor and its in a place where people pay to sit in doors, but do not pay to stand.

It was taught that visiting the sick has no measure. What does "Have no measure" mean? Rav Yosef said, "There is no measure to the reward you will receive." Abayye countered, "Is there a measured reward to any of the commandments? Is it not taught, "One should be careful when performing any commandment be it great or small, because no one knows the true measure of a deed." So, Abayye understood "have no measure" to mean, that even an adult should visit a child. Rava said, "It means you should go even one hundred times a day "Rabbi Acha Bar Chanina said, "One who visits the sick removes a sixtieth of his pain." If that's so, get sixty people to go visit and let's heal him! He answered, "Each one takes a sixtieth from what is left."

Your Talmud Navigator

How are each of the rabbinic opinions understanding the phrase "no measure". How does their understanding fit with your own?

The Babylonian Talmud, Nedarim 40A

The Talmud Continues...

There is a story of one of Rabbi Akiva's students who became ill and none of the sages went to visit him except for Rabbi Akiva, and because Rabbi Akiva honored and lay down before him, he lived. The student said, "Rebbe, you've brought me life."

Rabbi Akiva went out and learned, "Anyone who does not visit the sick it is as if he has spilled blood. When Rav Dimi came, he said, "Anyone who visits the sick causes him to live and anyone who does not visit the sick causes him to die." What does it mean by "causing him"? Should this be understood that when he visits, he prays for him to live and if he doesn't visit him he prays for him to die? Would you ever think that he would pray for him to die?"!!!!! Rather the person who doesn't go to visit the sick doesn't pray for mercy either for one to live or to die [and that is tantamount to causing his death.].

One day Rava felt weak. He told them, "Don't tell a soul for it will make for bad mazel (luck) . After awhile he said to them, "Go out and proclaim that anyone who hates me should join with me [in my suffering], as it is written, "Do not rejoice when your enemies fall." (Proverbs 24:17) And when you feel merciful toward me, please ask for mercy."

Your Talmud Navigator

Why does Rabbi Akiva come to this conclusion? In the second case, what is Rava concerned about? From these statements how do you see the relationship between visiting and healing the sick?

Sources: Rabbi Avi Weinstein, Director, Hillel's Joseph Meyerhoff Center for Jewish Learning. Reprinted with permission.