Visiting the Sick

I work near a hospital and on my lunch hour I have been volunteering to visit the Jewish patients. Are there any specific Jewish traditions regarding visiting the sick?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

You are engaging in the mitzvah of "Bikur Cholim" (literally: "Visiting the Sick") which is a Jewish tradition dating back thousands of years.

The Talmud (Sotah 14a) relates that when God came to Abraham in Genesis 18:1, Abraham was recovering from the painful surgery of circumcision at age 99. We find that God does many things in the Torah through angels, but when it came to visiting the sick, no messenger would suffice. The Talmud explains: Just as God visits the sick, so too is it incumbent upon us to imitate God and visit the sick. (Maimonides - Avel 14:4-6; Shulchan Aruch - Y.D. 335)

Many Jewish communities have a Bikur Cholim Society, which insures that sick people are visited regularly, and that all their needs are attended to - e.g. food in the house, rides to the doctor, plus cheering up and companionship. Indeed, a person's psychological state in large part determines their recovery and state of health.

When a person is sick, they want compassion. They want people to be sensitive to their needs, and to help alleviate the discomfort - both physical and emotional. Just by being there, much good will be accomplished. You can spare someone from loneliness, or be there to listen to them take a burden off their chest. Or just chatting with them distracts them from their condition and lifts their spirit. The Talmud (Baba Metzia 30b) says that "He who visits a sick person takes away one-sixtieth of their illness." The idea is that your visit helps reduce/mitigate/lighten the sick person’s suffering.

At times, visiting the sick may even be a matter of life and death. By visiting a person who is ill, you might be able to advise him about a doctor he should consult, or obtain medication for him.

Part and parcel of this mitzvah is to pray for the sick person's recovery. When one visits the sick, one should pray that God should heal him (using the person's Hebrew name and mother's name), along with all the sick people (Code of Jewish Law - YD 335:5-6). It may only take the inspiration and heartfelt prayer of a close friend to tip the scales in favor of a speedy recovery. We should never underestimate the power of prayer.

It is also customary to say Psalm 121.

According to the Talmud, visits should not be made very early or late in the day, and one should not stay too long.

Can a person fulfill this mitzvah via telephone? According to most opinions, a phone call only suffices if there is no other option. However, if a person has the chance to pay a live visit, they may not discharge their obligation via telephone, since visiting allows one to help the patient in more practical ways and has inherent concrete value. (Igrot Moshe Y.D. 1:223; Yechaveh Da'at 3:83)

Even if one finds the patient asleep, the visitor is still in fulfillment of the mitzvah, as the patient will be informed about the visit after awakening, which will give them encouragement. (Derech Sichah, p. 66.)

Further, Rabbi Yisrael P. Feinhandler (Avnei Yashpe 1:230) observes that even if the patient is a baby and not aware of anything, the parents are aware, and certainly benefit tremendously from the support; thus the idea of bringing comfort is applicable, even if not directly to patient.

Unfortunately, many people reason that it's better not to visit the sick, because "maybe I will say something that will unintentionally hurt them, or make them feel bad just by the fact that I am healthy," and many other similar evasions. These justifications are poor excuses, perhaps because we prefer to live comfortably without confronting these issues. That may be one reason why God gave us this mitzvah - to help get us out of ourselves and feel the needs of others.

For more on how to fulfill this wonder mitzvah, see:

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