Bikkur Cholim (“visiting the sick”) is another major tenet of any Jewish community, especially with our demographics here: the majority of our members are retired folks. Volunteers are always needed to visit the homebound, bring food when needed, drive them to their doctor appointments, etc. Also, if you know of anyone who needs these services, please let us know!
The mitzvah (commandment) to visit and help take care of the sick is one of the most important that a Jew can observe.
Bikur cholim literraly means “visiting the sick” and is considered an act of gemilut chasidim or loving-kindness.
The earliest record of this mitzvah is found in the Torah when God visits Abraham as he recovers from his circumcision in Genesis 17:26-18:1.
The mitzvah is mentioned in the Babylonian Talmud, as well, including in Nedarim 39a and 39b where it says that “[One must visit] even a hundred times a day” and that “He who visits a person who is ill takes away a sixtieth of his pain.” In Nedarim 40a, it says,
“anyone who visits the sick causes him to live and anyone who does not visit the sick causes him to die.”
The section also offers the harsh reality that those who visit the sick are spared from the punishment of Gehenna (“hell”) and that God sustains the sick (Psalm 31). Likewise, one who should visit the sick and doesn’t, is believed to harm the patient and is regarded as “shedding blood”.
Essential laws of bikur cholim:
- One may not receive compensation from bikur cholim
- There are no limits or boundaries to bikur cholim. One may visit the infirm as frequently as he likes, provided he doesn’t exhaust the sick individual.
- Youths may visit the elderly and the elderly may visit youths. Men can visit women and women can visit men. However, they may not attend the other’s intimate needs.
- The essence of the mitzvah is to provide the patient with what he or she needs and to pray for his or her recovery. When in the presence of a sick individual, one can pray for the patient in any language. However, when not in the presence of the ill, one may only pray in Hebrew.
- The sick individual should be encouraged to pray, ask for forgiveness, and repent.
- Some rabbis suggest not to visit the sick alone.
- The Talmud says that one visits the sick, it should neither be early nor late in the day and that you shouldn’t stay too long.
- A visitor should not spend time with those who are suffering from intestinal disorders, speech problems or mental disturbances, when the visit is likely to prove difficult or embarrassing to the patient. Better to just say hello and inquire about his needs from a distance.
- Relatives and friends are urged to visit as soon as possible when someone falls ill and that a sick person should never be informed of the death of a relative or friend.
- When one has the option of comforting the bereaved, attending a wedding, or visiting the sick, the mitzvah of comforting the bereaved takes a precedence over the other two.
Another interesting offering about the laws of bikur cholim discusses whether one should visit his enemy. Many authorities say one should not visit his enemy, but others disagree. Either way, the patient should never feel that his enemy is celebrating his illness. When in doubt, ask your local rabbi.
Many Jews will recite prayers for healing, including the Mi Shebeirach prayer in the synagogue, as well as Psalm 119 and other significant Psalms on behalf of and in the name of the sick individual. Most synagogues have a list that they keep of individuals who are sick of in need of healing – whether spiritual, emotional, or physical.
According to the House of Hillel, it became a mitzvah to visit the sick during Shabbat after morning services. There are also leniencies about being able to travel in Shabbat if a close relative becomes sick.
Other things you can do to practice bikur cholim:
- Call a homebound senior or sick individual before Shabbat.
- Drive someone to a doctor’s appointment.
- Buy a sick or homebound individual groceries or pick up medication.
- Visit a patient in the hospital, nursing home, or their home.
- Provide meals for a family with a new baby.
- Read to a bed-bound individual or provide books on tape.
- Smile, listen and laugh with the sick and recovering!
If you would like to help perform this important mitzvah, please drop us a line at: email@example.com