Visiting the Sick: Bikkur Holim
Among the acts of caring that are obligatory and meritorious in Jewish law and ethics, visiting the sick is especially significant. Its importance is underscored by its appearance in our daily prayer book's top three texts for the Torah study blessing ("These are the things" ), that familiar Mishnaic list of the good deeds that yield dividends to the doer in this world, while the capital is stored for the world to come. A classic midrash portrays God as modeling this mitzvah when God appears to Abraham in Genesis 18, a narrative that comes just after the story of Abraham’s circumcision: God is visiting the recovering patient.
The mitzvah to visit the sick extends to people of all ethnic and religious groups (Shulhan Arukh, Yoreh De‘ah 335:1). The purpose for doing so is to alleviate suffering, evident from the rabbinic adage that the visitor relieves the ill person of one sixtieth of his suffering (Leviticus Rabba 34). Aware that the presence of visitors might instead become a burden or cause embarrassment, the tradition attempts to regulate many aspects of this mitzvah.
For example, we should wait a while before visiting someone who falls ill, so as not to give the patient the impression that the illness is grave. All but close relatives and friends are advised to postpone a first visit until the third day of the illness -- unless that illness is indeed serious.
We should visit often, yet not impose a burden on the patient and his caretakers. The rabbinic tradition advises exercising good judgement regarding the time of day when we visit: in the early hours of the morning, medical professionals are usually attending to the patient, and in the evening she is usually tired (BT Nedarim 40a). Surprisingly, perhaps, we are called on to exercise discretion regarding whom we choose to visit: an ailing enemy may interpret a visit as gloating over his misfortune.
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