How To Visit the Sick, in Judaism

A rabbi offers advice about how to perform the mitzvah of visiting the sick with wisdom, discretion, and sensitivity.

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·        Select one or two topics for discussion. (See number 12.) Preparing yourself in this way can help you feel ready to sit and talk.

·        Bring the patient a small, practical gift. A newspaper or magazine can reinforce a sense of connection to the outside world and leaves tangible evidence of the visit. As a hospital patient, I cherished a bonsai tree, a gift that linked me to the outdoors and allowed me to feel less trapped.

8. Before entering the patient’s room, be sure to knock and ask for permission to enter. This is another way to allow the patient to feel in control.

9. If there are already many visitors, wait outside until a few people leave. Trying to juggle a room full of friends can be exhausting. If you cannot wait, then say, “I see that you are well cared for now. I wanted you to know I’ll be thinking of you, and I’ll come back when there are fewer people.” Let the patient know when to expect the next visit, and then be sure to visit again.

10. When visiting, help with concrete tasks. One of the crucial aspects of bikkur holim is the kind of caring that can be demonstrated only in person. After getting the sick person’s consent, help by making the bed, watering plants, straightening up the room, or any other chore that helps the sick person or makes the surroundings look well attended.

11. Try to be with the patient during a meal. Eating is a social act, and the presence of company during a meal can communicate additional closeness and caring because it suggests forethought. Be sure to ask whether the patient would like you to stay during the meal.

12. Don’t feel you have nothing to talk about. At the heart of our discomfort with visiting the sick is a sense that we won’t have anything to say. The following specific guidelines might help.

·        Be alert to objects in the room that might prompt a pleasant discussion.

·        Don’t criticize the hospital, the doctors, the food, or the medical procedures. Criticizing a patient’s care may diminish his or her confidence in it. If the patient is frustrated, then listen sympathetically without committing yourself to agreeing.

·        Don’t evaluate a procedure or the veracity of a medical prognosis. At the same time, the patient may want someone who will listen openly, and not brush aside the patient’s feelings of hopelessness or despair.

·        Don’t defend God, religion, or nature. Being sick is a legitimate cause for anger, and expressing that anger is the quickest way to be able to move beyond it. We can best help by listening sympathetically and by saying, “It must be very difficult to go through what you are going through. It really isn’t fair. I’d be angry too if I were you.”

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Rabbi Bradley Artson

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson is Vice-President of the American Jewish University in Los Angeles and Dean of its Ziegler School of Rabbinical Studies. He served as a congregational rabbi in Southern California for ten years. Rabbi Artson?is the author of The Bedside Torah and co-author of a children's book, I Have Some Questions about God.