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.

1. Upon discovering that someone is sick, send a brief card or a note. Rather than allowing a silence to isolate the sick if you cannot visit quickly, send a note, even a brief one, to provide a sense of contact. Almost every hospital room I’ve visited has cards displayed proudly where the sick person can see them; they are a reminder that people do care.

2. Alert the sick person’s rabbi. Although a visit from a rabbi is often appreciated, many people forget to notify the synagogue when someone is ill. Before doing so, be sure to consider whether the patient will be upset by having his or her illness made public.

3. Plan to visit the sick. The physical presence of caring people can banish loneliness and provide tangible evidence of a concerned community. A close friend or family member should visit immediately. If the hospitalization will be protracted, others should wait a day or two before visiting. For shorter stays, it is certainly appropriate to visit sooner.

4. Don’t plan on a long visit. Hospital patients have a busy schedule, and sick people often tire easily. It is better to visit briefly but repeatedly than to visit once for a long time. When the patient tires, leave courteously with a promise to return another time.

5. Schedule your visit appropriately. The Talmud counsels not to visit the sick early in the morning or late at night. Most hospitals have visiting hours in order to enable doctors and nurses to perform their tasks unencumbered. Be sure to respect such restrictions.

6. Before visiting the patient, phone ahead to let him or her know you are coming. This simple gesture creates the anticipation of a visit, giving the sick person that much more pleasure. Calling in advance also puts the patient in charge. Being sick often results in a forced passivity. When you phone and ask if it is all right to visit, the patient is able to exercise some control.

7. Prepare for a visit carefully and thoughtfully.

·        Don’t wear perfume or after-shave lotion. Illness often makes people more sensitive to smell, and artificial odors can be disturbing to the person who is sick.

·        Don’t bring bad news. Try to restrict topics to those that will make the patient feel good.

·        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.”

13. Don’t be afraid to sit in silence. As with any situation where we are trying to bring comfort and friendship to someone who is suffering, the primary statement we can make is not through any words we speak but through our presence.

14. Listen. Besides demonstrating our involvement by offering our physical presence, we can do so by allowing the sick to speak of their concerns. In fact, this is the main service we can offer. If people who are sick want to speak about their illness — or about something else, then listen. All of us have a need to be heard most of all when we feel strained or ill.

15. Offer your hand. Don’t hesitate to touch the person. There is no more immediate way to demonstrate that you will not abandon a person to illness than by reaching out and placing your hand on the patient’s shoulder or by taking the person’s hand in your own. The calm, love, and stability that touch provides is without equal.

16. Offer to pray with the patient. Of all the events in a person’s life, illness is one that calls for the assurance of holiness and connectedness that Jewish tradition can provide so well. A willingness to observe Shabbat or other holiday and, more especially, a willingness to pray together can establish a living link to the Jewish community and to God. The rabbis of the Talmud often made a point of praying in the presence of the sick, some even claiming that a visit that did not include a prayer did not constitute bikkur holim.

·        Prayer can be informal. A simple wish of refu’ah sh’leimah (“complete healing”) or “God be with you” can bring a level of comfort that ordinary conversation cannot. Jewish tradition offers a brief prayer linking the experience of the individual to the broader community: “May God show compassion to you, together with all the other sick of the people Israel.”

·        If possible, visit before Shabbat or a holiday, and bring some item that will allow the patient to celebrate that holiday. Linking your visits to the Jewish holidays is an effective way to combat the disorienting quality of being sick and reconnect the suffering individual to what other Jews are experiencing beyond the walls of the sickroom.

·        Read a psalm together. This simple gesture can add tremendous depth to your visit. Psalm 23 (“Adonai is my shepherd”), or Psalm 121 or 130, can be a source of great comfort. By using their words of our forebears, we affirm a community of belonging that transcends illness, sorrow, and pain.

17. Offer to make two specifically Jewish gestures:

·        Attend a synagogue worship service and [to] have a mi she-berakh recited after the Torah reading. Mi she-berakh (literally, “may the One who blessed”) is a prayer for the sick. Find out the patient’s Jewish name and those of his or her parents. By asking for a mi she-berakh to be recited, you ensure that the community is informed of the illness, that more people will pray for that individual, and that the sick person has the comfort of knowing that a congregation of Jews cares.

·        Make a contribution to a synagogue or a charitable cause in honor of the sick person. In Jewish tradition, tzedakah (a charitable contribution) is a highly cherished form of demonstrating respect and concern.

18. Reestablish the ancient Jewish tradition of va‘ad bikkur holim (“committee to visit the sick”). Bikkur holim is an obligation of all members of a community. Rather than relying on our own personal network of people who will “take care of their own,” it is time to reestablish the va‘ad bikkur holim. Itdemonstrates that Judaism is not just for paid professionals and that the community, as a community, takes care of its members.

19. Visit nursing home residents, long-time hospital patients, and elderly shut-ins. Many people suffer from chronic illnesses for such a long time that we often stop remembering that they need our care. The rules of bikkur holim apply to these people too.

Adapted from It’s a Mitzvah!, published by Behrman House and the Rabbinical Assembly, 1995. © Behrman House, Inc., reprinted with permission.

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