Nedarim 39

Don't visit the sick.

On today’s daf the rabbis are discussing visiting the sick, or bikkur cholim, an important mitzvah in the Talmud and later Jewish tradition. Indeed, it’s so important that many Jewish communities have created official organizations (usually named Bikkur Cholim, appropriately enough) to coordinate medical care and show up for those who are ill. 

To some extent, the mitzvah of visiting the sick is intuitive — someone who is in pain or in decline may appreciate distraction or comfort. Someone who is unable to go out into the world may appreciate having the world come to them. But the rabbis assume that mitzvot, even intuitive ones, are usually rooted in the Torah in some way. So on today’s daf, Reish Lakish asks: Where do we see the mitzvah of bikkur cholim in the biblical text?

His answer comes from Numbers 16, which tells the story of Korach and his allies, who stage a rebellion against Moses and Aaron. Through divine intervention, the rebellion is put down, and the leadership of Moses and Aaron is affirmed. As Moses and the Israelites then prepare to watch God punish the rebels, Moses announces: “If these people’s death is that of all humankind, if their lot is humankind’s common fate, it was not the Lord who sent me.(Numbers 16:29)

So we see that the mitzvah of visiting the sick is found in the Torah. Wait, what?! 

The Hebrew word translated here as “common fate” is pekudah. This word can mean fate or portion, but it can also refer to a visit or encounter. And so Rava explains that Reish Lakish is reading the verse as saying: 

If these men die the common death of all men, who become ill, and are confined to their beds, and people come to visit them, what do the people say? The Lord has not sent me for this.

Moses challenges God to punish Korach and his followers, but does so by contrasting what should happen to Korach with what happens to everyone who hasn’t rebelled against Moses and God. And since Moses is insisting that Korach and the other rebels not experience the common death — which includes, according to this reading, being visited when sick — then clearly, everyone else must be visited when sick. Quite literally, the exception proves the rule. 

This seems like a surprising verse to bring as a prooftext. Elsewhere, the rabbis identify a different biblical story entirely as the source of the mitzvah. In Genesis 17, God commands Abraham to circumcise himself, and in the following chapter God visits him. In Tractate Sotah, Rabbi Hama ben Rabbi Hanina points to God’s visit as our model for visiting the sick. After all, we can imagine that Abraham was in an awful lot of pain, having just performed surgery on himself at the age of 99 (and in the days before anesthesia). And so God chooses to visit him and be present with him in that moment. What a lovely model of behavior!

Why doesn’t Reish Lakish on today’s daf also point to Genesis 18? The text doesn’t tell us. But perhaps it serves as a reminder to us all that, in fact, there may be lines to be drawn, people whose actions are so evil that they should not be visited, even when ill. In a world where mitzvot are obligations, maybe Reish Lakish is telling us that sometimes, when the sick person has caused great harm, you’re actually not obliged to visit them at all.  

Read all of Nedarim 39 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on December 3rd, 2022. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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