It’s a common practice for hospitals to designate specific times during which visitors are allowed to visit patients under their care. Today we learn that this idea did not originate in the modern era:
Rav Sheisha, son of Rav Idi, said: Let one not visit a sick person, neither during the first three hours (of the day), nor in the last three hours, so that he will not be diverted from (praying for) mercy.
According to Rav Sheisha, one should not visit the sick in the early morning or the late evening because then the visitor might be disinclined to pray for the sick person’s recovery. His reasoning is as follows:
During the first three hours, (the sick person) is relieved; in the last, his weakness is exacerbated.
If you were to visit a sick person during the first three hours of the day, it’s likely the patient will feel refreshed after a night’s sleep. This might reduce your level of concern and discourage you from praying for mercy on their behalf. At the end of the day, when fatigue has set in and the effects of the illness are more pronounced, you might similarly conclude that the patient is beyond help and that praying will not be enough to restore them to health. And so, Rav Sheisha teaches, you should visit in the middle of the day so that when you depart you will still be motivated to pray for the person’s health and recovery.
While Rav Sheisha, like modern hospitals, restricts visiting hours, the Gemara cites a teaching that suggests that the limits do not apply to God. Ravin tells us that Rav understands a line from Psalms 41:4, “The Lord will support those who are on their sickbed,” to suggest not only that God sustains those who are sick, but also that God visits the sick and actually hovers over their sickbed at all times. And so, it follows that:
One who enters to visit a sick person may neither sit on the bed, nor on a bench, nor on a chair. Rather, one wraps (in a garment) and sits on the ground, because the Divine Presence is resting above the bed of the sick person, as it is stated: “The Lord will support him upon the bed of suffering.”
God’s presence transforms the room of a sick person into a sacred space. And if God is in the room, and indeed on the sickbed itself, one must take care to show the appropriate reverence and position oneself below by sitting on the floor.
The image of God being present with those who are ill may provide comfort to the sick and their loved ones. And many similarly find comfort in the knowledge that others are praying on their behalf. This is not to suggest that visiting the sick, in and of itself, is not important. In fact, it might be the most important thing we can do. As we learn from an anecdote about a time when a student of Rabbi Akiva was ill and, at first, no one went to visit him.
Rabbi Akiva entered to visit him (and gave instructions for his care). And because they swept and sprinkled water on the (dirt) floor, he recovered. (The student) said: My teacher, you revived me.
Rabbi Akiva went out and taught: Anyone who does not visit the ill, it is as though he is spilling blood.
It is not Rabbi Akiva’s visit alone that uplifted his student. It is also the fact that Rabbi Akiva ensured that his student received care in ways that were not being offered. Rabbi Akiva’s takeaway from this experience provides an important perspective on how Judaism thinks about our obligation to visit the sick. It’s not just that we have an obligation to provide for the emotional and physical well being of those who have taken ill, but should we fail to do so, it is considered as if we have contributed to their affliction.
Read all of Nedarim 40 on Sefaria.