Visiting the Sick: It’s a Mitzvah!

Bikkur cholim (bee-KOOR khoh-LEEM) is the mitzvah of visiting the sick. It’s one of those mitzvot from the to-do list in the morning service, those “obligations without a limit” that reward us both in this world, and in the world-to-come. Often we can become stuck between our wish to do a mitzvah, and our wish to be sensitive to the needs of the sick person.

Here are some things to do that will help:

  1. Cards and notes are always helpful. I had no idea how powerful a get-well card could be until I was the recipient. Cards and notes always arrive at a good time, and they never intrude. Especially for someone who is very sick or tired, they are a wonderful choice. You can send a get-well card even to someone you know only slightly, and it will still do them a world of good.
  2. In person visits can be powerful, if they are done properly. Some things to remember about in-person visits:
    1. Arrange the visit ahead of time. Call ahead, or use email to set a good time. Do not just “pop in” because you were “in the neighborhood.” 
    2. Keep visits short: 15 minutes tops, 5 minutes if the person is very sick or looks tired.
    3. Keep it low key. Bring good wishes and pleasant talk. Don’t be afraid of silence.
    4. Avoid medical discussion. Do not quiz the patient about the doctor or the diagnosis. Do not criticize or share medical stories. It can be very tempting to share knowledge, but it is more likely to do harm than to help.
    5. Avoid telling them how they should feel. They may be grateful to be alive, or furious to be sick. They may be angry with God, or full of blessings. Just meet them wherever they are, even if you are uncomfortable with their emotions. (Remember, you aren’t staying long, anyway.)
    6. Listen. The patient may want to talk about the medical situation. This can fill many needs. If something sounds “off,” suggest that they talk about it with their doctor. Again, don’t offer diagnoses or advice.
    7. Offer help, but take direction. It is great to offer to water flowers or do small tasks, but if the patient says, “no,” honor their wishes. One aspect of illness is helplessness: don’t make them feel more helpless by disregarding their boundaries.
    8. Appropriate touch can be wonderful. The touch of your hand on theirs can be very healing, if it is possible. Touching other body parts can be intrusive, however.
    9. Offer prayer. With many Jews, this may take the form of wishing them a “Refuah Shleimah” [a complete healing] without any explicit reference to prayer. However, if they want to pray and you are up for it, go ahead. Again, be sensitive to their comfort.
    10. Holly Taggart, RN, points out that if we are going to visit sick people, it is wise to (1) have our flu shot up to date and (2) be careful about hand washing. Carrying germs to someone who is already sick is not a kindness.
  3. Other ways to help a sick person:
    1. Check in with caregivers. Do they need help or support? Often the caregiver can tell you ways you can help or errands you can run. Remember to support them, not lean on them.  Do not burden the caretaker with your fears or misgivings. Do not tell them what to do, or how to do things differently.
    2. Make sure the rabbi knows that this person is sick. Unfortunately, HIPPA laws in the US make it impossible for hospitals to notify the rabbi when a congregant is ill. The rabbi will want to know! Call and tell them.
    3. Make a donation in the sick person’s honor to synagogue or charity. Especially in a long illness, this can help connect them with the outside world.

One sure thing: all of us get sick sometimes, even the healthiest people. Whether it is a small temporary thing or a life-threatening illness, or a chronic trouble that goes on for years, human contact can provide relief and strength. The Torah and our tradition put a high value on bikkur cholim precisely because it can make such a difference in the quality of a person’s life.

It happened that one of Rabbi Akiva’s pupils became ill, and the Rabbis did not come to visit him. But Rabbi Akiva did visit him, and because Rabbi Akiva swept and sprinkled the floor before him, he lived. The sick man said to him: “Master, you have given me new life!” – Babylonian Talmud, Nedarim 40a

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Rabbi Ruth Adar is a teaching rabbi based in San Leandro, CA. She has many hats: rabbi, mom, poodle groomer, and ham radio operator K6RAV. She blogs at as the Coffee Shop Rabbi.

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