How Do Jews Pray for the Sick?

Image: A figure is sick in bed, thermometer in mouth. (OpenClipart-Vectors / Pixabay)

One Jew says to another, “I am so sad, my mother is sick.”

The other replies, “I will make a mi shebeirach for her – may she have a refuah shleimah!”

The beginner, listening, wonders, “What just happened?”

Mi Shebeirach (mee sheh-BEH-rakh) is the name of a group of prayers the most common of which is a prayer for the sick. They may be said as part of the Torah service, between Torah readings, but increasingly they are also said both publicly and privately outside the Torah service.

The words mi shebeirach are the opening words of the prayer, and they mean “may the One who blessed.” Here is what it says, in English:

May the One who blessed our ancestors — Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah — bless and heal the one who is ill: ________________ son/daughter of ________________ . May the Holy Blessed One overflow with compassion upon him/her, to restore him/her, to heal him/her, to strengthen him/her, to enliven him/her. The One will send him/her, speedily, a complete healing — healing of the soul and healing of the body — along with all the ill, among the people of Israel and all humankind, soon, speedily, without delay, and let us all say:  Amen!

Refuah schleimah (reh-FOO-ah SHLEY-ma) or (reh-foo-AH shley-MAH) means “a complete healing.” It is important to keep in mind that a “complete healing” might mean “a cure” but it also might mean a peaceful conclusion to the illness. We do not assume that God is in the business of dishing out miracles, but it is possible for there to be wholeness (shleymut) without a return to the exact same level of previous health. Therefore we can say this prayer even for someone we believe to have a terminal illness: in that case, if there is no chance of a return to health, we can hope for the easiest possible progress of disease and for shalom, peace, at the end of life.

Whether prayer can affect the course of illness is the subject of debate. It can be very comforting to a sick person or their loved ones to know that others care and are praying for healing. If for any reason the sick person is uncomfortable with the practice, however, it is important to respect their wishes.

Some congregations maintain a “mi shebeirach list” of people who are sick and who wish prayers said for them. It can serve not only as a list of people who wish for prayers, but also as an opportunity to send a card or offer a visit.

For the Hebrew and transliteration of the Mi Shebeirach, see this page on ReformJudaism.org.

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What is Hakafah?

Image: Hakafah in the 19th Century in Italy. Painting: The Feast of the Rejoicing of the Law at the Synagogue in Leghorn, Italy. By Solomon Hart (1806-1881) via Wikimedia.

“During Hakafah, people may reach out to touch the Sefer Torah.”

If that sentence means bobkes (Yiddish for “nothing”) to you, that’s OK — that’s what this post is about!

As I wrote in an earlier post, Sefer Torah is the Hebrew word for the Torah scroll.

Hakafah is a Hebrew word meaning “to go around” or “orbit.” In Jewish services, it most often refers to the procession in which the Torah scroll is carried around the congregation so that people can celebrate and interact with the Torah scroll.

If you are in a service, for instance a bar or bat mitzvah service, the person who is being called to the Torah for the first time (the bar or bat mitzvah) may carry the scroll, in its coverings, around the congregation. People may reach out to touch the Torah scroll, either with the tzitzit (fringes) of their prayer shawls or with the spine of their prayer books. Then, after touching the scroll, they bring the fringes or the book to their lips to kiss. It is a way of showing reverence for the scroll and its contents. For some congregations, this is a regular part of the Torah service. For others, it happens only on special occasions.

For more on how we interact with Torah scrolls, see Kissing the Torah Scroll – Idolatry? elsewhere on this blog by following the link. Rabbi Barry Block wrote a wonderful sermon on The Deeper Meaning of the Hakafah which I recommend highly.

Other uses of hakafah:

  1. In a traditional wedding, the groom circles the bride seven times, orbiting around her. In an egalitarian wedding service, the bride an groom circle one another. Either way, it is proper to refer to the circling as hakafot (plural for hakafah.)
  2. At Sukkot, it is a tradition to encircle the bimah (speakers’ platform) with people bearing lulav and etrog.
  3. On Simchat Torah, many congregations get all their Torah scrolls out and dance with them.

What is a Sefer Torah?

Image: Person lifting the Sefer Torah for all to see.

Once I was in synagogue, and I heard someone refer to something that sounded like “the Safer Torah.” I was new to the Jewish world and wondered: what made that Torah safer?

The person I asked laughed a little and said, no, it’s not “SAY-fer.” The proper pronunciation is “SEH-fer,” and it means “Book.” Sefer Torah is \Hebrew for “Torah Scroll.”

The Torah is indeed a book, actually five books. When we see it in the ark or touch it during hakafah, the parade during the Torah service, it does not look like a book. It looks beautiful and mysterious, an ancient shape wrapped in precious materials. Calling it the sefer Torah reminds us that it is not really a mysterious object: it is a book! It is a book with which we are intimately familiar, our inheritance.

What is the Beit HaMikdash?

Image: Model of the Temple in Jerusalem before its destruction by the Romans in 70 CE. (noamhen / Pixabay)

Beit HaMikdash means “the holy house,” and it refers exclusively to the Temple in Jerusalem. Bayit means house (beit is a grammatical construct that makes it into “house of.”) HaMikdash comes from the root kuf-dalet-shin, which denotes holiness. The specific term Beit HaMikdash appears in rabbinic literature but not in the Tanakh.

In Tanakh, the Jewish Bible, the Temple is usually referred to as HaBayit, the House. It is the dwelling place for God’s presence with Israel.

Some terms to know:

  • Beit HaMikdash – The Temple in Jerusalem
  • 1st Temple or Temple of Solomon – built by Solomon, destroyed by Babylonian armies in 586 BCE.
  • 2nd Temple – rebuilt with permission of Cyrus of Persia in 538 BCE.
  • Herod’s Temple – the 2nd Temple, expanded and elaborated by Herod the Great in 20 BCE.
  • Churban – (khoor-BAHN) The destruction of the Temple.
  • Holy of Holies – the centermost enclosure of the Temple where only the High Priest was permitted to go.
  • Kotel, Western Wall – An area on the western side of the Temple Mount where Jews traditionally go to pray (since the Temple Mount is forbidden.) Sometimes it is referred to as the “Wailing Wall” but Jews do not use that name for it, because it was coined in derision of the Jews who wept for the lost Temple.

A timeline of the Temple and its site:

  • 10th c. BCE – Built by King Solomon, heir of King David.
  • 587 BCE – Destroyed by the Babylonians. (Tisha B’Av)
  • 538 BCE – Rebuilding authorized by Cyrus the Great of Persia.
  • 168 BCE – Seleucid King Antiochus IV Epiphanes orders sacrifices to Greek gods in the Temple, Maccabean Revolt erupts.
  • 165 BCE – Rededication of the Temple (Chanukah)
  • 20 BCE – Expansion and decoration of the Temple by King Herod
  • 70 CE – The Temple is destroyed by Roman legionnaires. (Tisha B’Av)
  • 361 CE – Roman Emperor Julian makes plans to rebuild the Temple
  • 363 CE – Julian’s death and the Galilee earthquake of 363 put an end to rebuilding plans.
  • 7th c. CE – Umayyad Caliph Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan ordered the construction of an Islamic shrine, the Dome of the Rock, on the Temple Mount, as well as the Al Aqsa Mosque.
  • 1967 CE – Israeli troops capture the Old City in Jerusalem from Jordan during the Six Day War. This marks the first time since 70 CE that Jews have been free to visit the Western Wall at will. The Muslim Waqf retains administrative control of the Temple Mount itself.

Some Jews continue to pray daily for the Temple to be rebuilt on the same site in Jerusalem. Other Jews believe that the time of the Temple is past and they do not look to rebuild it.

What is (an) Aliyah?

Image: Several people gather on the bimah at Temple Sinai, Oakland, for an aliyah to the Torah. (Photo: Linda Burnett, all rights reserved.)

Aliyah (ah-lee-YAH or ah-LEE-yah) (plural, aliyot) is a Hebrew word meaning “going up.” In English, it has two principle meanings:

First meaning: When a Jew from the Diaspora (outside the land of Israel) moves to make their home in Israel, that is called “making aliyah.” It is regarded as a mitzvah, a religious duty, and the ideal of aliyah appears in numerous places in Jewish prayers and texts, most famously at the close of the Passover seder: “Next year in Jerusalem!”

Currently aliyah is governed by the Law of Return of the State of Israel. For more information about making aliyah, contact the Jewish Agency.

Second meaning: During the Torah service, readers are called up to the bimah (a raised platform in front of the congregation) to chant or read the blessings before and after each section of the Torah reading. We are called “to go up” to the Torah for these blessings, which are considered an honor. The one who blesses may or may not be the person who chants the verses from Torah. There are always a minimum of three sections of Torah read, so three sets of blessings as well.

The person who makes an aliyah to the Torah should be a Jew, should be 13 or more years of age, and should feel confident enough in their Hebrew to recite the blessings.

Here is a video from MyJewishLearning.com on how to make an aliyah to the Torah:

Rabbi Steven Exler explains the exact procedure for making an aliyah to the Torah.

A Puzzle: Yashar koach!

Here’s a puzzle…

According to the WordPress software 100 people have gotten to this site today by searching for the string, “What is Yasher Koach?”

I wonder what wonderful thing happened today that so many people had that question all at once?

Whatever it was, Yasher koach to all the readers who asked the question, because asking questions is a fine thing to do. May it lead you to greater heights!

What is Rachamim?

Image: Infant in mother’s arms (samuel Lee / Pixabay)

Jews hear the word rachamim (RAH-khah-meem) at the worst moments of their lives, when they are mourning the death of a loved one. It is in the first line of the prayer for the dead:

…אֵל מָלֵא רַחֲמִים

El, maleh rachamim…

El Male Rachamim, Prayer for the Dead

According to Alcalay, a good Hebrew-English dictionary, rachamim can mean “pity, compassion, love… mercy.” I usually prefer “compassion” as an English translation, because it seems to me to come closest to the spirit of the word. Why would I say that?

The word for uterus or womb, רחם (REH-khem) has the same root consonants. “Compassion” in English is derived from two Latin words “com” (with) and “pati” (suffer.) It seems to me that one metaphor for the kind of closeness required for “suffering with” is the closeness of a mother and the child in her body. If you starve one, the other starves.

So when we say the prayer El Male Rachamim, we begin with the statement that God is full of compassion for us. In Exodus 39, God describes God’s nature to Moses thus, and we repeat the words back to God in the High Holy Day liturgies, when we are praying for forgiveness of our sins:

יְהוָ֣ה ׀ יְהוָ֔ה אֵ֥ל רַח֖וּם וְחַנּ֑וּן אֶ֥רֶךְ אַפַּ֖יִם וְרַב־חֶ֥סֶד וֶאֱמֶֽת ׀ זנֹצֵ֥ר חֶ֙סֶד֙ לָאֲלָפִ֔ים נֹשֵׂ֥א עָוֺ֛ן וָפֶ֖שַׁע וְחַטָּאָ֑ה וְנַקֵּה֙ לֹ֣א יְנַקֶּ֔ה פֹּקֵ֣ד ׀ עֲוֺ֣ן אָב֗וֹת עַל־בָּנִים֙ וְעַל־בְּנֵ֣י בָנִ֔ים עַל־שִׁלֵּשִׁ֖ים וְעַל־רִבֵּעִֽים׃

“Adonai! Adonai! a God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; and pardons.”

– High Holy Day Liturgy

The very first attribute of God listed is rachum, compassionate.

We are commanded to be holy, like God at the very beginning of Leviticus 19:

וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר יְהוָ֖ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹֽר

The LORD spoke to Moses, saying:

דַּבֵּ֞ר אֶל־כָּל־עֲדַ֧ת בְּנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֛ל וְאָמַרְתָּ֥ אֲלֵהֶ֖ם קְדֹשִׁ֣ים תִּהְי֑וּ כִּ֣י קָד֔וֹשׁ אֲנִ֖י יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶֽם׃

Speak to the whole Israelite community and say to them: You shall be holy, for I, the LORD your God, am holy.

Leviticus 19:1-2

The only way I know how to “be holy” is to imitate the attributes of God, to embody them in the world. It doesn’t matter what my theology is: whether God is a person or a concept. Torah teaches me to “be holy” because God is holy, so I will use the attributes we have been given for God as a model for myself.

The first item on the list is rachum, compassionate. When have I been compassionate? When have I experienced compassion? When have you? Those moments were holy: God was there.

So when I hear the prayer El Male Rachamim I remind myself that I must comfort this mourner, I must be the compassion of God, so that this will be a holy place.