Moses’ Prayer for the Sick

Image: Sunrise over Sinai. (MountainsHunter/Shutterstock)

Yesterday I wrote about the Mi Shebeirach, a long and beautiful prayer we say when someone is sick. But what if we want something short and easy to remember?

There is such a prayer in the book of Numbers chapter 12. Moses’ sister Miriam develops tzra’at (tzah-RAH-at), a disfiguring illness something like psoriasis. (It’s often translated “leprosy” but that translation is inaccurate.) Horrified, Moses blurts out the shortest prayer in the Torah, indeed, in our tradition: “El nah refah na la!”  “Please, God, heal her!” God’s response is to say that she will be healed, after it runs the minimum course of seven days and she follows the rules for those who have tzara’at, living outside the camp.

So what do we learn from this? One way to read this is that prayers for a sick person can be helpful, but that prayer is not a substitution for proper treatment. Miriam has to take the treatment for tzara’at, she has to be isolated for a while, but she will be healed.

If you wish to use the prayer, you can certainly pray in English. But if you wish to pray in Hebrew, here are some choices:

  • El nah refah nah lah! “Please, God, heal her!”
  • El nah refah nah loh!”Please, God, heal him!”
  • El nah refah nah hem! “Please, God, heal them!”
  • El nah refah nah hehn! “Please God, heal them!” (females only)

I sometimes combine this prayer with my breath, thinking or saying softly “El nah” on the in-breath and “refah nah lah” on the out-breath. This sort of breath prayer can become almost automatic, so that “with every breath” the prayers become a part of us.

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Jewish Prayers for the Sick

Image: A purple iris in my garden.

I got a question via Twitter: “How do Jews pray for the sick?”

The simplest prayer for the sick is one we learn from Moses. In Numbers chapter 12, Moses’ sister Miriam falls ill with tzra’at (tzah-RAH-at), a terrible sickness something like psoriasis. (It’s often translated “leprosy” but that translation is inaccurate.) Horrified, Moses blurts out the shortest prayer in the Torah, indeed, in our tradition: “El na refah na la!”  “Please, God, heal her!” God’s response is to say that she will be healed, after it runs the minimum course of seven days and she follows the rules for those who have tzara’at, living outside the camp.

In this story, Miriam gets the disease because she gossiped with Aaron about their brother Moses. Tzara’at was understood to be the result of the particularly pernicious sin of evil speech. Notice, though, that Aaron was not struck ill even though he was a full participant in the sin. Some suggest that Aaron’s punishment was to see his sister suffer when he knew he was partially responsible. I think it is a message to the reader that wrongdoing and sickness are not always linked.

Today this is only one prayer we say for the sick. We recite a “Mi Shebeirach” (mee sheh-BAY-rach) (“May the One Who Blessed”) prayer during a Torah service for the sick, and in some congregations the same prayer is said or sung at other services as well. We pray extemporaneously, as Moses did, and we also say prayers for the healthy body. Some of us pray for the sick in other ways, by doing medical research, or caring for the sick and their families, or by doing other things. My next blog post will be about one of those prayers. (Stay tuned!)