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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Why Pray for Healing?

Photograph,early 1900's,by one of the American...
Photograph,early 1900’s,by one of the American Colony Photographers,of the Kotel in Jerusalem. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

At the beginning of Numbers chapter 12 we have a famous story. Aaron and Miriam gossip about Moses. God calls all three – Moses, Aaron and Miriam – to the Tent of Meeting and makes it clear that Aaron and Miriam are out of line.  When the Presence of God departs, they see that Miriam is covered with scales. She has been stricken with tzara’at disease: her skin has turned white and is flaking everywhere. As such she must be banished to live outside the camp until the disease clears, if it clears.

Aaron is overcome with guilt and speaks to Moses as if his brother were God himself: “Master, please do not hold this sin against us: we were foolish, and we sinned. Let her not be left like this!” Moses turns to God, and voices a simple prayer, El na rafah na la – “Please, God, please heal her.”  God answers that she will have the tzara’at for seven days and may then return to camp.

Often when we tell this story we focus on the part where Moses prays and God responds to the prayer.  Many of us pray this same prayer for our loved ones who are sick. Indeed, it is part of Jewish tradition to pray for the sick.

However, the story as written is not a story about miraculous cures. Aaron, who has seen Moses “work miracles” many times, turns to Moses for magic:  “Please, Master, let her not be left like this!” Moses does not stop to argue with Aaron about magic or miracles. He turns away from Aaron, to God, and prays for his sister, “Please, God, please heal her.”

God’s answer is not the answer either brother wants. Miriam will not be healed immediately; her illness will run its course.  What God gives them is some relief from uncertainty: eventually she will be able to return to the camp.

When we pray for healing for our loved ones, we may feel like Aaron, panicked and wishing for a magic cure.  Or we may be like Moses, hoping for God to work a miracle. Usually, though, as with Moses, our prayers are not answered with miracles. Disease runs its normal course and chronic illness is chronic. The refuah shleimah (“complete healing”) we pray for is perhaps more properly translated “a restoration to wholeness.” Prayers for the sick are not magic. What they can do is turn our hearts to the sick people in our community so that they are not stuck indefinitely “outside the camp,” isolated and ill.  Sometimes a refuah shleimah means a cure, and sometimes it means something more subtle but no less miraculous: an arrival at a place of peace with circumstance and life.

May all those who are suffering in body or spirit find a true healing, a state of wholeness, and may we all reach out to them with love and shalom.