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Mr. Lizzack: Visiting the Sick

Bava Meitzia 30b

Most Shabbatot after shul, my Dad, Dayan Grunfeld, zt”l would take me by the hand and together we would climb the steep stairs to the second floor of a tenement house in North London. There, in a large oak bed, lay Mr. Lizzack, the stockbroker whose illness had confined him to bed year after year. As Dad, in his finest, black, rabbinic, Shabbat clothes pulled up a chair, Mr. Lizzack would perk up as they talked about stocks and shares, the parsha and Mr. Lizzack’s health.

Visiting the sick, bikur cholim, is one of the mitzvot listed in the Hall of Fame prayer: “Eilu Devarim she’ein lahem shiur,” “These are the things that have no measure.” According to our Sages, the Torah itself stresses the importance of bikur cholim in several places. When Yitro advises Moshe to educate the people of Israel by “showing them the way to go,” he is referring to the duty to visit the sick. “Walk behind God,” Moshe advises the people of Israel. “Is it possible for a human being to walk behind God?” asks the Talmud. Rather, says the Talmud, follow God by emulating his ways. Just as God visits the sick, so should you visit the sick. And how do we know that God visits the sick? Rabbi Chamma, the son of Chanina, said that God came to visit Abraham on the third day following his circumcision. And when Korach challenges the authenticity of Moshe’s leadership, Moshe replies, “If Korach dies the death of all men and the visitation of all men is visited upon him, then it is proof that God has not appointed me.” The death of all men, to which Moshe refers, is death following bedridden sickness. And the visitation of all men refers to visiting the sick as they lie dying. From Moshe’s reference to visiting the sick, the Talmud rules that bikur cholim is referred to in the Torah.

According to the Ramban, bikur cholim requires the one visiting the sick to do the following things: to make sure that the sick person is physically comfortable and not in a state of anxiety concerning his immediate needs; to show him that he has friends who care; and most importantly, to beseech God that the sick person fully recover. Based on God’s personal visit to Abraham, no person, however great, is absolved from the duty of bikur cholim and no task, however menial, may be overlooked. And so, when the great Rabbi Akiva noticed that one of his students was writhing with fever, alone, in his dormitory with nobody to take care of him, Rabbi Akiva himself took charge. He sat with him and swept and tidied and aired his room. “Rebbi, you have brought me back to life,” the student said. Upon leaving his room, Rabbi Akiva warned his students, “Whoever does not visit the sick has blood on his hands.”

The leitmotif that emerges from the various halachot of bikur cholim is the call for identification. When a friend of the same age visits a sick person, he relieves the sick person of 1/60th of his sickness. Perhaps this is because the friend, being so close in age, keenly feels “there but for the grace of God, go I.” If the sick person is thrust into the situation where he is compelled to face his sickness head on,we, who are not yet sick, can encourage him by facing it with him. And so, even if the sick person is in too much pain to receive visitors, one must still stand outside his room, listen to his pain and pray on his behalf. The other overriding principle of bikur cholim is to be careful not to tire the sick with one’s presence. If the sick person is asleep during the visit, one should quietly pray on his behalf and not wake him up. When he awakens, he will be soothed to hear that you were there. Persons suffering from certain types of sickness such as migraines, eye infections and stomach ailments are, according to halacha, better off if they are not disturbed by a visit. Instead, one should inquire after their health, pray on their behalf and lend their families a hand. If there has been hatred between the sick person and the one who wishes to visit him, caution should be exercised. The best course of action would be to ask for permission to visit in advance, rather than unilaterally showing up. The primary concern is not your need to be there but whether your presence will cheer up or upset the patient. Of course, in weighing these delicate considerations, the history and intensity of the hatred are important factors. It is perfectly appropriate for a man to visit a sick woman and vice versa, in the company of others.

Clearly, the three things that one should do for the sick, attending to their needs, showing that their friends care and praying on their behalf, are best done through personal visits. Seeing your friend in pain motivates you to come to his assistance more than it would be by just hearing about it. Sometimes, however, personal visits are not possible, either because of the nature of the sickness, or because of the inability of the visitor to get to the patient. In such cases, the next best thing is to call on the telephone or to visit by video hook-up.

According to the Ran, there are certain situations in which one may pray for mercy that the sick person should die. Such is the case when there is no medical possibility of survival and the pain of the continued struggle is unbearable. Of course, halacha forbids any other action or omission to precipitate death. Such prayers for relief by death should not be offered by family members, or those tending to the sick, but rather by friends.

When visiting the sick one should dress with respect, as one would when entering a synagogue. This is because, according to the Talmud, the Divine Presence resides with and sustains the sick.

When taking leave of the sick, on a weekday, one should say “Hamakom yerachem alecha betoch cholei Yisrael,” God should have mercy on you together with the other sick persons of Israel.” And on Shabbat, one should bid farewell with the words, שבת היא מלזעוק ורפואה קרובה לבוא.Shabbat hee mi’lizok u’refuah kerovah lavo,” which means, “Shabbat should afford you a respite from crying out in pain and you shall soon be healed” (See Shabbat 12b).

At the end of the visit, Dad would bend over Mr. Lizzack and with deep concentration he would say “Good Shabbos, Mr. Lizzack,” or so, for years, that is what I thought he said until I came across this passage in Talmud Shabbat. Now, I realize, that what, in fact, Dad was saying was “Shabbat hee mi’izok.”

Raphael Grunfeld received Semichah in Yoreh Yoreh from Mesivtha Tifereth Jerusalem of America and in Yadin Yadin from Rav Dovid Feinstein, ztz’’l. A partner at the Wall Street law firm of Carter Ledyard & Milburn LLP, Raphael Grunfeld is the author of “Ner Eyal: A Guide to Seder Nashim, Nezikin, Kodashim, Taharot and Zerayim” available for purchase at www.amazon.com/dp/057816731X and “Ner Eyal: A Guide to the Laws of Shabbat and Festivals in Seder Moed” available for purchase at www.amazon.com/dp/0615118992. Questions for the author can be sent to [email protected].

 

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