July 25, 2024
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If our fate is decreed on Rosh Hashanah, are we allowed to pray for better health when we become ill? Does it help at all? Are we allowed to pray for others to get well or does that interfere with a divine plan? Isn’t there a Jewish tradition that the sufferings one experiences in this world alleviate the sufferings in the world to come? Perhaps we should not interfere by praying for a person’s recovery? Finally, if we see someone who is terminally ill and in great pain, are we allowed to pray for their demise so as to end their suffering?

The first instance in the Torah where we read of a sick person being prayed for is in the parsha of Beha’aloscha. Miriam develops tzara’as, which can be best understood as being akin to leprosy. Moshe, Miriam’s brother, made the first-recorded simple five-word prayer for her health by stating, “Please God, heal her now ”(12:13). As such, we see that it is appropriate and proper to pray for a sick person.

The Gemara in Rosh Hashana (18a) actually notes this incident as proof that it is also acceptable to pray for one’s own health when one turns ill. The Talmudic discussion centered on whether this would disturb the divine plan that all of us are fated for between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. After all, shouldn’t we just accept our lot in life, whether good or bad, feeling that this is part of our divine destiny? (In fact, there are other religions, such as Christian Scientists, who accept their illness in this manner and will not seek medical intervention.)

One of the commentaries answers this question in a novel way. He explains that when we pray for our health (and when we pray in general) it changes our character and we are now a new person. As a new person, our fate can be changed and we are now deserving of a fresh review of our health and our destiny. In fact, the liturgy of the high holidays remind us that prayer, repentance and charity can change any adverse decrees. Now that our character and core being has changed, we are perhaps deserving of a better outcome.

A second Gemara (Nedarim 40a) comments that if we visit the very sick we help them live. However, if we do not visit the very sick, we help them die. We also have a tradition that visiting the sick takes away one sixtieth of their illness. The explanation given is that we, as visitors, are moved by witnessing the plight of the sick patient. We can either pray for their recovery, which helps them get better, or we might withhold our prayers, the absence of which might lead to a quicker death.

The Ran, one of the “rishonim” commentaries, even opines that when we see someone terminally ill and suffering terribly, it is wholly appropriate to pray that they die. The Aruch Hashulchan and R’ Moshe Feinstein agree that there are circumstances when it is appropriate to pray in this manner—for example, when we see an ill person in agony, with no hope of recovery. The Tzitz Eliezer discusses whether a family member who may have an ulterior motive, such as wanting the inheritance quickly, should engage in this sort of prayer. Some believe that this would be inappropriate and that only others, with nothing to gain or lose, should pray for a sick person’s suffering to end by his demise.

An example of this is recorded in the Gemara (Kesubos 104a). R’ Yehuda Hanasi, also known as “Rebbi,” was on his deathbed in agony. His disciples were fervently praying that he stay alive. His attendant/nurse went to the roof and prayed that the supplications of the sages below supersede the wishes of the angels above. These angels were ready to accept Rebbi into Heaven and allow him to pass away. He remained alive for a while. She later saw, however, that he was suffering terribly from a severe and deadly gastrointestinal disease. She then changed her prayers, asking that the angels above succeed in taking his soul. She threw a flower pot down, which broke with a loud noise. The rabbis were startled and momentarily stopped their prayers. In that instant, Rebbi died and his soul went directly to Heaven.

In this day and age of a pandemic, with everyone wearing masks, we are more mindful of our vulnerabilities and the possibilities of sickness and death. By now, unfortunately, many of us are probably aware of someone who has contracted the COVID-19 virus or who has, God forbid, died from the disease. We also know of people who are dying of cancer or other forms of terminal illness. How best can we pray for a person who is severely ill in this manner? It has been suggested that the best prayer that can be offered for a terminally ill individual is that their suffering be relieved. Divine providence will ultimately decide whether the suffering should be relieved by their recovery or by their demise.

May Hashem bless us all so that we live long, healthy lives and that we are spared from having to pray for ourselves or others in such a fashion for a long, long time to come.


Rabbi Dr. Avi Kuperberg is a forensic, clinical psychologist in private practice. He is president of the Chai Riders Motorcycle Club of NY/NJ. He leads the Summit Avenue Shabbos Gemara shiur and minyan in Fair Lawn, NJ, and is a member of the International Rabbinical Society. He can be reached at [email protected].

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