Praying for the Sick
[Adapted from Lev Moshe, by Rabbi Avraham Goldshmidt]
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This work is intended for those who find themselves in serious difficulties—especially life-threatening illnesses—and everyone close to them. In situations like these, is it all too easy fall into discouragement and despair and to abandon hope of ever recovering. And yet, as we will show, this attitude is totally contrary to the Torah. Time and time again Chazal and the Rishonim stress the vital importance of praying for sick people to recover and even say that the main purpose of the mitzvah of visiting the sick is to make sure that we’ll pray for the patient with full fervor.
Thus the Rambam writes (Hilchos Avel 14:6) that when somone goes to visit a sick person he shouldn’t sit on a bed or a chair or a high place or behind the patient’s head, but rather in front of the patient’s head so that he can pray for mercy, and then leave. [The Me’iri, cited below, explains that when the patient sees a visitor sitting in one of these places he is liable to become discouraged since it would seem to him that the visitor has despaired of his prospects for recovery.]
Similarly the Tur writes (Yoreh Deah 335) that one should always pray to stay healthy, since someone who becomes ill uses up the merits he has accumulated in order to be healed. Nonetheless, when someone does become ill, it is a mitzvah for everyone to visit him, as we see that Hashem Himself visited Avraham Avinu at the beginning of Parashas VaYeira. This is a very important mitzvah, since praying for the patient keeps him alive. Also the visitor should do everything he can to provide for the patient’s needs. In particular he should make sure that the patient’s surroundings are clean and healthy.
The Beis Yosef quotes the Ramban to the effect that the purpose of visiting the sick is to clean the patient’s house, provide for his needs, and to keep him company, as well as to pray for him, since someone who visits a sick person without praying for him does not fulfill the mitzvah. The Rema (335:4) quotes this Ramban and agrees that someone who visits a sick person but does not pray for his recovery has not fulfilled this mitzvah.
The Vilna Gaon (ibid. s.k. 7) relates this ruling to the Gemara’s statement (Nedarim 40a) that one should not visit a sick person during the first three hours of the morning or the last three hours of the afternoon, since at these times the visitor will not be sufficiently motivated to pray for the patient. [Early in the day sick people generally appear stronger and less in need of prayer, while at the end of the day they seem weaker and a visitor might think there is no point in praying for them properly.] The Gemara makes the strong statement that visiting a sick person keeps him alive, while failing to visit him kills him by denying him the benefit of the one’s prayers.
1) A decree of illness without death—for such decrees the Sefer Refuos and prayers for mercy can effect a cure.
2) A decree of death for a person—this is the situation which the belief Chezkiyahu received from his ancestors taught that prayers for mercy could be effective.
3) A decree of death in which the fatal illness had already taken hold—before Chezkiyahu no one had ever thought that prayers for mercy could be effective in such a situation, and he showed that even then a combination of prayers and merits could effect a cure. [Indeed, in such a situation, Yaakov Avinu had prayed not to be healed but only for several additional days of life so that he could gather his sons for his parting blessings and rebukes. Thus Chezkiyahu might have refrained for asking for mercy out of fear that to do so would be to disparage Yaakov’s prayer; but this did not deter him since he believed that Hashem’s mercies could be aroused in any situation whatsoever. (Cf. Yalkut Melachim II 20.).]
The above discussion reveals an important principle: Even though we find a number of times earlier in Tanach that it was considered impossible to annul existing decrees, since the time of Chezkiyahu, we have the power to overturn any decree through prayer—accompanied by tears and trust in Hashem—and to heal any illness and allow the sick to remain alive for long and happy years. Thus the Chovos HaLevavos (Shaar HaBitachon ch. 4) ascribes Chezkiyahu’s recovery to his trust in Hashem and writes that when someone trusts the Creator, he can be healed from any illness by any means Hashem sees fit, or even without the use of medicine or any of the other strandard procedures of healing. [Translator’s Note: It should be noted that elsewhere the Chovos HaLevavos writes that it is foolish to trust in Hashem unless one is also doing one’s best to fulfill Hashem’s will for him, i.e. by keeping Torah and mitzvos to the best of his ability.]
This is true even if the patient has reached the very threshold of death. Thus the Reshash (Berachos 60a) suggests that even someone who is about to die should not say, “If I die, let my death be an atonement for all my sins,” since this would leave an opening for the Satan to incriminate him. [Translator’s Note: The Reshash there cites the Ramban’s objection to the text of the final confession cited in the Tur and Shulchan Aruch. In reply, the Reshash refers to Chezkiyahu’s statement (Berachos 10a), “Even if a sharp sword is resting on a person’s neck, he should not restrain himself from praying for salvation,” which implies clearly that a person is never justified in thinking that his death, however imminent it may appear, is ever inevitable, and therefore one should always be wary of leaving an opening for accusatory forces. In the Ramban’s defense, however, we may suggest that this confession is not meant to imply that the confessor considers himself about to die, but merely to express his wish that whenever his death comes, as it must eventually, it will be an atonement for all his sins. In this light, the confession can be seen as a declaration of the patient’s faith that every aspect of his existence—in this world as well as in the next—is in Hashem’s hands.] We see this also from another incident related in the Gemara (Bava Basra 11a) in which Benyamin HaTzaddik was saved from imminent death and granted an additional twenty-two years of life on the merit of having kept alive a woman and her seven sons during a famine.
Talmud Yerushalmi relates the incident with Chezkiyahu in a somewhat different fashion. There Chezkiyahu says in the name of his grandfather that someone who has bad dreams or visions should cling to prayer, tzedakah, and teshuvah, and be saved. This point is echoed by the commentary Iyun Yaakov (Berachos 10b) who writes that even if one has had bad dreams and finds himself in a situation where a sharp sword is resting on his neck, he should still not give up hope and continue to pray to be rescued.
Koheles Rabba (5:4) offers a number of strategies for someone who has had bad dreams or worrying visions. These include prayer, teshuvah, tzedakah, fasting, changing one’s name, behavior, or place of residence. In addition, this Midrash contains an interesting account of Chezkiyahu’s reply to Yeshayahu’s warning to put his affairs in order because he was about to die:
“Yeshayahu, the custom in the world is that someone who goes to visit a sick person should reassure the patient that heaven will have mercy on him. A doctor who goes to see a patient tells him what to eat and drink and what not to eat and drink, but even if someone sees that the patient is about to die, he should never upset him by telling him to give final instructions to his family, and you’re telling me to give final instructions to my family because I am to die and not to live. So I will not listen to what you tell me but rather to what my ancestor said: ‘For with many dreams and affectations and empty words; fear G-d.”” Immediately he turned his face to the wall and prayed.
In the end, Hashem sent Yeshayahu to Chezkiyahu to tell him that the decree against him had been rescinded. When Yeshayahu asked how he could do that after what he had said earlier, Hashem answered, “He is a humble person and accepts what you tell him.
A similar account appears in Bereishis Rabba (46); and there Eitz Yosef comments that these three tactics—prayer, teshuvah, and tzedakah—have special powers to bring people close to Hashem and through these people can merit to Hashem’s special Providence. The Yerushalmi (Taanis 2:1) also speaks of prayer, teshuvah, and tzedakah, and Pnei Moshe comments that these three things are required on fasts in order to stir people to accomplish the purpose of the fast.
Sifri (Ve’Eschanan 29) concludes that if Moshe Rabeinu, who had been told directly and decisively by Hashem Himself that he would not enter Eretz Yisrael, nonetheless did not restrain himself from entreating Hashem to rescind His decree, certainly people in other situations should not let themselves be deterred from praying to be saved, whatever danger they may face. This Midrash then derives the same conclusion from the incident of Chezkiyahu, who said that even if a sharp sword is resting on a person’s neck he should not restrain himself from asking Hashem for mercy.
Perhaps we can say that Chazal used the expression “a sharp sword resting on one’s neck” as a convenient way of referring to any situation in which a person faces imminent certain death, either because of a Heavenly decree or because of a life-threatening illness. According to this, it seems that the belief Chezkiyahu received from his ancestors, which was phrased in terms of “even if a sharp sword is resting on a person’s neck,” referred to Divine decrees, and Chezkiyahu extrapolated from it to conclude that even if someone has already been stricken with a fatal disease and is in imminent danger of death, he should still not abandon hope of arousing Hashem’s mercies through prayer.
[It should be noted that the Midrash Tanchuma (Parashas VeEschanan) states that Moshe Rabeinu, rather than Chezkiyahu, was the first to teach that prayer is appropriate even in cases of fatal illness. The Midrash derives this from the fact that even after Moshe had issued final instructions to his heirs (the Jewish people) and began to arrange for the distribution of his estate (i.e. the portions of Reuven, Gad and part of Menashe on the east side of the Jordan River), he nonetheless continued to entreat Hashem to rescind His decree and allow Moshe to enter Eretz Yisrael. Therefore, says the Midrash, certainly anyone with a fatal illness should not be discouraged from asking for Hashem’s mercies. Seemingly this Midrash does not accord with the one cited earlier, which states than Chezkiyahu was the first to teach that even someone with a terminal illness should continue to pray.]
Similarly, the Yerushalmi (Berachos 9:5) indicates that it was Moshe Rabeinu’s prayers that saved him even though Pharaoh’s sword was actually resting on his neck. The Talmud concludes its discussion there by citing the verse (Devarim 4:8), Who is like Hashem, our G-d, in all our calling to Him, suggesting that Moshe was saved as a result of calling to Hashem. This suggestion is strengthened by the fact that shortly afterwards the Talmud there cites the same verse in relating the story of a Jewish child whose prayers saved the ship he was on in a storm after the prayers of all the non-Jewish passengers had been ineffective.
Elisha was also Cured
The Gemara (Sanhedrin 107b) states that before Elisha no one ever took sick and recovered, but when Elisha fell ill, he asked Hashem for mercy and recovered. Elsewhere (Bava Metsia 87?) the Gemara concludes that Elisha’s illness was a fatal one. If so, asks the Yafeh Einayim, how could the Midrash (cited above) say that Chezkiyahu (who lived after Elisha) was the first person to be cured from a fatal disease? In answer, the Riaf (Ein Yaakov ch. 7) posits that Elisha’s cure was effected through natural means using the Sefer Refuos (as discussed above), while Chezkiyahu, since he had already concealed the Sefer Refuos, did not have access to this means of natural healing and must therefore have been healed directly by Hashem as a result of his prayers.
We can also posit a further distinction between the situations of Elisha and Chezkiyahu. Even though Elisha’s illness was potentially fatal, his death had not yet been decreed. Chezkiyahu, in contrast, was not only terminally ill but was also under a decree of death, as we see from Yeshayahu’s injunction to give his final instructions to his family since he was about to die. Thus, such a recovery, from a decree of death which had already come to the stage of a life-threatening illness, was an entirely new form of miracle in Chezkiyahu’s case.
The Anaf Yosef (Bava Metzia 87) offers a different interpretation. In his view, Elisha’s recovery was the result of a specific miracle which was done only for him, while Chezkiyahu prayed that all the sick people in the world be cured through natural processes, without miraculous intervention. Another difference is that Elisha’s recovery was never complete and that while he did not die, from then on he lived and functioned in a state of less than full health.
To summarize the above discussion, while there are a number of differing explanations as to what exactly was the new feature of Chezkiyahu’s recovery and how it differed from previous cases, all interpretations agree that Chezkiyahu did something which none of his predecessors had done, namely to pray for Hashem’s mercy even though his illness was totally desperate and he had absolutely no hope of survival, and his recovery was proof that fervent prayers to Hashem accompanied by sincere and copious tears can overturn any decree and bring about a recovery from any and all illnesses.
Thus we have proven, based on a number of sources in Tanach and Rishonim that however desperate a person’s situation may seem, however serious his illness may seem and however imminent death or other catastrophe may loom in a given case, prayers are always called for and, if only they are fervent enough and accompanied by sufficiently deep and sincere tears, there is always a real possibility that they will turn the tide, that Hashem will listen and be moved to rescind His decree.
This is not to say that Hashem will always do so. Sometimes one’s prayers may not be as copious or sincere as they could be, or sometimes Hashem might see fit to act of considerations beyond our understanding and not respond to our prayers because He knows that that is really to our ultimate good. Nonetheless, as the prophet Yeshayahu told Chezkiyahu (Berachos 10a), “What business do you have delving into Hashem’s secrets? You must do what you are required to and Hashem will act as He sees fit.” Clearly as long as we have light in our eyes and breath in our lungs we must persist in entreating Hashem to save us, however hopeless and helpless our situation may seem from our limited perspective. May Hashem in His infinite mercy do kindness to all Jews in any and all forms of difficulty and rescue them from any and all harm.