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Thursday, October 25, 2018

Bikkur Cholim — BT Shabbat 12b — #109

Rabbah b. Bar Chanah said, “When we followed R. Elazar to inquire after a sick person, sometimes he would say to him, [in Hebrew] ‘May the Omnipresent remember you for peace.’ At other times, he said, [in Aramaic] ‘May the Merciful One remember you for peace.’” But how could he do this [i.e., pray in Aramaic]? Did not Rav Yehudah say, “One should never petition for his needs in Aramaic,” and R. Yochanan say, “If one petitions for his needs in Aramaic, the Ministering Angels do not heed him because they do not understand Aramaic”? A sick person is different, because the Shekhinah (Divine Presence) is with him, for R. Anan said in Rav's name, “Whence do we know the Shekhinah helps the sick? As it is written, Adonai will sustain him on the sickbed (Psalm 41:4).” It was also taught in a baraita: One who visits the sick should not sit on the bed or on a chair; he should wrap himself and sit in front of him [on the floor] because the Shekhinah is above the sick person’s head, as it is said, Adonai will sustain him on the sickbed. And Rava said Ravin said, “Whence do we know the Holy Blessed One sustains the sick? Because it is said, Adonai will sustain him on the sickbed.”

Parshat Vayera opens, “Adonai appeared to [Abraham] by the terebinths of Mamre… Looking up, he saw three men standing near him.” Midrash explains that God visited Abraham as he recovered from his circumcision (recounted in verses immediately prior to this) and on God’s model, they learned bikkur cholim, the mitzvah of visiting the sick. This week’s TMT is passage from tractate Shabbat concerning bikkur cholim

In the midst of a conversation about the Mishnah’s prohibition (on 11a) against searching one’s garments for vermin or read by lamplight on shabbat evening, the Gemara takes an interesting turn to discuss bikkur cholim (visiting the sick) on shabbat. The underlying concern is that visiting the sick may cause the visitor to suffer; while visiting is permitted on shabbat, any suffering induced conflicts with oneg shabbat—shabbat is ideally a “day of delight.” The discussion of bikkur cholim, however, does not mention any possible conflict with shabbat. Rather, it goes in a most unexpected direction.

Rabbah b. Bar Chanah recounts that when R. Elazar visited the sick, he sometimes prayed in Hebrew and other times in Aramaic, presumably based on which language the sick person understood. The anonymous narrator, however, is surprised that R. Elazar ever couched a prayer for recovery from illness in Aramaic because Rav Yehudah taught that petitionary prayers should never be made in Aramaic and R. Yochanan taught that prayers for the ill in Aramaic are ineffectual because “the Ministering Angels” don’t understand Aramaic and therefore cannot respond. At first glance, the claim that the Ministering Angels are conversant in some languages  but not others may seem humorous, but upon further reflection, this statement is both confounding and troubling. Do we not pray directly to God? Are the Ministering Angels intermediaries? Commentators through the ages have twisted themselves in knots to explain this passage, including: angels literally don’t know Aramaic; Aramaic is an inferior language; angels do not convey prayers to God but rather carry out God’s will in response to prayers uttered to God in any language (if so, the language of prayer should be a moot point, no?); those who pray in Aramaic do so with less kavanah (intention) than if they used Hebrew (really?). It truly seems that at least some sages believed the Ministering Angels played an intermediary role conveying our prayers to God. 

The Gemara resolves the concern by asserting that the Shekhinah (God’s Divine Presence) is aware of sick people and is present for them. R. Anan supplies a proof text he learned from Rav: Psalm 41:4 assures us that “Adonai will sustain him on the sickbed.” In addition to resolving the problem created by the presumption that the Ministering Angels act as intermediaries to God, I imagine that the assertion that God is nearby and present to people who are sick is exceptionally comforting, particularly in a world that offers little effective medical care and few curative pharmaceuticals, let alone medicines to relieve pain.

The Hebrew term in Psalm 41:4 (samech-ayin-daled), here translated “sustain,” has a wide range of meanings. It connotes “support,” “assist,” “nurse (i.e., take care of),” and “feed.” The verse (Psalm 41:4) is cited twice more. It is mentioned in a baraita to explain why one should sit on the floor rather than on the bed or a chair when visiting the sick. If the Divine Presence is understood to be hovering above the patient’s head, a visitor who sits on the bed or on a chair is above the Shekhinah; in God’s presence, humility is required. Psalm 41:4 is employed a third time by Rava in the name of Ravin, to prove that God sustains those who are sick, suggesting that God feeds or nourishes those who are sick. 

  1. Does it matter what language one uses to pray? Can prayer be expressed without formal language, without words?
  2. When you visit one who is sick, where do you sit? What do you consider when choosing where to sit (e.g., the presence of the Shekhinah, the nature of your relationship with the sick person, the physical and/or emotional needs of the person you’re visiting, the possibility of contagion)?
  3. The third mention of Psalm 41:4 seems to suggest that God provides food to nourish the sick. Yet the Shulchan Aruch (YD 335:8) asserts that one of the primary purposes in visiting the sick is to ascertain their needs and make arrangements for fulfilling them. This would naturally include food. How do you understand the Gemara’s claim here? Is there possibly a suggestion here that those who bring food to the home of the sick are working as God’s hands?

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