Bikur Cholim, visiting the sick, is a very great mitzvah. The Torah relates how G‑d Himself visited our forefather Abraham during his time of illness through three angels. When visiting the sick, one offers prayers for a speedy recovery, material assistance if possible, and of course, moral encouragement.
In cities around the world, there are special Jewish societies dedicated to this mitzvah. Many individuals spend time every week and even every day, visiting total strangers in the hospital or those convalescing at home. Depending on the circumstances, these visitors may be the only ones in touch with the patient on a regular basis.
The Torah Way
The mitzvah of visiting the sick consists of three elements: 1) Seeing to the material needs of the patient; 2) Praying for him or her; 3) Spending time with the patient and offering words of encouragement, and so on.
It is best to visit with others; but one should not forgo the chance to visit if others cannot come along.
One should not suddenly enter into the patient’s room. One should first make sure that the patient is prepared and able to receive visitors, either by first visiting the nurse’s station or by knocking on the door before entering.
The visitor should speak to the patient in a positive manner, engaging the patient with light, yet meaningful talk.
The visitor should help the patient give tzedakah (charity), for we are taught “great is charity for it saves from death.” The visitor can give the patient a few coins to place in a charity box, or the patient can make a pledge to do so on his own.
The visitor should assist the patient with observing certain mitzvot (i.e., donning tefillin for males, lighting Shabbat and holiday candles, hearing the blowing of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah, making the blessing on and shaking the lulav and etrog on Sukkot, hearing the reading of the Megillah on Purim, eating matzah on Passover, etc.).
If one feels close to the patient, he should encourage the patient to do a spiritual self-evaluation and to pray. The visitor should also remind the patient of the great power of repentance and the benefit of dedicating oneself to Torah observance. Some have the custom to recite the following short prayer in the presence of the patient:
הַמָּקוֹם יְרַחֵם עָלֶיךָ
בְּתוֹךְ כָּל חוֹלֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל.
Ha-Ha-mökom y’racheim ölechö
b-soch köl cholei yisrö-ayl.
May the Almighty have mercy on you, among all the sick of Israel.
One should limit the amount of time spent with the patient, keeping in mind the patient’s condition, doctors’ orders, and other factors.
One should not overstay to the point of becoming a burden.
If it appears that the patient’s days are numbered, a family member, or in the case where there is no family available, a close friend or caregiver, should gently remind the patient to put his or her affairs in order (i.e. take care of debts, decide how to dispose of property, recite the Viduy, Confession, etc.).
Other Things One May Do
On days when the Torah is read in synagogues (Mondays, Thursdays, Shabbat and Jewish holidays), one may request a special prayer for the sick, known as “Mi Shebairach,” to be recited at the Torah. In this prayer, one pledges to give charity in the merit of the ill. It is preferable to provide the reader with the patient’s Hebrew name, and that of his or her mother.
Some people seek a blessing from a tzaddik (great Torah sage; righteous person) and/or ask the tzaddik to pray for them. Similarly, some people may send a note to the resting place (gravesite) of great Torah leaders, and ask them to beseech G‑d on behalf of the ill person. Friends can certainly travel to the resting place and petition the Torah leader on behalf of the patient.
Kabbalah teaches us that a person’s name exerts an influence on one’s well-being. Therefore, in some severe cases, some have the custom to add an additional Hebrew name to the person’s existing name. This is done only by a competent rabbi. Some common names that are added are Chaim, Baruch or Refael (for a man), or Chaya, Bracha or Refaelah (for a woman). Chaim and Chaya mean “life” in Hebrew; Baruch and Bracha, mean “blessing”; and Refael and Refaelah mean “G‑d will heal.”
Psalms 20 and 119
The following Psalms are particularly effective when recited in times of distress. Psalm 20 is traditionaly recited for oneself or a loved one who is suffering or in danger.
For the Choirmaster; a Psalm by David.
May the Lord answer you on the day of distress; may the Name of the G‑d of Jacob fortify you.
May He send your help from the Sanctuary, and support you from Zion.
May He remember all your offerings, and always accept favorably your sacrifices.
May He grant you your heart's desire, and fulfill your every counsel.
We will rejoice in your deliverance, and raise our banners in the name of our G‑d; may the Lord fulfill all your wishes.
Now I know that the Lord has delivered His anointed one, answering him from His holy heavens with the mighty saving power of His right hand.
Some (rely) upon chariots and some upon horses, but we [rely upon and] invoke the Name of the Lord our G‑d.
They bend and fall, but we rise and stand firm.
Lord, deliver us; may the King answer us on the day we call.
Lam'na-tzay-ach mizmor l'dövid.
Ya-an'chö adonöy b'yom tzörö, y'sagev'chö shaym elohay ya-akov.
Yishlach ez-r'chö mi-kodesh, umi-tziyon yis-ödekö.
Yizkor köl min'cho-sechö, v'olös'chö y'dash'neh selöh.
Yiten l'chö chil'vö-vechö, v'chöl atzös'chö y'ma-lay.
N'ran'nöh bishu-ösechö, uv'shaym elo-haynu nidgol, y'malay adonöy köl mish-alo-sechö.
Atöh yöda-ti, ki hoshi-a adonöy m'shi-cho, ya-anayhu mish'may köd-sho, big'vuros yay-sha y'mino.
Ayleh vö-rechev, v'ayleh va-susim, va-anachnu b'shaym adonöy elo-haynu naz-kir.
Hay-möh kör'u v'nöfölu, va-anachnu kam-nu vanis-odöd.
Adonöy ho-shi-öh, ha-melech ya-anaynu v'yom kör'aynu.
Psalm 119 is composed according to the Hebrew alphabet, eight verses for each letter. Each verse contains a word referring to a different aspect of Torah, thereby encompassing the entire Scriptures. It is thus customary to recite the verses that comprise the letters of the person's Hebrew name when praying for him or her.
Click here for an English translation of Psalm 119