By Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried
Dear Rabbi Fried,
I have a chronically-ill elderly aunt and am wondering if there is a mitzvah involved with visiting the same person often. Is there a point in time during which that mitzvah has been fulfilled?
— Marcy L.
Visiting the sick is considered one of the greatest of all mitzvot. The Almighty Himself visited Abraham when he was sick. To visit the sick is to emulate the Almighty. It is considered the epitome of the performance of chesed, or acts of loving kindness ,in which we are commanded to “walk in the ways of God.”
The Talmud tells a sage once notified a group of students that a colleague was not well. When none of them went to visit him, the sage rebuked them: “Do you not know of the story of the great Rabbi Akiva, who learned that one of his students was sick and, therefore, absent? He went to visit the student and saw the windows were closed, the floor not swept and his student white and close to death. He opened the windows to let the air in, swept the floor and tidied up the place and saw to his student’s needs. The student quickly regained his strength and said, ‘Rebbe, you have saved my life!’ The next day Rabbi Akiva entered the study hall and declared, ‘Anyone who can visit the sick and refrains from doing so is tantamount to spilling blood!’”
The Talmud says, further, that visiting the sick one “removes one-sixtieth of the illness.” This needs explanation, but it certainly is saying that one can help the situation of the sick by visiting.
In Jewish law, there is no difference between one who is a short-term patient or chronically ill; the mitzvah to visit applies equally to both. The mitzvah of visiting the sick also has no limit; as many times as one visits, he or she performs a mitzvah each time.
Given the newfound longevity of our generation, this blessing goes hand-in-hand with a greater number of elderly who are chronically ill, presenting both a challenge and an opportunity. The challenge is, as you reflect in your question, the difficulty in visiting a sick relative over a protracted period. This can be taxing and cumbersome, especially if the patient is not always in the most jovial or congenial of moods.
Yet this also provides an opportunity for the performance of chesed and developing our likeness to God. We were created in the image of God, and visiting the sick, especially when it is difficult to do so, empowers us to develop that image. It is an opportunity to help someone who truly needs help, and at the same time creates a different self, one that is a true giver and less self-centered.
When visiting the sick, especially someone you’re considering visiting often, it’s important to visit when that individual needs it and not when it’s convenient for you. Your aunt should not be viewed as an object through which you fulfill your mitzvah, but rather as a person who has needs and feelings. The purpose of your visit is not to “do your mitzvah,” but to fulfill the emotional and physical needs of your aunt. As such, we need to be sure that visits are not a burden upon the ill, but rather are dedicated to uplifting them. Many times the ill person might feel as though he or she needs to entertain the visitor even if at times he or she doesn’t have the strength or desire to do so. And when we visit, we should not forget that an important part of the mitzvah is to say a prayer for the ill person’s welfare and recovery.
May this mitzvah bring the Almighty to fulfill the verse: “Heal us and we will be healed” (Jeremiah 17:14).
Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried, noted scholar and author of numerous works on Jewish law, philosophy and Talmud, is founder and dean of DATA, the Dallas Kollel. Questions can be sent to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.