Thursday, October 29, 2009
“Rabbi Helbo once fell ill. Thereupon Rabbi Kahana went and proclaimed: "Rabbi Helbo is ill!" But none visited him. Rabbi Kahana rebuked the scholars, saying, "Did it not once happen that one of Rabbi Akiva's disciples fell sick, and the Sages did not visit him? So Rabbi Akiva himself entered [the disciple’s house] to visit him, and because they swept and sprinkled the ground before him, he recovered. ‘My master,’ said the disciple, ‘you have revived me!’ Whereupon Rabbi Akiva went forth and lectured: ‘He who does not visit the sick is like a shedder of blood’" (Babylonian Talmud Nedarim 39b).
We may no longer take the position of Rabbi Akiva. Nonetheless the sentiment expressed in his words emphasizes the centrality of this mitzvah to the Jewish experience. The mitzvah of Bikur Cholim, visiting the sick, is one of the great mitzvot de-rabbanan (rabbinic mitzvot) described in Eilu Devarim. Bikur Cholim is a concept that includes a wide range of activities focused on comforting and supporting people who are ill, recovering from surgery, or are homebound. Bikur cholim can include such activities as: visiting patients in a hospital, rehabilitation center or nursing home; visiting people who are restricted to their home; or by calling and reassuring those who are ill or homebound.
There are a wide variety of reasons to perform this central mitzvah. For one, it lifts the spirits of those who are ill and ailing. It also helps them to feel connected to the community, especially if they are no longer able to actively participate like they once did. Also there is scientific evidence that those who receive regular visitors and well-wishers tend to do better when receiving demonstrations of support. Plus there is the added benefit that when you visit those who are ill, you feel better about yourself by performing this central mitzvah.