Skip to main content
Meaning in Mitzvot -
Lesson 85

Visiting the Sick

Rav Asher Meir

One of the greatest examples of kindness is to visit the sick, in order to help them with their needs and to encourage them and raise their spirits.  The Talmud connects the various types of mutual aid to a Torah verse in an instructive manner. 


Yitro advises Moshe, "Let them know the way that they shall go in, and the action they should do" (Shemot 18:20.) The Talmud explains: "Let them know" – this is livelihood; "the way" – this is acts of kindness; "they shall go" – this is visiting the sick; "in" – this is burial; "and the action" – this is judgment; "they should do" – this is going beyond that which strict judgment demands (Bava Metzia 30b.)


The main message of this interpretation is that acts of kindness are what we do above and beyond the strict requirements of the law.  At any given time I may have a valid reason not to lend somebody my tools, not to visit a sick person, or not to take part in a burial; yet it is clear that we all need to set aside time to take part in these activities.


As we explained in the last chapter, sickness is closely bound up with the aspect of Divine judgment.  It may be a precursor of death, which is the occasion for the final judgment; and even in lesser cases, a person's merits are examined when he becomes ill.  When we act beyond the measure of judgment, this ameliorates the application of Divine judgment. 


Our Sages explain that performing acts of kindness is a way of cleaving to the Divine presence, because we are going in the ways of God Who Himself constantly acts with loving kindness towards His creatures (Sota 14a.)  In this way the attribute of Divine kindness is among us, as it is aroused through our own actions, and this affects the judgment of the sick person.  So visiting the sick alleviates their suffering in both the natural and spiritual planes. 




The Talmud goes on to state that visiting the sick is a mitzva even for one of the sick person's age, or "cohort" - "ben gilo," who takes with him part of the illness.  The meaning seems to be that the visitor himself may become somewhat ill (BM 30b.)  We can understand this based on a Midrash that suggests that age cohorts and groups are sometimes judged collectively. 


"Rebbe Yochanan said in the name of Rebbe Shimon ben Yehotzadak: The Holy One, blessed be He, brings into the world ages and groups.  If one of the age dies, all of that age should worry; if one of the group dies, all of the group should worry" (Ruth Rabba 2:8.)


We already explained that sickness is an occasion for judgment and scrutiny.  When someone of the sick person's cohort also visits the sick person and associates himself with him, it is as if he is inviting judgment upon himself together with the afflicted person.  On the one hand, this brings upon the visitor part of the illness.  On the other hand, it ameliorates the misfortune on the whole, because it is a basic tenet of Judaism that the community is judged more leniently than the individual.




The Talmud states that one who visits a sick person merits four blessings: he is saved from the evil impulse, and from suffering; he will receive honor, and be blessed with faithful friends (Nedarim 40a.)  The Maharal explains that these correspond to the blessings of the sick person himself: a sick person is not troubled by the evil urge, the visitor alleviates his suffering, honors him with his visit, and is a faithful friend to him (Netivot Olam, Netiv Gemilut Chasadim 4.)




When a person passes away, the Torah dictates an equitable distribution of the estate among the children.  As long as a person is alive, his property is his to do with as he pleases.  However, our tradition warns against disinheriting children by giving large deathbed gifts to others.  It is improper for a sick person to give so much to charity that the children are left without a sufficient inheritance; and it is even wrong to favor a righteous child over a wicked one (Bava Batra 133b.)


The Yerushalmi (Bava Batra 8:6) applies a cryptic verse from Yechezkel to someone who disinherits his children this way:


"And these [who died in battle] shall not lie with the mighty ... who descended to the depths with their weapons of war, their swords placed under the heads, and their iniquity shall be on their bones..." (Yechezkel 32:27.)


The commentators explain that a soldier who died a natural death would be buried together with his sword, to demonstrate that his sword never left him and he was never defeated in war.  But in fact he has nothing to be proud of; on the contrary, those killed in war, even if they were wicked, at least achieved some atonement in their horrible passing.  The one who died in peace has all his iniquity on his bones.


The parallel seems to be as follows: It is natural for a parent to suffer if his children don't act properly.  He wonders what became of the immense effort he invested in his child, and he is shamed that the child's behavior reflects on him.  This suffering is a form of atonement for the parent.


When a parent reacts to this situation by disinheriting the wayward child, it is as if he declares that he is getting even.  It is as if he is being buried with his sword under his head - showing everyone that his child's misbehavior didn't get the best of him.


The best thing for a parent to do in this situation is to acknowledge that perhaps he or she did indeed make mistakes in raising the child, and that in any case the child's behavior is the child's own responsibility.  The parent's sorrow at having brought up a wayward child is atonement, and can also be a key factor in leading the child back to righteousness.  If on the contrary the child is disinherited, the parent has cut off the last possible bridge to his or her offspring.


It is unhealthy for the living, as well as for the deceased, if our departure from this world is used as an opportunity to get even and settle petty accounts - with our own children, no less.  The best policy is to set an example of equity and generosity.




Repentance is ideal when it comes in time for a person to make amends for the sins he committed and to fulfill the commitments he neglected.  However, Hashem accepts our repentance even on the deathbed, when no further repair of our actions is possible.  Anyone who sincerely repents of his misdeeds before his death is sure to merit eternal life once his sins are expiated.


Our good deeds in this world have a double effect.  By performing mitzvot, we improve the world, but we also improve ourselves. 


"Rebbe Chanania ben Akashia says, The Holy One, blessed be He, wanted to give merit to Israel; therefore he increased Torah and commandments for them" (Mishna end of Makkot.)


The Hebrew word for "give merit" also means "refine," and the two meanings are intimately related.  The merits or "credits" we accumulate in this world are all means to refine our spirits so that we will be able to appreciate the perfection of the Creator in the next world.


A person can do little to transform the world once he is on his deathbed.  But it is never too late for one to take control of his life, and to define its meaning.  When a person acknowledges his sins and takes responsibility for them, then he is affirming that his life has meaning, even if he did little during his lifetime to affirm that meaning.  This is enough of a refinement for his spirit to find sanctuary in the world of souls and to merit admission into the next world.





This chapter begins the final section of the Kitzur Shulchan Arukh, the section on the laws of mourning.  The meaning of a person's departure from this world, and the customs that accompany us, will always evade us; as Rav Tokachinsky writes in his classic book on mourning "The Bridge of Life,"


"Even if thousands of people were to live as long as Metushelach (Methuselah) and spend their whole lives writing on this subject, there would be no paper left but there would still be more to say" (Introduction to section III.)


Even so, we will present a few main themes which appear in our tradition and which help give some understanding of the process and customs of mourning.  We need to understand the significance of death from the points of view of the departed  in addition to that of the mourner. 


A recurring theme in our sources regarding the meaning of death for the departed is the centrality of judgment in the events surrounding a person's death; a frequent theme regarding mourning is the idea that mourning is a time for introspection and for reconstructing the self.




The Torah singles out two trees for special mention in the planting of the Garden of Eden: the Tree of Life, and the Tree of Knowledge of good and evil (Bereishit 2:9.)  Yet when man is created, God's command relates to only one of these: man is forbidden to eat of the Tree of Knowledge, "for on the day you eat of it, you will surely die" (Bereishit 2:17.)


However, Adam and Chava do not obey this command, and they are tempted by the snake to eat of this tree's fruit.  At this time they attain the knowledge of good and of evil, whereas before this they knew only good.  Since we became intimate with evil, it became our responsibility to refine ourselves by overcoming it.  This challenge first involves identifying evil using our newfound knowledge, and then choosing the good.  These tasks are very difficult given the perplexing moral ambiguity of our world and our powerful negative impulses.  (See chapter 80 on sorting and chapter 81 on carrying.)


It is at this time when Adam and Chava have eaten from the Tree of Knowledge that Hashem becomes concerned with the Tree of Life: "Now perhaps he will extend his hand and take also from the Tree of Life, and eat of it and live forever."  It is exactly in the new situation created by sin, a situation in which man has an exacting task in life, that this life must have a limit and a stage of judgment.


Man is unable to take upon himself the arduous task of refining himself and resisting evil without the knowledge that his actions will be accounted for.  The idea of judgment is intimately bound up with the accomplishment of a task.  Imagine playing a game with all your energy and motivation, without knowing that the match has an end and that score is being kept!


The knowledge of death is what gives meaning to life.  When we know that our time in this world is limited and that it is being accounted for, we learn how to value each second and exert ourselves to make the best use of each moment (Based on Bridge of Life, III 3:3.)




"It is better to go to a place of mourning than to a place of rejoicing; for this is the end of every person, and the living will take it to heart" (Mishlei 7:2.)


This verse emphasizes the meaning of death for those left behind; they will take to heart the message of their loved one's passing - they will internalize it and make it part of themselves. 


Mourning inspires introspection in two distinct ways: through empathy and through crisis. 


Whenever we turn our minds to death, we are likely to ponder the meaning of life; and mourning the passing of our fellow man is certain to remind us of our own mortality.  This path to introspection is not unique to mourning, but rather includes any circumstance that reminds us of our own evanescence.


In addition, when we lose someone close to us we unavoidably go through a crisis.  Our closest family and friends become part of us, an inherent assumption in the way we relate to the world.  When we lose them, we are compelled to renew and reconstruct ourselves.  This path to introspection is not unique to mourning either; it also occurs, to a lesser extent, when a person we love stops being part of our lives through some other kind of separation: moving house, marriage, or even maturation.

This website is constantly being improved. We would appreciate hearing from you. Questions and comments on the classes are welcome, as is help in tagging, categorizing, and creating brief summaries of the classes. Thank you for being part of the Torat Har Etzion community!