Category Archives: Halacha

Being Really Smart

      How should a shul respond if a member suddenly pulled out the Wall Street Journal (illustrious paper that it is) during davening and began reading it? How would fellow members react if someone began playing Scrabble during Chazarat Hashatz – assuming that the observer was himself not playing?

      The distractions during tefila (prayer) have certainly changed over the years. I remember when a beeper was a novelty, but such was limited to potential medical emergencies. (Come to think of it, I remember as a child seeing one fellow actually read a newspaper in shul, during the Torah reading!) As we all know, the scourge of today’s shul has long been the cell phone whose chimes, in many places, are regularly interspersed with the cadences of tefila. Many of the chimes are recognizable – generic, factory-installed sounds; others are majestic (Beethoven’s Fifth), some are uplifting (Beethoven’s Sixth – the Pastoral Symphony, Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, or Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight Of The Bumblebee) and some are inspirational and nationalistic (Hatikvah). But all, in the context of the davening are, frankly, inappropriate and annoying.

      This problem transcends all boundaries – religions, denominations within Judaism, as well as within Orthodoxy. Far be it from me to speculate as to where the challenge is worse – Shtiebel, shul , Young Israel, ModO, etc.  It is pervasive. Fortunately, in our shul we have succeeded in eliminating this bane of the modern mitpallel almost entirely through repeated reminders and gentle admonitions, such that the occasional offender is almost always an unknowing guest or a visiting meshulach, or (rarely) a regular who forgot he was carrying his phone with him. In fact, we encourage people to leave their phones at home or in their cars, as they really have no acceptable use during davening.

       But fast forward to today’s smart phone that not only functions as a telephone but also as a siddur, chumash, newspaper, joke book, encyclopedia, Scrabble game and window to the infinite world of knowledge and nonsense. It does everything but daven for you, although I am sure that App is in the works. How should we relate to this modern contrivance which has both sacred and profane uses?

Our Sages went to great lengths to ensure that we would be able to maintain kavana (concentration) during davening. Reciting words by rote and without attentiveness is compared (by Rabbenu Bachye in Chovot Halevavot, Shaar Cheshbon Hanefesh, Chapter 3) to a “body without a spirit.” It is lifeless.

Thus, the Shulchan Aruch (OC 90) notes that, if possible, we should daven facing a wall, with nothing or no one in front of us. We should never daven in back of someone wearing bold, bright-colored clothing – it is too distracting. The Rema adds that, for the same reason, we should not even pray from a siddur that has pictures in it.

And not only that:  the Shulchan Aruch (OC 96) contains further admonitions: “When a person prays, he should not hold in his hand tefillin, nor a sefer from the holy books, nor a full plate, nor a knife, money or a loaf of bread, because in all those cases he is focused on not dropping them, and his concentration will be disturbed and nullified.” In the initial instance, this applies to the Shemoneh Esrei (the classic tefila) but it is extended as well (by the Pri Megadim) to Psukei D’Zimra and Shema, so essentially it applies to the entire davening. These laws are rooted in the Talmudic discussion (Masechet Berachot 23b) wherein Rashi states that all these activities “unsettle the mind.” The plate might break or its contents spill, the knife might fall and impale your foot, money might be dropped and lost, and a book will divert your attention. What should we hold in our hands? Nothing, except for a siddur, if necessary.

Anything that can be diverted for other uses, or whose primary purpose is not tefila, cannot be held during the davening. Anything that is valuable such that its potential loss or breakage weighs on one’s mind also cannot be held during the davening. The Pri Megadim adds another cogent reason for these limitations: it is not derech eretz (here meaning “courtesy” or “common decency”) to stand before eminent people holding extraneous objects in one’s hand, and certainly not while talking to them. How much reverent should we be standing before the King of Kings?

It is obvious that cell phones should be prohibited from all shuls. Phones are a means of communication with the outside world – the very world that we try to shut out for a few minutes several times a day so that we can concentrate on our relationship with the Creator. I have been left aghast in some shuls in which people actually carried on conversations after they answered their ringing phones – and nothing that was remotely life-threatening (just mundane business, and the like). Those whose jobs require constant access to a telephone (e.g., the president’s military aide who carries the “football” containing the codes that the president will need in order to authorize a nuclear attack on our enemies) are really exempt from public prayer. Certainly, a doctor’s life-saving work is held in esteem, and most know to keep their phones on “vibrate” so as not to disturb others. This is old news.

But this is new. Several months ago after discussing this topic in shul, I announced a ban (since then, thank G-d, strictly adhered to, for the most part) on the use of smart-phones during tefilla. A smart-phone, for all its wonders, is actually a holy book, a full plate, a knife, money, a loaf of bread – not to mention a telephone, a newspaper and a Scrabble game – all in one. It is everything that Chazal prohibited – valuable, breakable and a fount of distractions. Even if the phone element is turned off, the temptation is too great and the diversions are too accessible. The email beeps, the texts ring – and worse – it is the intrusion of the outside world that we struggle to keep afar during tefilla.

In a shul, the smart-phone has no place. Use a siddur! They are available in abundance.

That is not to say that the siddur/chumash, etc. apps have no value or use at all – on the contrary. Every smart-phone owner should have them (as if you didn’t know that!). They come in handy when a siddur is unavailable or where the lighting is so dim that a siddur can’t be easily read. It is also salutary even to see the siddur or Torah icon on the phone during the day, good reminders generally and especially when one is using the phone for other purposes.

By all means buy and use the holy apps! Just not in shul. I would hope and pray that other shuls will follow our lead. Rav Yosef Karo entitled that Chapter 96 of the Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim “to preclude all nuisances so that one can concentrate.” There is no greater, more consistent nuisance imaginable. The ban seems obvious and long overdue.

In its proper place, the new technology can often benefit and enrich our lives. But we control the technology; it doesn’t control us. When it comes to shul and to davening, let it wait outside. Just for a few minutes. It will still be there when we finish, but we will be better off for the few minutes’ respite. And we will be able to daven in peace and quiet, and with a little more kavana.



The Real Story?

     The controversy du jour deals with the high school girls and their tefillin, and it has prompted the usual litany of responses. Once again, what passes for psak in the Modern Orthodox world is little more than cherry-picking the sources to find the single, even strained, interpretation of a rabbinic opinion in order to permit what it wants to permit or prohibit what it wants to prohibit. The preponderance of poskim or the consensus in the Torah world matters little; fables – like Rashi’s daughters wearing tefillin – carry more weight.

     No honest reading of the sources could ever give rise to a statement such as “Ramaz would be happy to allow any female student who wants to observe the mitzvah of tefillin to do so.” Happy? Tell it to the Rema or to the Aruch Hashulchan. And what about the prohibition of lo titgodedu ­– of not having contradictory practices in the same minyan (e.g., some girls wearing tefillin and others not)? And what of the statement being made to the traditional girls – that their service of G-d must somehow be inferior to that of their peers who are on a “higher” level, or the statement being made to all of them – women’s spirituality can only reach its peak when it mimics the religious practices of men? I would not want my daughters to be exposed to either sentiment.

Frankly, it is unsurprising that many young students in high schools text on Shabbat, observe half-Shabbat, and the like. If the Mesorah can be manipulated to permit girls to do what they want, why can’t it be manipulated to permit what boys want? Clearly, the subtleties are being lost in translation. Would that the schools focused on enhancing the commitment of the boys and their tefillin than broadening it to include others who are not within the purview of the mitzvah.

And, like night follows day, the secular Jewish press – besides praising the courage of the administrators – have trumpeted this story as another sign of the feminization of Orthodoxy – a triumph of women’s rights in an age when those are considered some of society’s most cherished values. They perceive it as another sign that Orthodoxy is modernizing, getting with the times, and catching up with the non-Orthodox movements, to the chagrin of the troglodytes on the right who insist on impeding progress.

But what if that is not the story? It is quite possible that we – and especially the media – might have missed the essence of this unfolding tale.

One question needs to be asked: do the girls here even define themselves as “Orthodox Jews?” Upon information and belief, they do not, and I do not write this to impugn them in the least. The fact is that in these day schools, anywhere from 10-30% of the student population consists of children from non-Orthodox homes. These families are proud members of non-Orthodox temples, and are certainly among the more dedicated. After all, they are sending their children to day schools under nominally Orthodox auspices. Some may even be the children of non-Orthodox rabbis, both males and females. When one girl explained that she has been wearing tefillin since her Bat Mitzvah, she is likely telling the truth. She has been wearing tefillin because that is part of the egalitarianism that is the most dominant value in the non-Orthodox world. If these girls – as it seems – are from non-Orthodox families, then the narrative has nothing at all to do with the so-called modernizing tendencies in Orthodoxy, but something else entirely.

The real story is not that Orthodox girls are wearing or want to wear tefillin, but that non-Orthodox children (or their parents) are essentially dictating to day schools how they want non-Orthodox practices incorporated – in school – in their children’s education. It is as if Conservative Judaism and its customs must be acknowledged much like schools have been known (and properly so) to allow children of the Edot Hamizrach to have their own minyanim and adhere to their own customs. And the schools are willing accomplices. Will they next remove their mechitzot to allow an egalitarian minyan, or is that too great a departure from the Orthodox brand?

There was a time when non–Orthodox Jews were thankful that yeshivot accepted their children, but correctly assumed that the curriculum, standards, practices and ideology taught would conform to Torah. They knew it would differ from what they were being taught at home – but they wanted that.
There was a time when a yeshiva administration had the authority and the courage to insist on those standards. Times have changed. In the competition for the tuition dollar of the non-Orthodox – and the fact is that SAR and Ramaz are competing for the same students – accommodations have to be made. And that is a travesty. Masquerading under the convenient narrative that this is a war for the soul of Modern Orthodoxy is the inconvenient reality: the inmates are running the asylum. The administrators are either unable or unwilling to maintain a complete fidelity to Jewish tradition, for at least some of their constituents are demanding otherwise.

Does a boy in such a school then have the right to say: “I do not feel that my divine service requires me to wear a kippa. My father doesn’t, not even in the house. I am against your religious coercion”? Should a school tolerate that? Or, an even better question: could a boy say that he rejects wearing tefillin until all the girls do? I.e., he is such an advocate of egalitarianism that it would be unconscionable for him, coming from his background, to continue to propagate the school’s antiquated, misogynistic, patriarchal attitudes that discriminate between males and females. I can hear it now: “There is only one G-d. He created all of us, and so there should be one law for all of us!” I wonder how the administrators would respond to that; probably, quite uncharitably, but on what grounds?

As one male SAR student asked me this week: if girls can be obligated when they are really exempt, why can’t he be exempt when he is really obligated? The logic is not impeccable – he is only 16 years old – but begs the question: if the Mesorah is so ephemeral that it can change on a whim, why can’t any rabbi make any change that he wants to make? Why can’t a layman?
Add to this one other point. I personally have met a number of graduates of these schools who are children of non-Orthodox female converts who were never informed by the administrators that the conversions were not acceptable according to halacha. In effect, they went through high school thinking they were Jews like all their classmates only to discover – years later and often on the verge of marriage – that they were not considered Jewish. The tragedy is heart-wrenching, because these young men and women are pure innocents. But there are halachic ramifications as well even while they are in school: Did the son of such a female convert lein in school? Was he motzi the audience with his Chazarat Hashatz? Did he count for the minyan?

Take a more tragic example: what if a young girl, child of a non-Orthodox converted mother, meets and falls in love with a male classmate (perhaps, her chavruta in Gemara class), and that young man is a kohen? What would have been a beautiful relationship is now marred forever and their life plans have to be altered. Perhaps, G-d forbid, the couple might then even turn away from Torah observance entirely because the young woman in question also needs to convert according to halacha, but now cannot marry this young kohen. Is the unequivocal acceptance of non-Orthodox converts and their children the norm in these schools? Is any attempt made to have them – if possible – convert according to halacha? I wonder.

On some level, the policy makes internal sense. For a day school appealing for non-Orthodox students in a very competitive climate, questioning the legitimacy of non-Orthodox conversions would be a turn-off to parents – just like denying these girls their tefillin would displease future applicants as well.

But the bottom line is that the story here might not be at all about “Orthodox” girls wearing tefillin but about non-Orthodox children seeking an accommodation of their religious practices, and about day school principals reluctant to insist on adherence to Torah standards. And that is the opposite of courage.

A Response for the Neo-Cons

In the Times of Israel (, Rabbi Avi Weiss, whom I will always esteem for his past accomplishments for the Jewish people notwithstanding his current odyssey, lays out his case for the ordination of women as a natural evolution of the Mesorah as he sees it. His arguments are compelling, skilled polemics, but ultimately fall short and are unpersuasive, as well as divisive to the Jewish people.
Note first the proof case for this flexible Mesorah – the Gemara Chulin 6b that states that the great Rebbi (Rabbi Judah the Prince) permitted the residents of Bet Shean to eat produce without first tithing it on the grounds that Bet Shean was not then part of the land of Israel. (Needless to say, none of the innovators here have the stature or national leadership role of Rebbi.) Nonetheless, the story actually proves the opposite of what Rabbi Weiss presented, as it begins (a curiously omitted passage) that Rebbi “heard testimony that Rabbi Meir ate a vegetable leaf grown in Bet Shean without tithing and based on that Rebbi exempted Bet Shean from the tithing requirement.”
That is to say, Rebbi saw that there was evidently an existing tradition to exempt Bet Shean from tithing, or Rabbi Meir would not have eaten untithed vegetables. Likely, there was a change in the facts on the ground – an obvious loss of sovereignty of the Jewish people in that territory and a reduced population that led Rebbi to decree that it was no longer part of the land of Israel for tithing purposes. Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi was simply following his rebbe, Rabbi Meir, and extended Rabbi Meir’s private decision to the public. But here, was there an existing tradition that Rabbi Weiss followed to ordain women? No. (Only non-Orthodox movements have done so, first Reform, followed a decade or so later by Conservative.) Was there a change in the factual circumstances that called into question the prior mesora? Not at all.
Rabbi Weiss: “Rebbe responded: makom hinihu li avotai le-hit’gader bo – “My ancestors left room for me to distinguish myself.” (Hullin 6b,7a) In other words, it’s been left over for the next generation. No generation can do all of the work that is necessary. It is not only the right, but the obligation of each generation le-hit’gader bo—to distinguish itself. Not to distinguish itself in an arrogant sense, but in the sense of continuing the work of not being frozen in the past and thus taking halakha to even greater heights.”
In fact, Rashi here (Chulin 7a) does interpret “lehitgader” to mean “lehitgadel” – to become great, to make a reputation, to demonstrate halachic prowess. That interpretation perhaps hits closer to home than wanted, but the interpretation of “continuing the work of not being frozen in the past and thus taking halakha to even greater heights” is Rabbi Weiss’ own and not indicated by the text or commentators. In any event, clearly the facts changed and necessitated a different psak than the one his ancestors gave. How is that related at all to women’s ordination? No facts changed; what changed was embracing the secular value system that sees egalitarianism as a Torah value, when it is clearly not.
Notice also that the premise in Chullin is based on two individuals – Asa and Yehoshafat – who did not do what they should have done – destroy idols – thereby allowing Chizkiyahu to “make his reputation” as an idol-buster. I.e., Chizkiyahu’s “innovation” was to destroy what his ancestors failed to destroy. He did the right thing; it wasn’t at all a “Mesora” issue. How does this justify women’s ordination? Additionally, Rabbi Yehuda’s decision was localized, applicable only to the few Jews of Bet Shean. By contrast, Rabbi Weiss’ decision to unilaterally change long-standing tradition and, in the process, disregard several halachic principles, purports to affect all of the Klal Yisrael.
That is not to say that individual halachists have no right to disagree with a psak of prior generations or poskim. Rav Herschel Schachter posits (in his recently released Divrei Sofrim, Page 67) that according to the Rambam, a Bet Din can disagree with the conclusions of prior Batei Din even if not greater than them, except in areas of takana. Of course, the Rambam referred to Batei Din and not individuals, but the same would apply even to great individuals. (“However, this should not lead one to the conclusion that in every generation, rabbinic leaders can pasken as they please.” Pages 113-114).
But note the three cases Rabbi Weiss adduced to show the Mesorah’s evolution: polygamy, slavery and yefat to’ar. In each case, Chazal made use of the principle of “shev v’al taaseh,” don’t so something because it might violate another Torah value. The ordination of women is exactly the opposite – it is a “kum v’aseh,” an active, affirmative violation of the tradition, not a passive abstention from a particular act.
Two examples suffice: the halacha bans blowing the shofar on the first day of Rosh Hashana that falls on Shabbat, lest a person carry the shofar in the public domain to learn how to blow it. The Mesorah “evolutionists” might posit that since today, only proficient people blow, and we have eruvin, and we can leave the shofar in shul before Shabbat, etc., that the tradition of not blowing on Shabbat Rosh Hashana should be abandoned and that we should again be able to listen to the inspiring and awesome sounds of the shofar even on Shabbat. It makes sense – we would thereby fulfill a Torah commandment of shofar – but that breach of the Mesorah would place one beyond the pale of Orthodoxy.
So, too, drawing from one of Rabbi Weiss’ own examples: suppose an enterprising, creative rabbi would decide to reverse Rabbenu Gershom’s ban on polygamy. After all, the edot hamizrach never accepted it, and it is arguable whether it has lapsed or even if he meant it for all time. And this innovative rabbi would do it for the most sincere reasons – say, resolve the singles’ crisis, in which unmarried females outnumber unmarried males. Imagine if willing males would embrace two or three women into their homes. Forget the bigamy laws (as many people have already). The immorality that prevails today (fewer and fewer marriages take place) could certainly accommodate concubinage, which is obviously more formal and more respectful than adultery, one-night stands or other such shenanigans that are not uncommon in the modern world. Needless to say, the rabbi who would suggest that would place himself outside the pale of Orthodoxy and in a heap of trouble with his wife. In theory, though, why couldn’t an “evolving Mesorah” accept that?
The answer is because the Mesorah does not adapt to new circumstances in the way that Rabbi Weiss presented, which is in fact precisely the methodology of the non-Orthodox movements: see which cultural winds are blowing, presume that those values are good, proper and worthy of emulation, and figure out a way to do with the minimum disfigurement of Jewish law. I.e., decide what you want to so and then adduce the sources to permit it. But halacha has a methodology with which it addresses new circumstances; the ordination of women did not utilize it but did utilize the evolutionary theory of the non-Orthodox.
Notice also how innocuous practices – simchat bat – are conflated with weightier issues, like women’s ordination. But even the shalom zachar has a broader purpose unrelated to women (I think, and perhaps only to date:) it announces when the brit mila will take place.
Two references are jarring. The first – allegedly the original Maharat – was someone named Osnat who headed a yeshiva in Kurdistan for a time. Frankly, I have never heard of her, do not even know if she really lived or was simply a fictional character in some historical novel. With all due respect to her and to my dear brethren of the Kurdish-Jewish community, Osnat – if she indeed lived – was certainly not a mainstream figure and even less is known about the spiritual level of her community that induced them to retain the services of this predecessor to Yentl. She cannot be a precedent – she did not even have any successors. By way of analogy, the bearded lady was always a staple of the carnival, but she was hardly a reason to apply to all women the three biblical prohibitions relating to shaving.
The second reference is also a hardy perennial – boldly stating that deceased great rabbis would now support innovations that they strenuously opposed during their lifetimes. It is a specious argument that adds nothing to the debate because it can neither be sustained nor refuted. Tampering with the words and writings of great Sages after they have gone to their eternal reward, and twisting them to mean the opposite of what they said, is not much different than the posthumous conversions done to Jews (and others) for many years by the Mormon Church. Personally, it offends me. Citing Rav Kook, the Chofetz Chaim and Rav Soloveitchik out of context as if they would support something that they actually opposed in their lifetimes is disingenuous. May their memories be for a blessing, and may they rest –but really rest – in peace.
Rabbi Weiss: “Our mesorah does not reject the idea of women’s ordination. Quite the contrary, the mesorah rooted in the past, while emanating light into the future, says quite the opposite.” But it does reject the idea; if not, scholarly women from Bruria, the wife of Rabbi Meir, to Nechama Leibowitz z”l would have been called “Rabbi.” The fact that they were not – and it is a fact – means that the mesorah did not and could not accommodate that title or that job description.
The fact that there is a “demand,” if four institutions out of thousands can be described as “a demand,” really says nothing at all. There are many varieties of Judaism’s out there, many of them having only a tangential relationship with Torah. Any experienced rabbi could attest that many Jews, told something (a food, a restaurant, a Maharat) they long thought was forbidden was now permitted, will flock to it at first. Usually the demand for the illicit is very strong, but it peters out when the desire for the next illicit thing builds and builds. People love to have permitted to them what they want to do anyway, but that is hardly to be perceived as spiritual greatness.
Elsewhere I have addressed the halachic and hashkafic problems, but the attempt to change the Mesorah and traditional Jewish practice because American values have changed is, simply, non-Orthodox. To act on the impulse that the Torah considers women “second-class citizens” is repugnant, and can only and necessarily lead to further halachic mischief. In a free country, anyone can do anything and call it Judaism or anything else. But the Torah world has an equal right – and obligation – to characterize such deviations for what they are: non-Orthodox, mimicry of the Reform/Conservative approach to Jewish law and methodology, and self-alienation of the Torah world.
No one involved in this controversy, least of all myself, is Rabbi Yehuda, Rabbi Meir, the Chofetz Chaim, Rav Kook, Rav Soloveitchik, et al. This unilateral attempt to transform the traditional role of women in Jewish life has grave ramifications – for marriages, families, children, the Jewish community, the integrity of the Mesorah, and the Orthodox world. It is tantamount to castigating and besmirching the rabbis and leaders of prior generations for not being as enlightened or moral as present company. That requires some broad shoulders and enormous self-confidence.
A kind reader called to my attention this quote from Rabbenu Bachye’s Chovot Halevavot, Shaar Yichud Hamaaseh, Chapter 5: “Be careful, therefore, not to stray in your step from the way of the fathers and the path of the Early Ones, into unjustifiable innovations, relying only on your mind, consulting only your own opinion, and following only your own conjecture. Do not distrust your fathers regarding what they have handed down to you concerning what is good for you, and do not contradict the views they teach you. For there can be no idea that occurs to you of which they had not already thought and weighed its consequences, both positive and negative.”
“You may recognize the positive in a certain opinion at its initial stage, while the negative consequences at its final stage remain hidden from you; so that, with your lack of deliberation, you will see what is positive in it, but fail to see its error and liability. As the Wise One said: ‘Do not move back the world’s boundary [which your fathers established]’ (Mishlei 22:28).”

That is profound, and profoundly relevant. The grievances against the Torah will not end with this, nor will the deviations from tradition. Like a century ago, a new movement has been created that is outside the realm of Torah. It will not have the same devastating impact on Jewish life as did the other movements because their numbers will remain small. The large majority of the Orthodox world will reject it, some rather prosaically perceiving it as a typical, non-Orthodox pattern. Eventually, its rabbis and adherents will find themselves outside the Orthodox orbit – with their marriages, divorces, conversions and kosher supervisions coming under suspicion or just being rejected.
All that is inevitable, if it hasn’t happened already, and echoes Rabbenu Bachye’s concerns above.
I pray that my remarks are not too strident, and that no one take personal offense. This is the business of Torah. I have said my piece and have no interest in ever again addressing this topic.

Bikur Cholim – Visiting the Sick

Visiting the sick (or the “not yet well,” as we like to call the temporarily afflicted) is one of the characteristic acts of kindness that define the life of a Jew. It is a simulation of divine chesed. The Talmud (Sotah 14a) cites the verse (Devarim 13:5) that “You shall follow G-d,” and explains: “Can a person really follow the divine presence, which is a consuming fire? Rather, follow G-d’s ways…just like G-d visits the sick, so too you should visit the sick.”
Thus, bikur cholim is an important mitzvah, but – like all mitzvot – it has a precise form and methodology. Often, people with the best intentions can stumble and inadvertently fail to fulfill the commandment properly, or, in the worst case, actually exacerbate the choleh’s predicament. It is important to know that the essence of the mitzvah is to inquire after the choleh’s needs, and especially to pray for his/her recovery. To leave without offering a specific blessing – “G-d should have mercy on you and all cholei Yisrael,” or “May Hashem send you a speedy refuah shleima from Heaven” – does not fulfill the mitzvah.
Beyond the technicalities of the mitzvah is the realization that the choleh is a human being, and not merely – like a lulav, so to speak – a cheftza shel mitzvah, the vehicle through which the commandment is performed. I have heard from cholim who understand well the importance of the mitzvah, the willingness of people to perform it and the necessity to recognize guidelines and limitations. It is not always easy for the “healthy,” so to speak, to empathize with the choleh.
Thus, one overcome by serious illness needs time to adjust to the new reality, the challenge that G-d has sent his/her way. And it is a challenge; as is well known, we cannot always control what happens to us but we can control our reaction to it. Every stage in life is part of our mission to fulfill the destiny that G-d has set for us. Some cholim want to explore the spiritual dimensions of their illness, but others do not. One should be guided by the choleh, and not be too intrusive as to the spiritual state of the person unless the person raises the matter. Granted, the essential mitzvah is to tend to the physical needs of the person, but refuat hanefesh is often a part of a person’s recovery or his way of coping. That matter, nonetheless, is best raised by the choleh.
Even regarding the personal needs of the choleh, each person is different. Someone who is homebound can still be functional – and talk on the phone, daven, give tzedaka, learn Torah and even comfort others. Some look for ubiquitous companionship and others prefer time for solitude or just recovery. The time frame for visits should be determined by the choleh, although Chazal state that one should not visit in the first three or last three hours of the day – early morning or late evening. (The laws of Bikur Cholim are found in the Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah, Chapter 335.) If the choleh says that “now is not a good time,” we must respect that – and certainly not say: “You are depriving me of the opportunity to do a mitzvah!” It is best not even to call early in the morning or late at night. One should first ascertain whether the timing of the visit is appropriate for the choleh – but also for the choleh’s family, which is also great impacted by the illness of their loved one. They too need chizuk – and sometimes just space and a life away from caretaking.
Thus, the choleh’s relatives should always be greeted not with the “pity face” but b’sever panim yafot, with a smile and pleasant countenance. They need not be reminded by your expression of their pain, nor do they need to be distracted from it. The worst reaction – not common but not uncommon either – is to avoid eye contact, to make believe that they are not really there. That reaction – seemingly cold even from otherwise thoughtful people – is an unconscious attempt to avoid causing pain, and even to avoid identifying with that pain that will someday be theirs as well. But little is as painful as that – as if not the illness but the sadness is infectious. Sometimes, the best approach is just to say “hello” with a smile, or send a card or message with simple words that you are thinking of them, davening for them, etc. Certainly, one can call and leave such a message on the answering machine – and do not at a later stage confront the choleh accusingly and ask why your call wasn’t returned? Not every call can be reciprocated. And if you have not called, do not tell the choleh that you didn’t call because you “know that they have others looking after them.” That might be true but it is not relevant, and just an attempt to assuage guilt.
Above all – be normal (a good rule for life in every event). That is hard to do because, again, it can be psychologically painful to see oneself in the position of the choleh and so we try to escape from having any association with that quandary. (Death often evokes a similar reaction in people.) That such is common does not make it acceptable, so, be normal, and supportive to the extent welcomed.
It is very helpful when friends offer to help, but the help should be specific rather than generic – not “can I do anything for you?” or “Please let me know if I can do anything for you” – but specific: “I am going to X Market. What can I get for you?” Or, “can I cook for you [or for your children]?” Can I drive you to the doctor?”
And, of course, whatever you commit to doing – do! Offer to do anything in your comfort zone – but then follow through. Do not say you are cooking, and then (well, of course you will cook, but) expect the spouse to pick it up. Do not offer to drive and then cancel (absent some exigency, of course.) Offering and reneging is worse than not offering at all.
If the choleh accepts your favor, then certainly be discreet. If you drive the person to the doctor, then the patient trusts you. Do not share personal information about the choleh’s condition with others. That is always the prerogative of the choleh. First and foremost, always respect the person’s privacy and dignity.
Visits should be kept brief. Do not stay too long, unless the choleh specifically requests it. Offer chizuk rather than pity, and don’t visit if your visit will make the choleh feel worse. (“Your illness has hurt our friendship and ruined my life!” or “You are not the same person!”) When appropriate, offer words of chizuk or Divrei Torah and even drop off reading material that can enrich the life of the person.
If the choleh wishes to speak about his/her illness, then by all means be receptive and listen, but do not ask about specific symptoms, prognoses or other medical issues unless the information is volunteered. The choleh might be uncomfortable discussing certain matters. If you have a valid reason to suggest a different medical protocol, then do so, but do not suggest that the choleh change doctors in mid-treatment, as that can shake the patient’s confidence and undermine his psychological state.
What should you talk about with the choleh? Certainly tell them what is happening in your life, but do not complain about having to do errands or activities that the choleh would love to be doing but for the illness. If you see the choleh (or relative) in shul davening with kavana, it would be rude and improper to interrupt them for a general inquiry about their welfare. They, especially, need those moments of solitude with Hashem.
Understand, as well, that each person handles illness in a unique and subjective way. There are people whose true needs are known to them only in retrospect, whether they required more support or less. That applies to both the choleh and the family. And just as we would not criticize someone who is public about the illness, so too we should not castigate (even behind closed doors) someone who wants to remain private. There is no one right way, although Chazal do state that it is preferable to inform people of one’s troubles so they can pray for you (Sotah 32b). But, ultimately, the choice is personal, and we must always recall that the illness is not the person and does not define the person. The person remains a human being entitled to respect and consideration, and has a life beyond the illness also.
And perhaps our main contribution to the welfare of the afflicted is to daven for them, to always have them in our thoughts and prayers. Davening helps – it helps the choleh but it also helps others develop a closer, more intimate connection with Hashem. That might be one reason why visiting the sick is a mitzvah whose fruit we consume in this world but whose principal remains for the world-to-come. It is a mitzvah that is not as easy as it looks, and in which we can all easily fall short, but one that properly done invariably makes us better people. With good intentions and even better words and deeds, we can bring great comfort to all cholim, as we pray to Hashem to bring them – and all cholei Yisrael – a refuah shleimah, a complete and speedy recovery.