Following Kabbalat Shabbat services this past week a young woman, Hannah, asked me a question that had never been asked of me before. She wanted to know what blessing was appropriate to say when hearing an ambulance siren.
Hannah explained that she worried about the well-being of the individual for whom the ambulance was intended even though she had no idea who it was, and she wanted to be able to call upon whatever powers that be (e.g. physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual) that could possibly help the individual survive and cope with his/her ordeal.
The shortest prayer in the Hebrew Bible immediately came to mind – “El na r’fa na la – Please God heal her!” (Numbers 12:13) Moses had offered this five-word blessing on behalf of his sister Miriam after she had become leprous, and the Torah relates that Moses’ blessing was efficacious in Miriam’s healing.
Judaism understands that the human being is an integrated whole including body, mind, heart, and soul, and that all belong to God. As God’s “partner” in creation, Judaism obligates us to help others heal from injury and illness. (see Healing and the Jewish Imagination: Spiritual and Practice Perspectives on Judaism and Health, edited by Rabbi William Cutter, Jewish Lights, 2007)
I have written a Guide called “On Healing and Recovery” as part of a Transitions & Celebrations series of Jewish Life Cycle Guides that is available on the Temple Israel of Hollywood, Los Angeles website –
In this guide I respond to many “Frequently Asked Questions” about recovery and healing and what to do and not do when someone becomes ill. I list relevant Jewish laws and traditions concerning the mitzvah (commandment) of bikur cholim (visiting the sick), as well as a glossary of relevant Hebrew terms and concepts and a list of resources for further inquiry.
I offer here a few reflections drawn from Jewish and world literature on the theme of healing:
“Rabbi Chiyya was suffering, and Rabbi Yochanan gave him his hand. Rabbi Chiyya was lifted.” (Babylonian Talmud, B’rachot 5b)
“I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in order.” (John Burroughs)
“In the end, medicine will always be about one patient and one physician [or nurse] together in one room, connecting through the most basic of communication systems: touch. In an age of breathless innovation, this system is almost antediluvian. But medicine simply cannot be automated beyond this point.” (Danielle Ofri, MD, PhD – in Jewish Stories From Heaven and Earth: Inspiring Tales to Nourish the Heart and Soul, Edited by Rabbi Dov Peretz Elkins, p. 47)
“Abayei said, when a person comes out of a privy, that person should say: Blessed is God who has formed us in wisdom and created in us many orifices and many cavities. It is obvious and known before Your throne of glory that if one of them were to be ruptured or one of the blocked, it would be impossible for a person to survive and stand before You. Blessed are You that heals all flesh and does wonders.” (Babylonian Talmud, B’rachot 60b – Also in Asher Yatzar, a prayer in the morning liturgy)
“The Torah gives permission to the physician to heal; moreover, this is a mitzvah and it is included in the mitzvah of saving a life; and, the physician withholds such services, that person is considered a shedder of blood.” (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 336: 1)
“It is a positive rabbinic commandment to visit the sick, comfort mourners and serve in a funeral escort.” (Maimonides, Mishnah Torah)
“God’s word is the Source of all true life. Know and understand it. The word can heal your soul and unite it with its Source.” (Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav)
“Rabbi Abba son of Rabbi Hanina taught: The one who visits a sick person, takes away 1/60 of that person’s pain.” (Babylonia Talmud, Nedarim 39b)
“A man too busy to take care of his health is like a mechanic too busy to take care of his tools.”
“When one helps another, both gain in strength.” (Ecuadorian proverb)
“May the One who dwells in this place comfort you.” (A message inscribed on Kings Gate in Jerusalem)
“The soul is healed by being with children.” (Fyodor Dostoyevsky)
“Be a lamp,
or a lifeboat,
or a ladder.
Help someone’s soul heal.
Walk out of your house like a shepherd.” (Jalaluddin Rumi)
“Sickness is a separation from God – Healing is returning to God.” (Shirley MacLaine, Out on a Leash)