Medical Halacha – Efficacy of Prayer

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Rabbi Yehuda Finchas 

Jackie returned from the doctor shaking. Slumped on the couch, he began crying. The test results he just received were inconclusive, some tests needed to be repeated, and new tests were required. Jackie was stressed out and sought my advice: “Rabbi, I’m broken. What do I do?” 

 

Praying to Hashem for healing, or therapeutic success is a practice deeply rooted in the Torah and Jewish thought. Tefilla is a profound, significant part of Judaism and is very relevant in contemporary life. 

 

Prayer in the Torah 

 

There are many narratives of illness and recovery in the Torah, where individuals turned to Hashem in times of physical illness: Avraham Avinu prayed for Avimelech (Beresheet 20:17), Yitzhak and Rivkah prayed for children (Bereshit 25:21), and Tehillim is full of the heartfelt prayers of David Hamelech, where he beseeches Hashem for mercy, healing, and salvation. 

 

The Mishna and Talmud also contain discussions and teachings on the importance of prayer in times of illness and distress. Our Hachamim repeatedly emphasized the power of prayer to invoke Divine intervention, healing, and consolation. 

 

The Healing Power of Faith 

 

But even while it is vital that we turn to Hashem for our health needs, Maran Beit Yosef (YD 336:1) states that not only is it permissible to seek medical care but it is, in fact, an obligatory mitzva to do so. What this means is that in seeking out medical care, we are not interfering with Hashem’s Divine Will.  

 

While we must do our hishtadlut, the ultimate success is only in the hands of Hashem. The Beit Yosef quotes a rebuke of King Asa (Divrei Hayamim 2:16:12), “Even when he was ill, he did not seek out Hashem, but instead only the doctors.” King Asa “only” turned to the doctors without combining that with tefilla and faith in Hashem (see Bach).  

 

The act of praying for healing acknowledges the uncertainty of life’s challenges and the need for Divine assistance. It is a profound affirmation of faith in Hashem‘s sovereignty over life and death. Tefilla is the awareness of Gd’s Presence, and we declare our dependence on Him and appreciate that only He decides the outcome. 

 

Examples from our Hachamim 

 

Let’s examine a few sources in Hazal and our Hachamim: First and foremost, a person should always pray that he does not become ill in the first place (Shabbat 32a, quoted in Beit Yosef YD 335). The Talmud tells us that somebody who is already ill should seek a Hacham who will pray for their recovery (Baba Batra 116a, quoted in YD 335:10 and Hazon Ovadya Aveilut Vol.1 p.29). In fact, the main way to fulfill the mitzva of bikur holim, visiting the sick, is to pray for the sick person’s speedy recovery (Rambam, Avel 14:6). Hacham Ovadia, zt”l,  writes that if one visits a sick friend but did not pray for them, he has not fulfilled the mitzva of bikur holim at all! (Hazon Ovadya ibid. p.4). 

 

Hacham Ovadia lists a special prayer for a person to say before any medical procedure (based on Brachot 60a, Rambam Brachot 10:21, SA OH 230:4): “May it be Your will, Hashem, that You should send me a complete recovery, for You are a Merciful and Trustful Healer. Blessed are You, the One who listens to our prayers” (Hazon Ovadya ibid. p.499). 

 

Back to Jackie’s question. He must believe in the power of prayer to Hashem, believe that Hashem has a masterplan, and everything has a reason. Yet at the same time, he should continue with the necessary tests and procedures and at the same time believe that Hashem is the Merciful and Trustful Healer. He should therefore pray that he is not ill, and the test results should, therefore, come back in his favor.  

 

Baruch rofeh holim.   

Rabbi Yehuda Finchas is a worldwide expert, lecturer, and writer on medical halacha, and is the head of the Torat Habayit Medical Halacha Institute. His latest book is “Brain Death in Halacha and the Tower of Babel Syndrome.” To contact Rabbi Finchas, email rabbi@torathabayit.com.