1) Is there a Biblical source for the mitzvah to visit ill patients?
According to the Ramban, Rabbenu Yonah and others, the Torah command of “vehalachta bidrachav” – to follow in Hashem’s ways – includes the obligation of biku holim. As the Gemara (Sotah 14a) explains, one of the ways we emulate Hashem is by visiting the sick, just as Hashem visited Avraham Avinu, as it were, when he was recovering from his berit milah. The Rambam maintains that the obligation of bikur holim was instituted by the sages, but is also included under the Biblical command of “ve’ahavta lere’acha kamocha – Love your fellow as yourself.”
2) What must one do for the patient to fulfill this mitzvahproperly?
The essential requirement of bikur holim is to determine what the patient needs and to provide those needs. The Shelah Hakadosh (Rav Yeshayah Halevi Horowitz, 1558-1630) identified three general categories of needs that an ill patient has: physical, spiritual and financial. Physical needs include: cleaning his room if it is dirty (in fact, the Gemara in Nedarim 40a tells that the Rabbi Akiva personally swept the floor for an ill student), making sure his bed is comfortable, providing appropriate food, medicines and caretakers at the appropriate times, and attending to the patient’s affairs which he cannot deal with, such as paying bills, writing a will (if necessary), and so on. Spiritual needs include praying and reciting Tehillim for his recovery, and trying to lift his spirits through light conversation, humor and the like. The Bet Yosef, citing the Rambam, writes that one does not fulfill the obligation of bikur holim if he does not pray on the patient’s behalf. Financial needs including purchasing medications, food and other supplies, offering financial support for the family, and donating charity in the patient’s merit.
3) Is it permissible for a kohen to enter a hospital to visit a sick person, despite the concern that there might be a human corpse in the building?
Rabbi Aharon Levine (in his work Zichron Meir, p. 74) writes that given the severity of the prohibition against kohanim becoming tameh (impure), a kohen should preferably not visit a patient in a hospital unless he can verify that there is no deceased Jewish person or limb amputated from a Jew in the building.Rav Moshe Feinstein, zt”l, notes a leniency in Iggerot Moshe (Y.D. 2:166) that in special circumstances, one may rely on the fact that the majority of patients in American hospitals are non-Jews, and since families of deceased Jewish patients do not generally authorize autopsies, we may presume that any corpse or amputated limb in a hospital is that of a non-Jew. Therefore, as there is no prohibition for a kohen to be under the same roof as the remains of a non-Jew, a kohen who has a particular need to visit a patient may do so. This includes visiting a family member or relative, visits that are required in the interest of shalom bayit (peace among family members), and situations where the patient specifically requested that the kohen come visit him.
4) When is the most appropriate time to visit a sick patient?
The Shulhan Aruch (Y.D. 335:4) writes that one should not visit a patient during the first three hours of the day, when the patient will likely feel rested and not look frail, as the visitor will not be moved to pray for his recovery. On the other hand, one should not visit during the final three hours of the day, when the patient likely looks exceedingly frail, as the visitor may conclude that the patient has no hope of recovering. Therefore, one should visit the patient during the middle hours of the day. The Aruch Hashulhan (335:8) notes that these guidelines were given only as a suggestion, and there is no prohibition against visiting a patient earlier or later in the day. In any event, practically speaking, one should schedule visits at the times that are most convenient and comfortable for him.
5) What is the proper way to pray on behalf of an ill patient?
In the patient’s presence, one may pray for his recovery in any language, but when the patient is not present, one should pray for him specifically in lashon hakodesh (Shulhan Aruch 335:5-6). The Turei Zahav explains that Hashem’s Holy Spirit resides above the head of an ill patient, and thus in the patient’s presence the antagonistic angels cannot interfere with prayers. In other places, however, prayers are exposed to this danger unless they are recited in lashon hakodesh.
When one prays for an ill patient, he should make a point of saying the he prays for the patient’s recovery “among all the sick patients in the Jewish nation.” When praying for an ill patient on Shabbat, we add the phrase, “It is Shabbat, when we do not cry out, but healing will soon come.”
6) If one knows that visits would be too difficult for the patient and add to his discomfort, what should he do instead to help the patient?
One who wishes to visit an ill patient must be carefully attuned to the patient’s needs, and try to determine whether or a visit would be beneficial or harmful. At times, patients who are receiving visitors will be too embarrassed to ask that the visitors leave when they need some quiet time. If one suspects that his visit might be burdensome for the patient, he should inquire about the patient’s wellbeing and send him wishes through his family members. He should also send a gift, a card, or even just a balloon to express care and concern. One should also find out what the patient’s needs are and pray to Hashem to fulfill them. (See Shulhan Aruch, 335:8.)
7) If a Jewish patient shares a hospital room with a non-Jew, should the visitors also visit the non-Jewish patient?
The Shulhan Aruch (335:9) writes that one should visit non-Jewish patients in the interest of darche shalom – maintaining peaceful relations between Jews and non-Jews. Therefore, it would be appropriate to acknowledge and visit a non-Jewish patient who is sharing a room with the Jewish patient. The Shach (335:8) writes that one should even visit a non-Jewish patient who is alone and not sharing a room with a Jew.
8) Why is no berachah recited when performing the mitzvah of bikur holim?
One reason is that a berachahis recited only over a mitzvah which depends entirely on the person who performs it. In the case of bikur holim, the performance of the mitzvah depends upon the patient’s willingness to accept visitors, and thus no berachah was instituted over this mitzvah. Additionally, we recite a berachah only over a mitzvah that is unique to the Jewish nation. Visiting sick patients is customary even among non-Jews, and thus a berachah is not warranted. (See Zichron Meir, p. 68.)
9) If a person is in a situation where he can either visit a sick patient or visit a mourner, which takes precedence?
The Rama (335;10) rules that visiting mourners takes precedence over visiting ill patients. The Shach explains that one who visits a mourner performs an act of kindness for both the mourner and the deceased, and this is thus a more valuable mitzvah than visiting an ill patient. The Bah writes that if one is able to perform both mitzvot, it is preferable to first visit the ill patient in order to lift his spirits. However, Rav Moshe Feinstein (Iggerot Moshe, O.H. 4:40:11) concludes that as long as the needs of a sick person are being cared for, visiting a mourner takes precedence over visiting the ill patient.
10)What is the reward for visiting an ill patient?
Bikur holimis among the special mitzvot for which one receives reward in this world while the main reward awaits him in the world to come. The Gemara (Nedarim 40a) records that Rabbi Akiva once visited an ill student who was in critical condition, and the student recovered as a result of his rabbi’s visit. Rabbi Akiva thereupon declared, “Whoever does not visit the sick is considered as though he shed innocent blood.” The Gemara adds that one who visits the sick is spared from suffering in this world as well as from the suffering of Gehinam, and also receives protection from the evil inclination. He will enjoy contentment, receive honor, be blessed with many friends, and earn protection from enemies.