Visiting Sensibly

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Some people have been blessed with a healthy portion of tact, an innate ability to always say the right thing at the right time. The rest of us, at least those sensitive enough to realize we are not among the naturally tactful, need occasional guidance on what is proper. Common sense can take us very far but only when we recognize the full situation into which we are entering.

The Gemara (Berakhos 6b) states that you are rewarded for silence at a house of mourning. Simply understood, this means your presence alone should serve as a comfort, with speech used only as needed (although see Torah Temimah, Lev. ch. 10 n. 3). Yet that is hardly the common experience of a shiva visit, where idle chatter is often the norm. In truth, and contrary to many exhortations you may hear, there is no single template. Everything depends on the mourner’s mindset. A visitor needs to be able to judge what the mourner needs and respond accordingly, rather than follow any single preset routine.

The same applies to visiting someone sick. You have to be able to read the situation and act according to the ill person’s state of mind. Paying such visits requires a little thinking on your feet. This is a daunting task for those of us with average, or even below average, social skills. For us, a preset routine is helpful as a baseline from which to deviate if we see the need.

R. Simeon Schreiber, a veteran hospital chaplain, has mined his years of experience and composed basic guidelines that fit most situations. His book, A Caring Presence: Bringing the Gift of Hope, Comfort and Courage — Guidelines for Visiting Hospital Patients, the Homebound Elderly and Shivah/Bereaved Family, is mostly based on the common sense that comes from years of experience. While proper behavior will vary from person to person, his guidelines serve as an excellent starting point, a default position until you can read the situation.

R. Schreiber begins his section on hospital visits by defining the goal of such a visit. It is not to help the patient but to be “of service,” to be there at a time when the patient may be feeling lonely. A hospital visit is not an opportunity to offer medical advice, change the situation or make the patient happy. It is to listen, to help the patient speak and pray.

Through a sample visit he describes, R. Schreiber lists 21 guidelines for hospital visits, some less obvious than others. Among them are: knock before entering; remind the patient of your name; don’t bring food without hospital authorization (could be dangerous to the patient); don’t say you know how the patient feels; limit your visit to fifteen minutes. These are aimed at visiting a stranger, so those visiting a family member or friend will have to modify. However, they are extremely helpful baseline tips to successfully visiting the sick.

R. Schreiber also provides overviews and guidelines for visiting the homebound elderly and the bereaved. Again, these are generally common sense attitudes that people ignore all the time. He adds a very important short section in which he points out that some deaths are more tragic than others. At such a house of mourning, expect and allow for grief and don’t try to theologically justify the loss.

This book is an easy read and a useful guide. It won’t provide any surprising insights but will make you more comfortable visiting the sick and bereaved. This is the kind of book that shuls and schools should give to members and student in order to inspire chesed.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student has served two terms on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and currently serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Boards of Jewish Action magazine, the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and the Achieve Journal of Behavioral Health, Religion & Community, as well as the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

6 comments

  1. Aish has a funny video on how NOT to visit the sick:
    http://www.aish.com/j/mm/Sicko.html

  2. It is sad that a book like this might be needed. Bikkur Cholim and Nichum Aveilim are among the mitzvot we have not be explicit command but be being told to emulate God’s trait of chessed. And we should learn how to do it by example, not books.

  3. IIRC, the introduction to Mesilas Yesharim notes that he is merely reviewing basic ideas that should be familiar to all. However, in our busy lives, Bikur Cholim, at least in the US, has become a rav related mitvah, except for the superb efforts of the Satmar Bikur Cholim whose efforts on behalf of all Jews, regardless of their identification, are simply the Pshat in Chesed Shel Emes. Having been the recipient of many family members and friends who visited me in the hospital and at home as part of my recovery from major emergency surgery, there is nothing like seeing family and friends to help the days go by.Even posting here , which can be a form of Harbatzas and Talmud Torah , has some therapeutic value. It goes without saying that having a chaplain at the hospital, who is not just a chavrusa, but a chaver bdeos and a Baal Chesed of immense proportions cannot be underestimated.

    Assuming that Bikur Cholim should be preferably be in person, does anyone have a POV on whther Bikur Cholim can be fulfilled via Skype?

  4. MiMedinat HaYam

    steve b:

    ” Bikur Cholim, at least in the US, has become a rav related mitvah” though many shul rabbonim dont even have this on their agenda (unless its a wealthy donor; how tactful are they then? perhaps they should then read this post / the book). some shuls solve this problem by hiring an assistant rabbi who is otherwise powerless. or congregational intern.

    ” does anyone have a POV on whther Bikur Cholim can be fulfilled via Skype?”
    doesnt RMF discuss this in his famous havdalah by telephone tshuva? (of course, like recently discussed here, we do not follow RMF in everything.)

  5. MiMedinat HaYam

    regarding satmar bikur cholim, it should be pointed out that the main donor to them is a personal friend of both the satmar rebbe z”l (r yoel), and r lamm.

    is it possible that perhaps most of their work is by women, and independent women at that, they are more open minded? (esp in a society that prohibits open minded women. satmar business men and business women are also open minded.) perhaps they need a good congregational intern.

    also, there are other chassidishe bikur cholim groups.

  6. Why do you want to know if BC can be fulfilled by Skype? I would think it is self-evident that a personal visit is better when possible, and the Skype visit is better than none at all. As in many types of chesed, if you are asking if you are yotzei the mitzva, you are asking the wrong question.

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