Why Torah Scholars May or May Not Visit the Ill

Print pagePDF pageEmail page

by R. Gidon Rothstein

8 Sivan: R. Moshe Feinstein on Why Torah Scholars May or May Not Visit the Ill

In my experience, many people take umbrage at the idea that a Torah scholar would stand on his honor. However, halachah explicitly exempts (and, perhaps, discourages or forbids) Torah scholars from certain otherwise obligatory actions for exactly that reason.

Iggerot Moshe Yoreh Deah 1;222 (dated 8 Sivan 5712/1952) responded to a question that starts from that assumption, that Torah scholars should not do what is beneath their dignity. Why, then, do such scholars visit even the ill who are of lesser stature, and work to take care of their needs?

A commentary on Nedarim titled Shalmei Nedarim raised this in discussing Nedarim 40a, where R. Akiva visited and attended to the needs of an ill student. To many of us, it’s obvious R. Akiva should have done that, but Shalmei Nedarim didn’t understand why he was allowed to forego his honor in that way. R. Moshe’s questioner (the Tsheshenover Rebbe) suggested two answers.

What Counts as Visiting, What Counts as Treating Lightly

Maharsha to Baba Metzia 30b said that the mitzvah can be fulfilled by just going there. R. Feinstein points out that that, too, would involve zilzul haTorah, a mistreatment of Torah. Because if the Torah scholar can do this without anyone noticing he’s doing it as a kindness/ service to the person, it’s obvious that he must—he would have to return a lost item in such a circumstance as well.

(The idea that his dignity is a relevant factor starts with Devarim 22;1, where the verse expresses surprise that one would ignore a fellow Jew’s lost items. Baba Metzia 30a, however, records Chazal’s reading, that there are times when one may (or must, such as if the item is in a cemetery and the person who saw it is a kohen) ignore it, such as where it is beneath his dignity as a Torah scholar or elder. R. Feinstein is saying that if he can return the item without any detectable involvement, he would clearly be required to.)

We must be discussing where the scholar’s going will be noticed, in which case it’s the same problem as visiting him—if the latter is a wrongful foregoing of his honor, going will be, too. If we say that he can/must go then, we need another explanation.

Mitzvot Are Never Beneath Our Dignity

His second suggestion was that everyone will understand that the Torah scholar is fulfilling Hashem’s command in visiting this person, and that’s never beneath anyone’s dignity. Greats of our past did that in other mitzvah circumstances, such as Moshe Rabbenu serving as the host when his father in law Yitro came, Avraham serving the angels (who he thought were random Arabs), and more.

In each case, R. Feinstein says that the mitzvah element was not what allowed it, it was that those people were the hosts, who always serve their guests. A better example is Kiddushin 70, where Rav Nachman built a ma’akeh, a fence around a raised area, in public despite being a known Torah scholar, because it was an act of mitzvah and therefore not beneath his dignity.

R. Feinstein rejects this, too, because returning a lost item works off a different standard. There, the Gemara says that any time the Torah scholar would not exert himself were his own item to have been lost, he need not exert himself for a similar such item of another’s. (Almost thirty years ago, this case of R. Nachman building a ma’akeh came up on a test in a kollel where I was studying. I had had the impression that the tests covered Gemara, Rashi, and Tosafot, but this question actually relied on Bi’ur Halachah 250. When I asked where I should have known that from, my memory is that the answer was that of course we should know what’s in Mishnah Berurah/Bi’ur Halachah.

Relevant to our issue, Bi’ur Halachah assumes that R. Nachman’s rule applies only to obvious acts of mitzvah, and that the Torah exempted Torah scholars from returning objects since it’s not obvious that that’s an act of mitzvah. R. Feinstein does not, as far as I can tell, address this idea.)

Limiting the Question

The standard of “would the Torah scholar have done it for himself?” applies to other mitzvot as well, such as giving testimony in monetary cases as well, R. Feinstein says. Or Ketubbot 17a, where R. Shmuel b. Yitzchak entertained a bride and groom by juggling, and R. Zeira objected to acting so beneath his dignity. R Feinstein thinks R. Zeira assumed R. Shmuel b. Yitzchak would never do this at his own child’s wedding, because dancing is the only obligation. R. Shmuel himself knew he would have.

The question of the Shalmei Nedarim only makes sense, then, where the Torah scholar would not have visited his own ill relatives because of the dignity issue (note the size of this loophole; as long as the Torah scholar asserts he would have visited his own ill relatives in this situation, he’ll be allowed to do it for others, in R. Feinstein’s novel reading.)

The Tsheshenover had also suggested that maybe this is a case of saving lives, but R. Feinstein cannot imagine Shalmei Nedarim would have even questioned that. Just as saving lives pushes aside just about all other mitzvot, including the obligation to honor Torah scholars, it will do so to save an ill person. In the R. Akiva story that sparked this question, the student thanked R. Akiva for the visit (and attending of his needs) with the words, “Rebbe, you have revived me.” R. Akiva reacted by announcing to all who would listen that anyone who refrains from visiting the ill is as if he is a murderer.

R. Feinstein thinks that this implies that the patient was life-threateningly ill, so that there’s no problem for the Torah scholar to visit. That doesn’t yet tell us why a Torah scholar can visit the ill where there’s no mortal danger. As support, he notes that Rambam, Laws of Mourning 14;7, argues that comforting the bereaved takes precedence over visiting the ill, which cannot be where there’s actual pikuach nefesh, because obviously saving a life would take precedence.

Proper and Improper Standards of Personal Dignity

R. Feinstein now offers his own answer to Shalmei Nedarim’s question. The twist he introduces in his previous standard is that the Torah scholar should always visit his own ill relatives, can never say that it’s not within the dignity of Torah, because the pain they are enduring, even if not life-threatening, should always be enough to outweigh his concerns about the honor of Torah.

If this Torah scholar really wouldn’t visit his own relatives such that it would seem in fact to be technically beneath his dignity to visit another ill person, he’s wrong for thinking that way, says R. Feinstein, and his perspective is not one we take into account.  

There are a few aspects to this claim I want to make explicit. First, he takes for granted that when it comes to money, a Torah scholar could legitimately decide—and maybe should—that some efforts to save an item are beneath his dignity. In such situations, it would be acceptable and even proper for the Torah scholar to refrain from making those efforts on behalf of someone else (although it seems to me that that standard should take into account the value of an item for the Torah scholar and for the other—I could imagine a wealthy Torah scholar being aware enough of his privilege to decide to save an item for someone else that he would not save for himself, but that’s another discussion).

With that, he also thinks there are times when the Torah scholar might be wrong to decide that, even if he actually would have decided that. Ignoring another’s physical pain, or deciding that that other’s pain is insufficient to obligate him to visit that person is the example here.

Preserving Honor and Saving Lives

Rosh to Nedarim (printed on the page rather than in the back) assumed R. Akiva commanded others to attend to the student’s needs, not did so himself. R. Feinstein thinks that was simply because it was possible in that situation, since he had attendants with him, as Torah scholars and important people do. In fact, even if R. Akiva’s practice was not to have a retinue with him, R. Feinstein thinks Rosh thought he would have taken people with him to visit the ill in anticipation of exactly this scenario, to forestall the possibility that he would have to do the actions himself, as he would have had he been there alone.

Had the patient truly been deathly ill (I note, without comment, that here he is backtracking from his previous read of this story as the patient having in fact been deathly ill, and literally ascribing the saving of his life to R. Akiva) R. Feinstein assumes R. Akiva would have had to take care of him himself, because for saving lives (on Shabbat, for the extreme example), halachah tells us to have the greatest Torah scholars be the ones to take action, for fear that others will not with the proper alacrity (Tosafot) or there might be occasions when there’s no one else around (Rosh; if the Torah scholar is accustomed to offloading this responsibility, he might spend valuable time looking for someone else to do it).

In R. Akiva’s case, it wasn’t truly life-threatening, so Rosh could hold that R. Akiva would have had his attendant(s)—who he might have taken with him for exactly this eventuality—see to the ill student’s needs.

The Pain of Pain, the Dignity of Torah Scholars

In a responsum ostensibly about visiting the ill, R. Feinstein advanced two central ideas. First, that the physical pain of non-life-threatening illness was so great that it would be wrong for a Torah scholar to refrain from visiting in that situation.

Second, that the standard of what a Torah scholar can or should do for others is what he would do for himself (as in the case of lost objects), and that in that context it is appropriate and proper for a Torah scholar to sometimes say that the dignity of Torah outweighs this or that loss (and, as a subset of that, that protecting that dignity can properly include taking someone else with him, to take care of needs that arise).

An example of the delicate balance we sometimes strike in giving proper honor to Torah.

About Gidon Rothstein

Leave a Reply