Parashat Vayera: Bikkur Cholim (Visiting the Sick)

  • Rav Binyamin Tabory
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

The Weekly Mitzva
Yeshivat Har Etzion

Shiur 04: Parashat Vayera

Bikkur Cholim (Visiting the Sick)

By Rav Binyamin Tabory


            Our parasha opens with God appearing to Avraham while he was sitting at the entrance of his tent in the plains of Mamrei (Bereishit 18:1). Rashi (ad loc.) comments that He came to visit Avraham because the latter was recuperating from undergoing circumcision.  Apparently, Rashi deduced this from the fact that the verse gives no reason for God's appearance, and no conversation or statement is recorded in this episode.


            R. Chama ben R. Chanina explained that the verse, "You shall follow the Lord your God" (Devarim 13), commands us to emulate the attributes of God.  Just as He clothed Adam and Chava (Bereishit 3), so shall we clothe the needy; just as God visited the sick in Mamrei, so we should visit them; just as God comforted Yitzchak when he was mourning the loss of his father Avraham (Bereishit 25), so we should comfort mourners; just as God buried the dead (Devarim 34), so should we (Sota 14a).


            Rav Yosef interpreted the verse, "You should inform them of the path to take" (Shemot 18), to mean that we are required to do general acts of loving-kindness, visit the sick and bury the dead (Bava Metzia 30b).


            R. Yitzchak of Korbeil counted the mitzva of bikkur cholim as one of the 613 mitzvot (Sefer Mitzvot Katan 47).  He cites the verse, "You should walk in the path of God" (Devarim 28:9), as the source of this mitzva.  The Behag likewise counted this as an independent mitzva, and was criticized by the Rambam (in the first principle of his Sefer Ha-Mitzvot) for doing so.  The Rambam says that rabbinic laws and enactments are not to be counted in the list of mitzvot and therefore, unlike the Behag, the Rambam would not count bikkur cholim and other rabbinic laws, such as comforting mourners, reading the megilla, hallel, etc., among the 613 commandments.


            The Rambam further elucidates his position regarding this mitzva in principle two of Sefer Ha-Mitzvot and in his Mishneh Torah (Hilkhot Avel 14:1).  He maintains that all particular acts of loving-kindness, such as comforting mourners, visiting the sick, hospitality, arranging funerals, etc., are mandated by rabbinic law.  He then adds that although these obligations are merely rabbinic, they fall under the general rubric of the biblical mitzva, "Love your neighbor as yourself" (Vayikra 19).


            At first glance, this position seems somewhat puzzling.  Are we not commanded by the Torah to visit the sick?  Since the Torah commands us to love our neighbor, and bikkur cholim is included in that requirement, it follows that it is a biblical obligation and not merely a rabbinic one.  Moreover, the commandment, "You should walk in the path of God" (Devarim 28:9), is certainly an obligation.  Indeed, Rav Soloveitchik zt"l wrote in his "Thoughts on Prayer" (translated in his book Worship of the Heart) that the central mitzva of the 613 mitzvot is the mitzva of following the ways of God (imitatio Dei).


            Rav Aharon Soloveichik zt"l (in his book Od Yosef Yisrael Beni Chai, p.4, Yeshivat Brisk of Chicago, 1993) explained this issue by demarcating the exact parameters of "Love your neighbor" and "Follow His ways."  These mitzvot fall in the realm of "chovot ha-levavot," duties of the heart; they are obligations to internalize love of your neighbor and to develop personal characteristics (such as mercy and compassion) that were shown to us by God's actions.  However, there is no biblical requirement to manifest these feelings by doing any specific action.  Our Rabbis then dictated specific directions and guidelines on how to activate these internal feelings.  When an individual does so, as commanded by our Rabbis, he demonstrates externally his internal feelings, which are a biblical fulfillment of the mitzva.


            The Sheiltot of Rav Achai Gaon (Sheilta 93) stipulates that Jews are obligated in bikkur cholim.  Apparently, he assumes that non-Jews are not obligated.  If this mitzva is predicated upon love of one's neighbor or walking in the ways of God, we would have to ponder if these obligations are incumbent upon non-Jews.  However, this assumption may be questioned.  The gemara (Nedarim 40) relates that a student of R. Akiva took ill.  No one visited this student until R. Akiva himself visited and personally attended to his needs.  When R. Akiva left, his student called out, "You saved my life."  R. Akiva then commented, "Anyone who does not visit the sick is to be considered a murderer."  This comment was codified by the Rambam (Hilkhot Avel 14:4):


Bikkur cholim is a mitzva which is obligatory upon all.  Even people of higher stature are required to visit people of lower stature.  Numerous visits daily should be made as long as it does not inconvenience the patient.  Whoever visits is considered to have taken away part of the illness and whoever does not visit is akin to a murderer. 


Inasmuch as murder is one of the seven Noachide laws, one may argue that any extension of murder, such as that formulated by R. Akiva, should be obligatory upon non-Jews as well.


            Other issues have likewise been compared to murder, and it is unclear how seriously we should relate to this comparison.  The gemara (Sota 10b) advises that it is better to jump into a burning furnace rather than shame someone.  Tosafot (ad loc.) raise the issue that shaming someone is not included in the three cardinal sins for which one should give up his life.  While some Rishonim answer that the gemara is not to be interpreted literally and one need not give up his life, Tosafot accept the literal meaning of the gemara.  They maintain that shaming is not listed in Pesachim (25a) among the sins for which one must give up his life because the three cardinal sins are explicitly mentioned in the Torah, while shaming a person is only deduced by inference.  Therefore, according to Tosafot, it may be argued that a non-Jew would be biblically mandated in bikkur cholim.


            There is no berakha (blessing) recited upon the performance of this mitzva.  In fact, there is no berakha on any mitzva bein adam la-chavero (a mitzva directed toward your fellow man, such as charity).  Rabbeinu Bachaya (commentary on Bemidbar 35:8) explains that berakhot are only made on mitzvot not done by non-Jews, as we thereby demonstrate that we are "sanctified through His mitzvot."  This does not imply that non-Jews are obligated in these mitzvot, but merely assumes that non-Jews do fulfill them.