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Notes from Limmud 2015: Can we always pray for someone who is ill? Should we? - Lethargic Man (anag.)

Lethargic Man (anag.)
Date: 2016-03-29 22:04
Subject: Notes from Limmud 2015: Can we always pray for someone who is ill? Should we?
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Tags:cool, limmud, meta-halacha

Notes from Limmud 2015

Can we always pray for someone who is ill? Should we?

R. Oded Mazor

[Standard disclaimer: All views not in square brackets are those of the speaker, not myself. Accuracy of transcription is not guaranteed.]

Genesis 48:11 בראשית מח יא-מח יא
Israel said to Joseph, I had not thought to see your face: and, lo, God has showed me also your offspring. וַיֹּאמֶר יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶל־יוֹסֵף רְאֹה פָנֶיךָ לֹא פִלָּלְתִּי וְהִנֵּה הֶרְאָה אֹתִי אֱלֹהִים גַּם אֶת־זַרְעֶךָ׃

פִלָּלְתִּי is from the same root as "to pray". Had Jacob never prayed again to see Joseph?

"I had not contemplated": I had never dared to cherish the thought that I would again see your face. לֹא פִלָּלְתִּי: לא מלאני לבי לחשוב מחשבה שאראה פניך עוד׃
I did not pray to see your face, for I have said "Joseph is without doubt torn in pieces" (Gen. 37:33) לֹא פִלָּלְתִּי: לשון תפילה, לא התפללתי לראות פנִיך, שהרי אמרתי טרוף טרוף יוסף׃
From these commentaries on this verse, the speaker personally learns that sincere praying for something is truly thinking it can happen.
Nedarim 40a נדרים מ א

Once one of R. Akiva's disciples fell sick, and the Sages did not visit him. So R. Akiva himself entered [his house] to visit him, and because they swept and sprinkled the ground before him, he recovered. He said, "My master, you have revived me!" Thereupon R. Akiva went forth and lectured: He who does not visit the sick is like a shedder of blood.

When R. Dimi came [from the land of Israel to Babylonia], he said: He who visits the sick causes him to live, whilst he who does not visit the sick causes him to die. How does he cause [this]? Shall we say "he who visits the sick prays that he may live, whilst he who does not visit the sick prays that he should die"? That he should die!? Do you really think that is what he meant? Rather: He who does not visit the sick prays neither that he may live nor that he may die.

מעשה בתלמיד אחד מתלמידי רבי עקיבא שחלה לא נכנסו חכמים לבקרו ונכנס רבי עקיבא לבקרו ובשביל שכיבדו וריבצו לפניו חיה אמר לו רבי החייתני יצא רבי עקיבא ודרש כל מי שאין מבקר חולים כאילו שופך דמים׃

כי אתא רב דימי אמר כל המבקר את החולה גורם לו שיחיה וכל שאינו מבקר את החולה גורם לו שימות׃ מאי גרמא אילימא כל המבקר את החולה מבקש עליו רחמים שיחיה וכל שאין מבקר את החולה מבקש עליו רחמים שימות שימות סלקא דעתך אלא כל שאין מבקר חולה אין מבקש עליו רחמים לא שיחיה ולא שימות׃

They swept the floor on account of R. Akiva's visit. The family is so taken up with the invalid's sickness that no one has been taking care of the house, which causes the sickness to be even worse: everything is dark and close. R. Akiva comes and brings life to this house, just by arriving, without even saying or doing anything. But it's not simply a case of visiting: simply visiting the invalid will make one wish for something for them, that they have release from their suffering, whether that is that they recover or not.

R. Nissim of Gerona wrote as commentary on this passage:
"Prays neither that he may live nor die": It appears to me that this is what he meant: there are times when one needs to ask for mercy for the sick person so that he would die, when he suffers much pain and sorrow, and it is not possible for him to live on, as the story is told in Tractate Kesuvos 104a about R. Yehudah the Prince's handmaid. In accordance [R. Dimi] said that he who visits the sick assists him with his prayer even to live, which is the most helpful prayer. Yet he who does not visit him, it is needless to say he does not assist him to live, but even if there would be some relief for him in death—he does not give him even that small relief.
There is another story about a very old woman who went to her rabbi and said I've had enough of this life, what do I do? The rabbi said: What do you do? She said, I go to synagogue three times a week. He said, stop going to synagogue. She did, and three days later she died. You're not allowed to take your own life, but you are allowed to give up on living.
Ketuvot 104a כתובות קד א
Rabbi [Yehudah haNasi] was living at Beth She'arim but when he fell ill he was brought to Tsippori because it was situated on higher ground and its air was salubrious. On the day when Rabbi died [in the hours before his death], the rabbis decreed a public fast and offered prayers for heavenly mercy. They furthermore announced that whoever said Rabbi was dead would be stabbed with a sword. Rabbi's handmaid ascended the roof and prayed: 'The immortals desire Rabbi [to join them] and the mortals desire Rabbi [to remain with them]; may it be the will of God that the mortals may overpower the immortals.' When, however, she saw how often he resorted to the privy, painfully taking off his tefillin and putting them on again, she prayed: 'May it be the will of the Almighty that the immortals may overpower the mortals.' As the rabbis incessantly continued their prayers for heavenly mercy, she took up a jar and threw it down from the roof to the ground. They ceased praying for a moment, and the soul of Rabbi departed to its eternal rest. רבי בבית שערים הוה אלא כיון דחלש אמטיוהי לציפורי דמדליא ובסים אוירא׃ ההוא יומא דנח נפשיה דרבי גזרו רבנן תעניתא ובעו רחמי ואמרי כל מאן דאמר נח נפשיה דרבי ידקר בחרב׃ סליקא אמתיה דרבי לאיגרא אמרה עליוני׳ מבקשין את רבי והתחתוני׳ מבקשין את רבי יהי רצון שיכופו תחתונים את העליונים׃ כיון דחזאי כמה זימני דעייל לבית הכסא וחלץ תפילין ומנח להו וקמצטער אמרה יהי רצון שיכופו עליונים את התחתונים׃ ולא הוו שתקי רבנן מלמיבעי רחמי שקלה אישתיקו מרחמי ונח נפשיה דרבי׃

What was it keeping Rabbi Yehudah haNasi alive: the prayers of the rabbis, or was it just their noise keeping him awake?

Halachically, whilst you are not allowed to bring death closer, if there is someone banging with a hammer next door all the time, you are allowed to ask them to stop to allow the dying person rest and a chance to pass away.

The handmaid here is not asking for general mercy; she's clearly asking for him to die.

Back to R. Nissim:
In accordance [R. Dimi] said that he who visits the sick assists him with his prayer even to live, which is the most helpful prayer. Yet he who does not visit him, it is needless to say he does not assist him to live, but even if there would be some relief for him in death—he does not give him even that small relief.

There is a situation where there would be relief in death. What does assisting in one's prayer for relief mean?

When the speaker wrote a responsum on the subject, he found it very difficult to find appropriate prayers; finding only one prayer written in the sixteenth or seventeenth century in Italy, which is nowhere to be found in any prayer book, but a few halachic writers refer to it. He also found an order of Biblical chapters to be recited when you want to release someone's soul, but not a prayer. So he took the liberty of writing something himself.

On the process of making a decision:

  1. Keep on praying as before—we are not to decide who lives or died, nor are we willing to give up. "Even if nine hundred and ninety-nine argue against him, while one argues in his favour, he is saved, for it is said, 'If there be with him an angel, an advocate, one among a thousand, to shew unto man what is right for him, then He is gracious unto him, and says: Deliver him from going down to the pit.' (Job 33:23)"—BT Shabbos 32a.
  2. Pray explicitly for the sick person to die—because we love, because we have cmpassion for our loved one. If he can be better and live, it will not be our prayer that will kill him.
  3. It is better to sit back and not act—we cannot continue with the prayer for health but we are also unable to ask for death. Not to recite the prayer would be a meaningful act on its own.

The speaker says this became more meaningful if you considered we were not talking about praying to God, but rather about talking with the medical authorities. Would we ask them to keep our loved one alive? Would we ask for euthanasia? Would we sit back and not ask for any action?

The speaker felt he needed to say something in his own prayer, but was not brave enough to explicitly ask for death. Instead, he asked for mercy.

Lord of the universe, Shechinah, source of all lives, the pain of ——— and the sorrow of his/her/our family are known and clear to You1; the pain of the body and the agony of the soul,3 the fear of the disease and the threat of fading away. The pain of death lurks behind our wall, the fear of death [lit. separation, farewell] peeks through the cracks.5

What can we say to you, Who dwells in the skies and resides in the heavens, for You know all that is hidden and revealed?4

We came to ask for compassion for the suffering and tormented ——— who is in danger. "For this we cry and shed tears." [Lam. 1:16]

God our saviour, our health and death are in Your hands. May it be Your will to hasten the redemption of ——— from his agony, whether for a life of peace, or for the peace of death. May You hear our cry which we bring before you, God who hears prayer and works wonders.2

רבונו של עולם, שכינה מקור חיינו, מכאובו/ה של ——— ומכאובי/נו (נוסח אחר: ומכאובה של משפחתו/ה) גלויים וידועים לפניך1, מכאובי הגוף ומכאובי הנפש,3 כאב החולי ואימת הדעיכה, כאב הפרידה העומדת אחר כותלנו, פחד המוות המציץ מן החרכים׃5

מה נאמר לפניך יושב מרום ומה נספר לפניך שוכן שחקים, הלא כל הנסתרות והנגלות אתה יודע׃4

ובכן, באנו לפניך לבקש רחמים על ———, הסובל/ת והמיוסר/ת, השרוי/ה בסכנה׃ "על אלה אני בוכיה עיני עיני יורדה מים׃"

משפיל אף מרומם אתה, רב להושיע,6a שרפואתנו ומיתתנו בידך הן׃ יהי רצון מלפניך שתוציא ממסגר אסיר נפש ——— ותפדה/ו מייסוריה/ו במהרה בימינו,7 אם לחיי־שלווה ואם לשלוות המוות׃ שמע שועתנו וצעקתנו אשר אנו נושאים אליך, ברוך ממית ומחיה ומצמיח ישועה,6b שומע תפילה ומפליא לעשות׃2

[I find this is cleverly written in the way in the way it references but also subverts well-known prayers. For example, גלויים וידועים לפניך (reference 1) is from אֲשֶׁר יָצַר, the prayer one says after visiting the toilet, thanking God that one's body is working correctly. So are the final words (2) ומפליא לעשות "and works wonders", except that there they are preceded by רוֹפֵא כָּל־בָּשָׂר "Who heals all flesh", inappropriate here so changed to שׁוֹמֵעַ תּפִילָּה "Who hears prayer", a חֲתִימָה from the `Amida.

Similarly, מכאובי הגוף ומכאובי הנפש "the pain of the body and the pain of the spirit" (3) reflects, changed, the words of the traditional prayers for the sick, רְפוּאַת הַנֶּפֶשׁ וּרְפוּאָת הַגּוּף "healing of the spirit and healing of the soul". Reference 4 evokes a text associated with the confession recited on the High Holydays (also with man's humility before God in the weekday liturgy).

Reference 5, peering through the lattice, is a reference to Song of Songs 2:9, where it refers to the narrator's lover; it's not obvious to me why the speaker used this reference. Reference 6a "[You are] mighty to save" comes from the second paragraph of the `Amida, the theme of which includes both God's healing the sick and future resurrection after death; as does 6b "You cause death and bring to life, and cause salvation to flourish". Lastly reference 7 "speedily in our days", usually refers to the future rebuilding of Jerusalem (meaning the Temple) but here is used to refer to redeeming the sick person from their sufferings.]

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