Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Visiting the Sick: Lesser Standing and Greater Stature

By Susan Esther Barnes

Every year, my synagogue’s chevra kadisha – the group of people who visits the sick, comforts mourners, etc., receives additional training. These classes are a good way to bring new members of the group up to speed, as well as to give current members additional information.

In a recent class, we discussed a quote from Talmud Bavli, Nedarim 39b, which says, “’The mitzvah of visiting the sick has no limit.’ With regard to what does it have ‘no limit?’ Abaye said, ‘Even an individual of greater standing should visit someone of lesser stature.’”

What does this interpretation of Abaye mean? I’m pretty sure he’s not saying people of high standing should visit short people. It seems to mean that people in high positions in society should visit the sick, even if it means visiting someone lower in the hierarchy.

Setting aside that I’m not a big fan of hierarchies, the idea that those higher up should visit others lower down seems like a no-brainer to me. Of course, everyone, on up to the King or President, should engage in the mitzvah of visiting the sick.

As with anyone else, of course, there is a right way and a wrong way to do it. I once knew a woman who was hospitalized with pneumonia. When her boss walked into her hospital room, she thought, “How nice it is that she came to visit me here.”

Then the boss took out a pile of paperwork for the hospitalized woman to work on, and her husband quickly kicked the boss out of the room and told her not to come back. It’s no mitzvah if the “visit” is to increase the patient’s workload, rather than to provide comfort.

I find myself thinking what a good thing it was that this woman’s husband was present to throw the boss out. Why would the Talmud encourage people of greater stature to visit those beneath them, without any further instruction?

One of the problems facing people in the hospital is they may feel a loss of power. They are confined to a room for most, if not all, of the day and night, for the most part they don’t get to pick what they wear or eat, and they have little to no control over who walks into their room, or when.

Shouldn’t the Talmud remind the person visiting to keep in mind the balance of power, so the boss doesn’t forget that this poor hapless employee may not feel they are able to kick the boss out even if they’re feeling tired, or put-upon in some way? Shouldn’t the Talmud say that if a boss is visiting a worker, they should not pressure them to come back to work before they are ready?

Maybe the Talmud assumes that the person of lesser stature will be so flattered to get a visit from someone higher up that there is no need to worry about these things, but I just don’t think that is a reasonable position to take.

I also find it interesting that the Talmud doesn’t seem to say anything about there being an obligation for those of us who are farther down on the social ladder to visit those sick people who are farther up.

I understand there are other places in the Talmud in which it discourages us from appearing to be trying to curry favor with those in the upper classes. I can certainly see how this could be a concern.

There is a rabbi who used to work at our synagogue, and her husband, also a rabbi, still works there. I have taken classes from this woman, as well as from her husband, her father (yet another rabbi) and her mother. One could argue they are all of “higher stature” than me.

When this woman’s grandmother died, I wanted to attend the shiva minyan, but I wondered how it would look. Would the family, or others, think I was just there to “brown nose” with higher-ups, or would they see my visit as sincere?

I wrestled with the question for a while, and I could see how the same issue would come up for me if, God forbid, anyone in their family were hospitalized and I needed to decide whether to visit them. In the end, I decided to go to the shiva, concluding that since God and I knew the visit was sincere, I shouldn’t be overly concerned about what others might think.

Still, I can’t help but wonder, why is it that the Talmud, which addresses so many issues, does not address this one? Why does Abaye mention visiting people of lesser stature, but not visiting people of greater stature?

Does this mean Abaye took for granted that those of us of lesser stature will visit those further up, or does it mean he doesn’t think it is necessary or desirable for us to do so?

If any of you have references to any place that the Talmud addresses these questions, I’d appreciate it if you could let me know.


  1. Maybe there is no guidance here because you are supposed to follow your heart in these matters? I think that sometimes we hesitate to visit or help those who are ill because we think that we are overstepping a boundary of some sort, but maybe that boundary is only in our head.

    Good post!

  2. Hi Susan,
    Worth noting, and this may lead to some answers: The term 'bikur cholim' used in the Talmud is colloqually rendered as 'visiting the sick', but the technically accurate translation is 'examining the sick'. It refers to investigating their needs, and taking action to improve their situation. (See, for example, Rabbi Yochanan in Berachot 5b.)
    With this understanding, it becomes clear that the boss should never visit with intent to add to the patient's workload. I think it also becomes clear that since the visitor is expected to take care of the ill person's needs, there is concern that those of higher social standing might not visit - and so Abbaye stresses that all should do this.

  3. To The Rebbetzin's Husband:
    Thank you for the helpful comment. That does clear up a few things.