The Jewish tradition is full of examples of caring for those in need. The Torah tells of Moses praying on behalf of his sister, Miriam, when she was afflicted with a skin disease, and of Abraham receiving visitors when he was sitting in front of his tent after undergoing circumcision. We find many examples in the Talmud and Midrash of how our sages pay visits to those in need. Taking care of the ill, bikkur holim, is not only good communal practice; it is elevated in the Jewish tradition to the status of mitzvah, on par with comforting mourners (nihum avelim), giving tzedakah, and other acts of kindness (gemilut hasadim). To do any of these things is to walk in God’s ways, uvelekhtekha vaderekh.

There are many different contexts and formats in which such helping encounters might take place, both formal and informal. Help might be brought through a purposeful visit to someone in a hospital or their home, or over an informal encounter at kiddush.

In many congregations the rabbi and cantor are the main pastoral caregivers, but often they need the help of volunteers in their communities. There are many circumstances and scenarios in which a rabbi or cantor might not be available or is unable to meet the volume of needed support without sacrificing other, equally important parts of the clergy’s job. That is where the support of trained and dedicated volunteers becomes invaluable. In return, volunteers will be rewarded with an opportunity to learn, give back to their community, and receive spiritual nourishment through the transformative experience of actively engaging with this important mitzvah. 

The purpose of this curriculum is to serve as a self-guided study curriculum for clergy, lay leaders, and congregants to learn about bikkur holim and how to help create a community that cares for its members. Its development was supported by a generous grant from the Covenant Foundation, and the course was drafted by Rabbi Ute Steyer while she was on staff at the Center for Pastoral Education at The Jewish Theological Seminary. The translations and transliterations from the Hebrew used herein were done by Rabbi Steyer.

In the course of this study, you will not only gain new skills and a deeper understanding of your community, you will also be exposed to a wide selection of texts from Talmud, midrash, halakhah, Jewish thought, history, and so on—enabling you to simultaneously fulfill the mitzvah of talmud torah while learning about bikkur holim. Tze u-lemad!—Go and study!

How to Use This Curriculum

In a time of increasing obligations and commitments, it might seem daunting to commit to a volunteer task or to study on a regular basis. This curriculum is meant to make those commitments more doable and more rewarding.

This course will help you become more knowledgeable about a specific mitzvah and comfortable with how to “do” bikkur holim. It will also bring you the richness of the Jewish textual tradition and contemporary scholarship in the field. Regardless of whether you are interested for the pure sake of learning (lishmah) or because you want to become better at what you do, the best results are achieved if this curriculum is studied in small groups. Ideally, it could be part of a synagogue study circle, but at least you should aim to find a dedicated study partner (hevruta) and study with him or her.

Don’t rush through the material; give yourself time. Write down your questions, be prepared to discuss what you encounter here with your partners, and revisit the questions as you move along in the curriculum. We recommend that you keep your questions, notes, and reflections in a notebook so you can refer back to them.

The curriculum asks you to act out some suggested role-play scenarios; actually “doing” some of the interactions of bikkur holim will highlight the issues under discussion. Although not absolutely necessary, videotaping your role-playing will greatly enhance your learning and understanding; being able to go back and look at sequences of a scenario will make it easier afterward to pinpoint and analyze certain interactions that felt either difficult or particularly effective.

To apply what you learn here, you always need to think about the specific circumstances of your community. Unit 3 will help you to do that.

There is no requirement for prior knowledge of Hebrew or familiarity with text study. Texts from the rabbinic tradition will be presented both in the original Aramaic or Hebrew and in English translation. Core vocabulary will be explained. Citations are given for both the rabbinic texts and other books and resources mentioned, so you can find the original material and read more of it if you would like.

A variety of resources, ideas to ponder, and interactions to engage in are presented throughout the course; one of the icons in the following list appears at each one to make those features easy to find.

Image of a head with a question mark inside. Study Questions: These will help you frame your discussions but shouldn’t limit you. Feel free to explore other questions as they arise.
Image of a pad and pencil Assignments: You will be invited to engage in exercises such as brain-storming and role-playing.
A book Readings: Some of them are required in order to follow the curriculum and will be provided as excerpts within the course. Others are recommended supplementary readings, and the bibliographic information is provided to help you track down the books and articles referred to.
Image of a microscope Background Information: This type of material will help you gain a deeper understanding and might encourage you to explore a topic in more depth.
Image of a nut (hardware not legume) The Nuts and Bolts: Some practical tips and applications. These are not meant to be exhaustive. Feel free to add what seems relevant to you in your notebook.
Image of 3 book spines Beit midrash: These prompts encourage deeper study and analysis of the text.

Where endnote references appear, you can click on the endnote number to go directly to the note at the end of the unit for further information. To get back from there to your place in the unit, click on the number at the beginning of the note.

Again, please take notes about your discussions, ideas, and questions as you go along. This will help you build a knowledge file to refer back to later.

Joining the Circle of Bikkur Holim Volunteers

Before moving into the main portion of the curriculum, here is an opportunity for you to get to know other bikkur holim volunteers a little better. Even though you might know some or all of them already, we rarely have time to talk about the things that drive us. We all have our own stories that influence our choices, values, and priorities.

Take some time to reflect on your reasons for being here. Why did you decide to learn about and become involved with bikkur holim?

Share your thoughts about bikkur holim with your synagogue study circle or hevruta. Take 10 to 15 minutes to talk about what brought you here. This might be a wonderful opportunity to get to know each other on a different level.

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