Bikkur holim, visiting the sick (from the Hebrew לבקר [levaker, “to visit”] and חולה [holeh/holah, pl. holim, “sick”]), is considered one of the fundamental mitzvot that every Jew is commanded to fulfill, regardless of background, age, and position. Later discussions in the Talmud argue whether bikkur holim is counted as a mitzvah in itself or is part of gemilut hasadim—“deeds of loving kindness.”

בבלי סוטה יד:א

Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 14a

ואמר רבי חמא ברבי חנינא, מאי דכתיב: גאחרי ה’ אלהיכם תלכו? וכי אפשר לו לאדם להלך אחר שכינה? והלא כבר נאמר: דכי ה’ אלהיך אש אוכלה הוא! אלא להלך אחר מדותיו של הקב”ה, מה הוא מלביש ערומים, דכתיב: הויעש ה’ אלהים לאדם ולאשתו כתנות עור וילבישם, אף אתה הלבש ערומים; הקב”ה ביקר חולים, דכתיב: ווירא אליו ה’ באלוני ממרא, אף אתה בקר חולים; הקב”ה ניחם אבלים, דכתיב: זויהי אחרי מות אברהם ויברך אלהים את יצחק בנו, אף אתה נחם אבלים; הקב”ה קבר מתים, דכתיב: חויקבר אותו בגיא, אף אתה קבור מתים.

Rabbi Hama, son of Rabbi Hanina, said: “What does the Torah mean when it says: ‘You shall walk in the ways of the Lord’ (Deut. 13:5)? Can a person really walk in the shadow of the Divine Presence? Rather, it means that you should imitate the ways of God. Just as God clothed the naked, as it says, ‘And God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them’ (Gen. 3:21), so you shall clothe the naked. Just as God visited the sick, ‘And God appeared before Abraham [after his circumcision],’ so you should visit the sick; and just as God comforts the grieving, as it says, ‘After the death of Abraham, God blessed Isaac his son,’ so you too comfort the grieving; just as God buried the dead, as it says, ‘And God buried Moses in the valley,’ so you should bury the dead.”

Performing mitzvot, both ethical and ritual, is the cornerstone of Judaism. Doing a mitzvah takes us beyond the simple “I feel Jewish.” Feeling Jewish cannot be passed on to future generations without the integration of Jewish actions. Our children and grandchildren learn from observing what we do and what we consider important. The reason we perform mitzvot has moved for many of us from “because God said so” toward the need for a deeper understanding of the reason for mitzvot and a conscious decision to “feel commanded.” Performing a mitzvah such as bikkur holim has the potential to become a transformative experience. This study module is meant to help you integrate theoretical learning (talmud torah) and practical actions to give you a deeper understanding of this very special mitzvah, bikkur holim.

Below are short excerpts from the writing of Elizabeth Ehrlich and of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, both of whom have grappled with the concept of mitzvot and tradition.

A book

It came back to me when I became a mother. I wondered what to teach my children . . .What made me value my inheritance as treasure, not burden? The luck that has placed me, as an adult, in range of Miriam’s kitchen. My mother-in-law Miriam, born in a small village in Jewish Poland, survived the Holocaust. A keeper of rituals and recipes, and of stories, she cooks to recreate a lost world, and to prove that unimaginable loss is not the end of everything. She is motivated by duty to ancestors and descendants, by memory and obligation and an impossible wish to make the world whole.

The cadence is evolving for me now, as I seek to bring tradition home. . . . Thus, I forge links from my grandparents, and my husband’s grandparents, to my children, who wear their ancestors’ Hebrew names. . . .</>

. . . I choose my own history, deciding which snapshots, decades, recipes, versions of arguments and events are to be discarded, and which will stand for the whole. . . .

I embrace them all. I consider the law, the restrictions; the presumptions of holiness, the doubt. I inventory layers of translucent recollection evoking food, love, home, apocrypha, anger, ritual, laughter, conflict, and regret. The result is a collage, but also a way of life. That collage is my religion, and it is what I am passing on.

—Elizabeth Ehrlich, Miriam’s Kitchen: A Memoir[i]

A book In our response to His will we perceive His presence in our deeds. His will is revealed in our doing. In carrying out a sacred deed we unseal the wells of faith. As for me, I shall behold Thy face in righteousness (Psalms 18:15).

There is a way that leads from piety to faith. Piety and faith are not necessarily concurrent. There can be acts of piety without faith. Faith is vision, sensitivity and attachment to God; piety is an attempt to attain such sensitivity and attachment. The gates of faith are not ajar, but the mitsvah is a key. . . .

A Jew is asked to take a leap of action rather than a leap of thought. He is asked to surpass his needs, to do more than he understands in order to understand more than he does. . . .

In what dimension of existence does man become aware of the grandeur and earnestness of living? What are the occasions in which he discovers the nature of his own self? . . .

It is in deeds that man becomes aware of what his life really is, of his power to harm and to hurt, to wreck and to ruin; of his ability to derive joy and to bestow it upon others; to relieve and to increase his own and other people’s tensions. It is in the employment of his will, not in reflection, that he meets his own self as it is; not as he should like it to be. In his deeds man exposes his immanent as well as his suppressed desires, spelling even that which he cannot apprehend. What he may not dare to think, he often utters in deeds. The heart is revealed in the deeds. . . .

Thus beyond the idea of imitation of divinity goes the conviction of the divinity of deeds. Sacred acts, mitsvot, do not only imitate; they represent the Divine. The mitsvot are of the essence of God, more than worldly ways of complying with His will. Rabbi Simeon ben Yohai states: “Honor the mitsvot, for the mitsvot are My deputies, and a deputy is endowed with the authority of his principal. If you honor the mitsvot, it is as if you honored Me; if you dishonor them, it is as if you dishonored Me.”

The Bible speaks of man as having been created in the likeness of God, establishing the principle of an analogy of being. In his very being, man has something in common with God. Beyond the analogy of being, the Bible teaches the principle of an analogy in acts. Man may act in the likeness of God. It is this likeness of acts—“to walk in His ways”—that is the link by which man may come close to God. To live in such likeness is the essence of imitation of the Divine.

—Abraham Joshua Heschel, God in Search of Man[ii] 

  • Image of a head with a question mark inside.Look at the list of examples of God’s acts described in tractate Sotah at the beginning of the chapter. Can you see a common factor among those examples?
  • What do you think of Elizabeth Ehrlich’s account? Does it resonate with you?
  • In the excerpt from Heschel: What do you think he meant by “leap of action,” and why does he juxtapose it with “leap of thought”?
  • What occasions have there been in your life when you discovered the “nature of yourself”? What did you learn about yourself, and did it surprise you?
  • How do you understand “divinity of deeds”?

[i] Elizabeth Ehrlich, Miriam’s Kitchen: A Memoir. (London: Penguin Books, 1998), xii–xiii.

[ii] Abraham Joshua Heschel, God in Search of Man. (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1966), 282–284, 289.

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