מִן הַמֵּצַר קָרָאתִי יָּהּ עָנָנִי בַמֶּרְחָב יָהּ.

Out of my straits I called upon the LORD;
He answered me with great enlargement. (Ps. 118:5)

Our gemara in Nedarim 40a mentioned the importance of praying on behalf of the sick. When we suffer, we often feel as if traveling alone on a deserted road. We feel as if trapped in a narrow valley where the mountains around us are insurmountable and there is no way out. In such a moment, turning to God and giving voice to those feelings can be a help. But often we cannot find the strength ourselves to do that and might need the help of someone—a volunteer visitor, a friend, a chaplain, a rabbi, or a cantor—to articulate our thoughts. Having that help in calling out to God can greatly empower us and help us to gain a greater perspective: that we are not alone in our suffering and that we are not defined by it.

Helping with prayer is one of the roles of a bikkur holim volunteer.

Reluctance about Prayer

The thought of going to visit someone and offering a prayer is probably rather challenging for many people. Most of us are not in the habit of going around and offering blessings and prayers to others. The reluctance to do so might come from one or several of the following concerns:

  • What do I say?
  • Won’t I sound silly or disingenuous?
  • I don’t really believe in the efficacy of interventionist prayer.
  • Who am I to do such a thing? That’s the rabbi’s, cantor’s, or chaplain’s job.
  • Jews don’t do that.
  • I don’t know whether I believe in God.

Another obstacle that some Jews have is that we may be genuinely unaccustomed to “spontaneous” (extemporaneous) prayer. For many of us, praying outside the liturgy feels “wrong.” Very often, it is assumed that prayer on behalf of someone else is also something only the rabbi or the cantor does, and that prayer “works” only if done by the clergy.

It is certainly easier to stick with the “social” side of a sick visit and, yes, there is a time for that too. But let’s challenge ourselves to at least explore this area of discomfort and widen our horizons. As we have seen in the gemara in Nedarim, praying is considered a crucial part of any bikkur holim visit, even to the extent that failing to offer a prayer is equated with shedding blood or at least seen as a sign of indifference to the other person’s suffering.

To pray for or with someone else can be done either with the help of traditional liturgy or as a self-formulated prayer, or as a combination of both. It might be helpful to reframe the issue. For instance, thinking of prayer in the context of the traditional blessings that we recite at many moments in Jewish life can help overcome some of the awkwardness. Likewise, most of us don’t think twice about uttering a blessing for someone’s birthday—“עד 120!” (“May you live to 120!”)—or at other joyous occasions and life-cycle events (e.g., wedding blessings at a sheva berakhot or blessings at brit milah and simhat bat).

We actually pray often, but many of us are unaware that what we are saying is technically a prayer.

A book You might want to read “The Power of Custom-Made Prayer,”[i] by Rabbi Bonita E. Taylor, in Jewish Pastoral Care.

הַנְשָמָה לָך וְהַגוּף פְּעֳלָך חוּסָה עַל עָמָלָך

Haneshamah lakh, vehaguf po’alakh, husa al amalakh.

My soul comes from You, My body is Your handiwork, Have mercy on Your creation.

(from the Selihot liturgy for the High Holidays)

מי שברךMi Sheberakh

When thinking of a prayer for those who are ill, most of us will think of the mi sheberakh prayer. Mi sheberakh means “The One who blesses,” but it has become known as “the prayer for the sick”—although the mi sheberakh prayer actually comes in a variety of forms and for various occasions. You might know that there is a mi sheberakh for someone who received an aliyah to the Torah and a mi sheberakh for all members of a congregation.

There are also variations to the mi sheberakh for those who are ill, depending on custom within a community and between Ashkenazim and Sephardim. But one thing they all have in common is that those who are ill are named as the son or daughter of their mother. Traditionally, Jewish names state the name of the father and, in egalitarian communities, the name of both the father and the mother, but when praying for healing it is customary to do so only in the name of the mother: “David ben Sarah” or “Miriam bat Sarah” instead of “David ben Reuven veSarah” or “Miriam bat Reuven veSarah.”

The origin for this custom is King David’s plea in Psalms 116:16: “Please, O Lord, I am Your servant; I am your servant, the son of Your maidservant.”

Here is one of the traditional versions of the prayer; it can also be found in most prayer books:

Hebrew Transliteration Translation

מִי שֶבֵרַך אֲבותֵינוּ אַבְרָהָם יִצְחָק וְיַעֲקֹב 

,מֹשֶה וְאַהֲרֹן דָּוִד וּשְלֹמֹה,

וְאִמֹתֵינוּ שָׂרָה רִבְקָה רָחֵל וְלֵאָה

הוּא יְבָרֵך וִירַפֵּה

אֶת-הַחוֹלֶה (פלוני בן פלוני) / אֶת-הַחוֹלָה (פלונית בת פלונית)

בַּעֲבוּר שֶאָנוּ מִתְפַּלְלִים לִשְׁלוֹמוֹ /לִשְׁלוֹמָהּ.

בִּשְׂכַר זֶה הַקָּדוֹש בָּרוּך הוּא יִמָּלֵּא רַחֲמִים עָלָיו /עַלֶיהָ

לְהַחֲלִימוֹ /לְהַחֲלִימָהּ

וּלְרַפֹּאתוֹ / וּלרַפֹּאתָהּ

וּלְהַחַזִיקוֹ /וּלְהַחַזִיקָהּ

וּלְהַחַיוֹתוֹ /וּלְהַחַיוֹתָהּ

וְיִשְׁלַח לוֹ /לָהּ רְפוּאָה שְׁלֵמָה מִן-הַשָׁמַיִם בְּתוֹך שְׁאָר חוּלֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל,

רְפוּאַת הַנֶּפֶשׁ וּרְפוּאַת הַגוּף

בשבת: שַׁבָּת הִיא מִילִיזעוֹק, וּרְפוּאָה קרוֹבָה לָבוֹא,

ביו”ט וחוה”מ: יוֹם טוֹב הוּא מִלִיזעוֹק, וּרְפוּאָה קרוֹבָה לָבוֹא,

הַשְׁתָּה בַּעֲגָלָא וּבִזְמַן קָרִיב, וְנֹאמַר אָמַן.

Misheberakh avotenu Avraham Yitzhak veYa’akov Moshe veAharon David u-Shelomoh

ve’imoteinu Sarah, Rivkah, Rahel ’veLeah

hu yevarekh virapeh

et-hahole (ploni ben ploni) / et ha-holah (plonit bat plonit)

ba’avur she’anu mitpalelim lishlomo/lishlomah

bizekhar zeh hakadosh barukh hu yimaleh rahamim alav/aleyha

lehahalimo / lehahalima, 

u-lerafoto / u-lerafotah, 

u-lehahaziko / u-lehahazikah, 

u-lehachayoto / u-lehachayotah 

veyishlah lo / lah refuah shelemah min hashamayim betokh she’ar holey Yisrael 

refuat hanefesh u-refuat haguf 

[On Shabbat:] Shabbat hi milizok, u-refuah kerovah lavo

[On yom tov and Hol Hamoed:] Yom tov hu milizok, u-refuah kerovah lavo

hashta ba’agala u-vizman kariv, venomar amen. 

He who blessed our fathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Moses, Aharon, David, and Salomon

and our mothers Sarah, Rebekkah, Rachel, and Leah

may he bless and heal [for a man:] the sick Ploni ben Ploni [or for a woman:] the sick Plonit bat Plonit

on account that we pray for his/her well-being

the Holy One, Blessed Be He, will bestow abundant mercies on him/her

fulfilling his/her dreams of healing, and strengthen and enliven him/her

And bring him/her from heaven full recovery among all those who are ill among the people of Israel

a healing of body and a healing of soul.

[On Shabbat:] On Shabbat we refrain from pleading, but healing is near

[On yom tov and Hol Hamoed:] On yom tov we refrain from pleading, but healing is near

soon, speedily, and without delay—and let us say: amen.

Many popular versions of the mi sheberakh prayer can be found. A short version by Debbie Friedman and Drorah Setel has become famous, and the words and melody are used in many congregations.

 

The Amidah

The central prayer in Jewish worship, the Amidah, contains a portion devoted to a request for healing.

Prayer to God as the Ultimate Healer

(from the Amidah)

Hebrew Transliteration Translation

רְפַאֵנוּ ה‘ ,וְנֵרַפֵא, הוֹשִׁיעֵנוּ וְנִּוָשֵׁעָה כִּי תְהִלָּתֵנוּ אָתָּה. וְהַעֲלֵה רְפוּאָה שְׁלֵמָה לְכָלמַכּוֹתֵינוּ. כִּי אֵל מֶלֶך רוֹפֵא נֶאֱמָן אַתַּה. בָּרוּך אַתָּה ה., רוֹפֵא חוֹלֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל

Refa’enu Adonai, venirafe, hoshi’enu venivashe’a ki tehilatenu atah. Veha’aleh refuah shlemah lekhol makotenu. Ki el melekh rofe ne’eman atah. Barukh atah Adonai rofe holei Yisrael Heal us, Lord, and we shall be healed. Save us and we will be saved, for You are our praise. Bring complete recovery for all our ailments, for You, God, King, are a faithful and compassionate Healer. Blessed are You, Lord, Healer of the sick of His people Israel.

Crafting Your Own Prayers of Healing

Image of a pad and pencilTake a siddur and look at the weekday Amidah. Locate other sections that speak to you, and identify some ways of addressing God that resonate with you and write them down. You might also want to look in Psalms. Feel free to weave them together or use them as jumping-off points to explore prayers that you formulate yourself. With some practice at doing this, you will become more comfortable with encouraging those you visit to give voice to their feelings.

Hope and HealingBelow are four samples to listen to. You may either recite or sing the text as part of the prayers you offer. They are taken from the wonderful CD The Spirit of Hope and Healing, which was released in the fall of 2014 by the Cantors Assembly and the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.[ii]

B’yado

(with the kind of permission of the artist)

Performed by Hazzan Mimi Haselkorn
Music by Craig Taubman

The last four lines are from the familiar Shabbat tune “Adon Olam,” which describes a trusting and intimate relationship with God. “Adon Olam” was originally meant to be recited at bedtime—entrusting one’s body and soul to God. Some people who have or are about to undergo a surgical procedure (especially one that requires general anesthetic) or have some concern or issue with sleeping have reported that they find this prayer comforting.

Hebrew Transliteration Translation

בְּיָדוֹ אַפְקִיד רוּחִי

בְּעֵת אִישַן וְאָעִירָה

וְעִם רוּחִי גְוִיָתִי

יי לִי וְלֹא אִירָא

-Beyado afkid ruhi,

Be’et ishan ve’a’irah

Ve’im ruhi, geviyati;

Adonai li velo ira.

My soul I give to You,

My spirit in Your care;

Draw me near, I shall not fear,

Hold me in Your hand,

Draw me near, I shall not fear,

Safely in Your hand.

Elohai N’tzor

(with the kind of permission of the artist)

Performed by Hazzan Jennie Chabon
Music: Danny Maseng

The lyrics come from the conclusion of the Amidah prayer, at which point personal reflections may be added. This text helps set an intention for prayer and can be a poignant way to begin or end an extemporaneous prayer for healing.

Hebrew Transliteration Translation

אֱלֹהַי נְצוֹר לְשוֹנִי מֵרָע

וּשְׂפָתַי מִדַּבֵּר מִרְמָ

וְלִמְקַלְלַי נַפְשִׁי תִדֹּם

וְנַפְשִׁי לַכֹּל תִּהְיֶה

פְּתַח לִבּי בְּתוֹרָתֶךָ

יִהְיוּ לְרָצוֹן אִמְרי פִי

וְהֶגְיוֹן לִבִּי לְפָנֶיךָ

יי צוּרִי וגוֹאלִי

Elohai, netzor leshoni mera,

u-sefatai midaber mirma

Velimkalelai nafshi tidom,

venafshi ke’afar lakol tihyeh.

Petah libi betoratekha. . . .

Yihyu leratzon imrei fi

vehegyon libi lefanekha,

Adonai, tzuri vego’ali

My God, guard my tongue from evil

and my lips from deceiving.

Let me remain silent in the face of slander,

and remain humble before all.

Open my heart to Your Torah. . . .

May the words of my mouth and the

meditation of my heart find favor before You

Adonai, my Rock and Redeemer.

HaMalakh Hagoel Oti

(with the kind of permission of the artist)

Performed by Hazzan Bat-Ami Moses
Music: Abie Rotenberg

The text of this popular melody is taken from Genesis 48:16—Jacob’s blessing for his grandchildren Ephraim and Menashe. This text is part of the Shema al hamitah (recitation of the Shema at bedtime) ritual and prepares us to return our soul to God who granted it to us. This prayer can be of comfort to people who are suffering, because of the image of the angel removing one from danger. It also offers a hopeful wish: that the person being prayed for will find strength, at least spiritually and emotionally, if not physically.

Hebrew Transliteration Translation

הַמַּלְאָךְ הַגֹּאֵל אֹתִי מִכָּל רָע

יְבָרֵךְ אֶת הַנְּעָרִים

וְיִקָּרֵא בָהֶם שְׁמִי

וְשֵׁם אבֹתַי אַבְרָהָם וְיִצְחָק

וְיִדְגּוּ לָרֹב בּקֶרֶב הָאָרֶץ

Hamalakh hago’el oti mikol ra

yevarekh et hane’arim

veyikra vahem shemi

Veshem avotai Avraham veYitzhak

Veyigdu larov bekerev ha’aretz

May the angel who removes me from danger

bless the boys.

And let my name be conferred upon them,

and the names of my fathers Abraham and Isaac.

And may they grow mightily throughout the land.

Heal Us Now

(with the kind of permission of the artist)

Performed by Beged Kefet
Music and Lyrics: Cantor Leon Sher

The lyrics of this song are taken from the liturgy and Tanakh and laced together with pleas in English.

Transliteration and English (Mixed) Translation
Refa’enu Adonai veneirafei, hoshi’enu venivashei’a.  Heal us, Adonai, and we will be healed; save us and we will be saved. [From the weekday Amidah]
El karov lekhol korav. God is near to all who call upon God. [From the Ashrei prayer]
Akh karov lere’av yisho. Help is near for those who revere God. [Ps. 85:10]
We pray for healing of the body;  
We pray for healing of the soul;  
For strength of flesh and mind and spirit.  
We pray to once again be whole.  
El na refa na. Oh, please, heal us now! God, please grant [her] healing. [Num. 12:13]
Refuat hanefesh

urefu’at haguf.

refu’ah shelemah. Heal us now!

Healing of the soul, healing of the body, complete healing. [Mi Sheberakh]
Hoshi’ah et amekha

u-varekh et nahalatekha

u-re’em vena’asem ad ha’olam.

Save Your people, bless Your legacy; care for them and ennoble them for all time. [Ps. 28:9]
Mi sheberakh avotenu,

Mi sheberakh imotenu,

The One who blessed our Fathers,
The One who blessed our Mothers, [Mi Sheberakh]
Ana Adonai hoshi’ah na. God, Please save us! [Hallel]
We pray for healing of our people;

We pray for healing of the land;

And peace for every race and nation.

 
Every child, every woman, every man.  
El na refa na.  God, please grant [her] healing. [Num. 12:13]
  • Image of a nut (hardware not legume)Prayer is acknowledging and connecting with your own emotional response to hearing people’s pain. It opens up the heart and soul. There is no need to censor what you want to say; God can take it. What you express is from your heart.
  • It doesn’t have to be logical, and repetition is okay: if you have expressed yourself in one way, find another way of saying the same thing.
  • Try to find some rhythm to your words so that they flow more smoothly.
  • It might be helpful to find “bookends”—some way to open and conclude your prayer that resonates with you and that helps you to get started. Consult your notes from the previous assignment, where you identified some phrases and references to God that speak to you.
  • It is okay to feel self-conscious.
  • You can structure your prayer something like this (this is just a suggestion and you may divert from it in any way you like):
    • Start with an opening phrase (e.g., “Av Harahamim” [Merciful Father], “Rofe Holim” [Healer of the Sick], “Shekhinah” [Divine Presence]).
    • Introduce the person for whom you are saying the prayer and something you are grateful for (“I’m here today with ___ and I’m grateful that I’ve had this opportunity to get to know her”).
    • Introduce the issue.
    • Offer your petition on behalf of the person—the thing this person has told you she needs or wants as an aid in her emotional, spiritual, and physical healing.
    • State what it is you are hoping for the person, based on what you know about the person. For example, you might say something like “May he know that he is in the hearts and minds of the members of our community” or “that she is deeply loved by her family and friends.”
    • End with a concluding phrase (e.g., a line from or variation on birkat kohanim, the priestly blessing, or birkat yeladim, the blessing for children).

Image of a pad and pencilWorking in pairs, turn to your partner and speak for 5–7 minutes about something that is on your mind. Your partner should listen and then offer a prayer. Reverse roles. 

After each partner has had a chance to try this, talk about what you each of you experienced in each role—as recipient of a prayer or blessing and as the one giving it.


[i] Bonita E. Taylor, “Seeking the Tzelem: Making Sense of Dementia,” in Jewish Pastoral Care: A Practical Handbook from Traditional and Contemporary Sources, 2nd ed., edited by Dayle E. Friedman (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights, 2005), 150–160.

[ii] The full CD can be ordered from the Cantors Assembly. It is part of a 12-volume Spirit Series and can be ordered as part of the set or as individual CD.

Previous Page Unit 8: Confidentiality, Boundaries, and Self-Care    Glossary Next Page