We are going to discuss what is called “Bikur Cholim” or the visitation of the sick. These customs go back to Abraham and it is a “mitzvah” (good work) to visit the sick. Remember, there were no hospitals, so a visitor helped take are of the sick and met their needs. Let’s look at some verses on the sick and go into a few things.
In Gen 48.1-2 we learn that Jacob was sick and Joseph and his two sons go to visit him. We have two names of Jacob used in verse 2. The name Jacob refers to his earthly, fleshly name and Israel refers to his heavenly, spiritual name. When you see the two contrasted it means he is in the flesh (Jacob) or in the Spirit (Israel). When he saw Joseph come in, he went from the flesh to in the Spirit and he began to prophesy. In 2 Kings 13.14 we have Elisha, who is sick, and King Joash came to him and wept. Elisha told him to take arrows and a bow and put his hands on them, and Elisha put his hands on the King’s hands. He then told him to open the window towards the east, where the Syrians were coming, and told him to shoot. Joash shot and Elisha said that the King would destroy the Syrians with the Lord’s arrow until they were destroyed. He then told the King to take the arrows and strike the ground, and Joash struck the ground three times and stopped. Elisha was “reading” him and determined that the King was faint at heart, so he would be faint in battle and pursuing the enemy. In the movie “The Hustler” Minnesota Fats called on George to “read” Fast Eddie Felson, a young pool player who came to challenge Minnesota Fats. George “read” Felson and called him “a loser” because of his attitude. Elisha was angry with the King and said he should have struck the ground five or six times, then he would have struck Syria until they were destroyed. As a result, he would only strike Syria three times.
In contrast, in 2 Kings 20.1-7, King Hezekiah became ill and Isaiah came to visit and told Hezekiah to get his house in order, for he was going to die. This was when the Assyrians were coming with Sennacherib (“in those days” refers to when Sennacherib was there-see v 6). Hezekiah prayed because he had no heir, and Isaiah came back and said that the Lord was going to give him 15 more years (Isa 38.5). Hezekiah was to take a cake of figs and put it over the boil, and he would recover. He gave Hezekiah a choice for a sign that this was true. He wanted Hezekiah to choose whether the sun went forward or backward ten degrees. Hezekiah said he wanted the shadow to go back ten degrees, which was contrary to the natural order, and it did. This healing with the figs is a picture of the Olam Haba and the “healing of the nations” in Rev 22.2. Why would there be trees for the healing of the nations in the Olam Haba if there will be no sickness?
Here is an opinion. Adam and Chava were prohibited from the Tree of Life in Gan Eden, or they may have “sealed” in their sinful state forever. We know that the angels have been sealed forever in their state, with one-third of the angels with ha Satan sealed, and two-thirds of the angels with the Lord sealed forever. Could God have let them eat of the Tree of Life? Is eating of this tree connected with the ability to never sin or fall again? Earth will be our home forever and we know there will be no more sin or death in the Olam Haba.
The Hebrew word “bikur” means “inquiry, seek or to be concerned” and it is found in Lev 13.36 and Lev 27.33. The root is “boker” which means “morning light.” So, Bikur Cholim is the inquiry of the sick. This is a mitzvah for Israel, even if the sick person was a Gentile. It was seen as an act of kindness. The first three days was reserved for the family and their visitation. Visiting hours were usually not in the first three days nor in the last three hours of the day. Also, one should visit only if it is essential. It was customary to offer a prayer at the patient’s bedside. An example of such a prayer was “May the Almighty have compassion on you in the midst of the sick of Israel.” It was seen that a prayer for others would help your needs also. Bikur Cholim societies have been established since the 13th century. They raise funds for the medical and financial needs of the family.
Now, we are going to look at several death and mourning customs. Weeping and eulogies were done in Gen 23.2 with the death of Sarah. Tearing of garments and wearing sackcloth is seen in Gen 37.34 when Jacob was told that Joseph was dead. Condolences are seen in Gen 37.35 and there was a seven day mourning period for Jacob in Gen 50.10. Moses had a thirty day mourning period in Deut 34.8. Now, there were several things that were not allowed for the Jewish people to practice in regards to the dead. You could not make a baldness on the head, shave the corners of the beard or cut the flesh, or to make tattoos for the dead (Lev 19.27-28, 21.5; Deut 14.1-2). These were pagan customs. According to Jeremiah in Jer 16.6 and 41.5, some people were doing this. Lev 10.19, Aaron was exempted from certain priestly duties on the day of the death of his two sons. His attitude was not right and Moses heard is explanation and was satisfied with it. There also was a custom to throw dust on your head in Josh 7.6 and Esther 4.1-3 when confronted with bad news. Some wore mourning garments (2 Sam 14.2) or did not wear shoes. This was to cause discomfort for the mourner and not to “feel good.” This was to get the attention on your discomfort. Some abstained from using cosmetics David covered his head when fleeing from Absalom (2 Sam 15.30). Some had silent grief, based on Lev 10.3; Amos 5.13 and Lam 3.28. Some sat and wept (Neh 1.4). Visits of condolence and a meal and wine was done (Ecc 7.2; Ezek 24.17 and Jer 16.7). All of these customs laid the groundwork for the system of laws found in the Talmud. An “onan” (meaning grief and affliction-Gen 35.18) is a relative of a deceased person prior to burial. They did not eat, drink wine or have marital relations (Deut 26.14). They were exempt from mitz’vot so that they can attend to any arrangements that need to be made. When tearing the garments, you tore the left side if it was a parent, and the right side for all others. There is a benediction said when hearing the bad news of a death that said “Blessed are you, O Lord our God, King of the universe, the true judge.” This was based on Jer 10.10. In Part 9 and the conclusion of this series, we will pick up here and begin by discussing what is called “Tacharah” which is the washing of the body and discuss other observances, ceremonies and customs associated with death and mourning customs.