Prayer vs Tehillim for the Sick

Moshe Ben-Chaim


Mesora: I received this email this week:

"A 43 year old mother of 5 from xxxxxx is critically ill and needs a tremendous yeshuah at this very minute. Everyone is asked to say Tehillim for: xxxxxxxxx.

We strongly ask that you: a) pass this email on to as many people on your email list as possible and that they in turn pass it onto their list;  b) post this email in your office, shul and school; c) please make a Mishibayrach (Blessing) for her. In the zechus (merit) of our tefillos (prayers) may she and all the chollim (sickly) have a refuah shleima (speedy recovery)."


In response to this email, let us take advice from the Gemara in Shabbos 55a, "There is no death with no sin, and no affliction if one has not transgressed." Baba Basra 116a also states, "If a person has a sick person in his house he should go to a chacham (a wise man) and he will request mercy for him."

The reason I believe a chacham is required - and not a tzaddik - is that only a wise man is able to identify a problem, namely, why G-d had brought this person close to death. A tzaddik is not necessarily a chacham, so he is not able to identify the problem. It is evident that some sin had brought this illness upon the person, and as of yet, the sickly individual could not discover his wrongdoing, and therefore may have been stricken with illness. Job too remained in his state of physical distress until Elihu informed him of his error. It was this new concept which raised Job to a level on which G-d would now relate to him and heal him.

The chacham is one who can discuss matters with the sick person, discern what the person's flaw is, and communicate his error to him. This newly gained knowledge about himself, and subsequent repentance, can raise those that are sick to the level where G-d will intercede to remove the illness. This will be his remedy. As the gemora states, "it is not the snake who kills, but the sin". Additionally, the chacham's request for mercy from G-d is more likely to be heeded, as now, the chacham has communicated the error to the invalid, and bases his prayer on this knowledge.  According to Maimonides, the higher the level of one's perfection, the more G-d is involved with one's life. According one Rabbi, Job was suffering his trials due to his incorrect opinion of G-d's justice. As he became aware of his mistake, and admitted it, G-d came back into his life and healed him, giving him greater success. This shows that when a person reaches a higher level, G-d is more related to him, and intercedes on his behalf. Maimonides spells this out clearly in the "Guide for the Perplexed". G-d will respond with what is good for a person based on the person's level. But I believe that the person must do the act of prayer him/herself. He must formally request his needs, and by doing so, perhaps he will discover during his prayer (which means to "judge" one's self) what he requests is not correct, and he will abandon his prayer for that which is against the Torah's philosophy. He may then pray for that which is proper.

The Rabbis said, "Why were the Matriarchs all barren? Because G-d desires the prayer of the righteous." What this means is that G-d desires the perfection of those who want perfection - the righteous. He doesn't need their prayer, as G-d is perfect, and is unaffected by His creations. G-d desires their prayer, as this will help them reflect upon their desire to search within, and find a reason for why they might not have been answered as of yet. By G-d refraining from giving the matriarchs children, perhaps He was allowing them time to perfect themselves, as their desire for children might not have been for the proper reasons at first. Through years of reflection, they may have been allowed by G-d to perfect themselves. In all cases where one is sick or deprived, the Torah teaches that self reflection and teshuva - repentance - is the cure.

We pray for Israel's sick three times each day, and have specific individuals in mind. But this cannot be the sole approach. We must follow the Talmud's lessons.


Reader: Do you think that prayer on behalf on another does not help this person?


Mesora: Moshe Rabbeinu prayed on behalf of many others, his sister, B'nei Yisrael, Joshua, Moshe did feel prayer for others is appropriate. The question is, HOW?

A Rabbi once taught that Moshe's prayer on behalf of the Jews saved them (during the Egel - the Golden Calf) in that he raised HIMSELF to a higher level, which thereby removed G-d's need to destroy the Jews. So prayer on behalf of another must have a remedy, but, FOR THOSE WE PRAY.

In Moshe's case during the sin of the Egel, his prayer effectuated a change, but that was specifically because his raising of himself to a higher level addressed the problem of the Jews. His new state could address the Jew's sin. Annihilation became unnecessary. But how can this apply to one who is sick? When Moshe prayed for his leprous sister Miriam, G-d responded, (Numbers 12:14) "if her father spat before her, would she not be disgraced for seven days?" So Miriam's punishment was not lifted. In this case with the sick woman about whom you have emailed me, the Talmudic source quoted (Baba Basra) teaches our correct response: seek a chacham so he may determine with wisdom what flaws exist in the sick person. In this manner, she may repent with this new knowledge. G-d will then lift her illness, as this illness now fulfilled its task, and is no longer needed.

Yes, pray for her, but this is not what the Talmud suggested. We must act as our Sages taught, not invent new devices. I wonder, did the author of Psalm's himself recite them to save himself, or to contemplate true ideas when in distress? The right approach taught by the Sages is to pray when sick. Tehillim was not specified as the proper response.

A Rabbi once taught that one may and should pray for another person insofar as one has sincere concern about their well-being. It is nevertheless the prayer of the sick person himself which is of the greatest value. This is stated in the Torah, Genesis 21:17, "And God listened to the voice of the lad..." Even though Ishmael's mother Hagar prayed for him, God listened to Ishmael's prayer over that of his mother's. Rashi comments: "From here we derive that the prayer of the sick person himself is superior to the prayer of others, and it is prior in terms of being accepted by God.


Reader: I heard once the following explanation: Why should Hashem listen to the prayer of a third person? Because though Hashem decided that the best for a person is to be sick at this moment, Hashem did not want that a third person should be in distress. Thus, If a (third) person really feels the pain of another person and davens for him, Hashem might decide that the sick person should become healthy.

Mesora: The Talmud's explanation makes sense. Your explanation does not: What perfection comes about for the sick person through the distress of a third party, that G-d would remove this sick person' suffering? Was not the victim's suffering due to his imperfection? Does he not still remain with his imperfection? Additionally, we see from G-d's response to Moses' prayer for Miriam, that G-d does not remove illness due to stress on a third party (i.e., Moses).

Again, the Rabbis designed the Shemoneh Essray (prayer) for the purpose that man reflect on primary ideas of perfection. This precise series of praises, requests and thanks to G-d, is the Torah's formula for our engagement of G-d, when in need. This is not the purpose of Tehillim (Psalms), nor was Tehillim selected by the Rabbis as our approach.

Maimonides Laws of Idolatry, 11:12:

"One who makes utterances over a wound and one who reads a verse of the Torah, and similarly one who reads a verse on an infant so it should not be frightened, and one who places a Torah scroll or Tefilin on a child so he should sleep, it is not enough for them that they are in the category of horoscopists and enchanters (idolatry), but they are in the group of those who deny the Torah. For they make the words of Torah into physical remedies, when they are only remedies for the soul, as it is stated, "and they shall be life for your soul."

A Rabbi commented on this law of Maimonides. He stated that one who seeks physical protection from the words of the Torah, degrades the Torah (as in this case of reciting Tehillim to heal someone). Had one resorted to engaging idolatrous objects such as crystal balls, black cats, etc., instead of Torah (Tehillim) verses, he would not be as corrupt, as the Torah would not have been degraded. A Tehillim practitioner violates reason, and Maimonides' law. The Rabbi also made the salient point that by reciting Torah verses for physical gain, such a person denies G-d's system of Providence: that G-d could step in to save this sick person by Himself. He also denies G-d's system of Reward and Punishment: that illness befalls a person due to sin, and it is a just punishment. With the recital of Torah verses, one foolishly feels he can circumvent G-d's system. Tragically, this person denies G-d's role as "Dayan Emes", a "True Judge", Who acts with perfect fairness. The nonsense of reciting Tehillim as a cure (however wrongfully construed it may work) undermines G-d's system which is based on rational principles and with perfect design. Conversely, a Tehillim practitioner has no explanation for his actions. According to him, a wicked person should be healed if Tehillim is said for him. One foolishness follows another. The Rabbi concluded by stating that such practices cause a person to move away from following G-d.

We learn that a person's good intent to save a sick friend, may justify any foolish notion. He feels convinced that if he partakes in reciting Torah verses, then he is fully in line with the Torah. He feels he is being 'religious', if the objects of his destructive practice are Torah objects. Similarly, many people check Mezuzas when enduring bad times. Their fallacy is this: objects of Torah commands, may also be used for personal agendas. Here, one deviates from G-d's words, as G-d never commanded such practices.

When G-d's laws of not adding to, or subtracting from the Torah are disobeyed in favor of idolatry, it is clear that what needs to be checked is not the Mezuza, but rather, man.