Reciting Tehillim for the Ill:
A Wake-up Call
When many individuals within our Jewish communities – even respected individuals – act a certain way in the name of “religious practice”, we tend to accept that such practices are truly endorsed by the Torah; either in Torah Shebicsav (Chumash, Prophets and Writings) or in Torah Shebaal Peh (The Oral Law) found in the Talmud, the Shulchan Aruch and in the words of our accepted leaders such as Maimonides, Saadia Gaon, Ramban, Rashi, Unkelos, Ibn Ezra, Tosfos, Sforno, Radak, Gra, Rif, Ran, or the Rash. I cite only these sources, as these works are either the Divine words of God taught by His prophets, or they are the accepted transmitters of God’s prophets. Tragically, often times what Jews practice has not been validated by these sources.
Do you recite Tehillim to heal others, as a result of your careful research into these sources and the lengthy study of the Rabbis’ words? Do you know if others who share this Tehillim practice conducted such research? You must know that there are literally thousands – if not more – who wear red bendels on their hands to protect them from the “Evil Eye”. Yet, this practice is openly prohibited. (Tosefta Shabbos chap. XII) Nor do people have any accurate meaning of the term “Evil Eye”.
Arriving at a conclusion might require you to change your practice. Are you ready to act contrary to others, if what you learn here says you must? Or, will you succumb to the need for social approval and continue following the ignorant masses? Does your relationship with man outweigh your relationship with God?
Science reflects God’s wisdom. You would be foolish and mocked, had you attended a meeting of the world’s top scientists to offer your solution to problems that baffle them. Torah as well – also God’s creation – cannot be grasped by a cursory glance, or without diligent and rational research. King Solomon wrote, “If you seek it out like silver, and chase after it (Torah) like buried treasures, then you will understand the fear of God, and the knowledge of God will you find.” (Proverbs, 2:4) It is essential to note that many Jews attach themselves to the “act” of the mitzvah, and not to the meaning. However, the real benefit of any command is not in its act, but in our intelligent grasp of the underlying idea. (Action is nonetheless required as a means of demonstrating our convictions.) This is why the Talmud teaches that Torah study surpasses all other mitzvos. (Moade Katan 9b) It surpasses all others, for without understanding the commands we forfeit their true objectives. Do you know why you wave a Lulav? If not, what benefit did that act serve you? Do you understand why Tefillin are boxes that protrude from your head and arm? Do you know why those four Torah sections – and no others – are located inside Tefillin? Do you know why you cannot wear wool and linen together? The list goes on with 610 more.
Are you simply going through the motions with no appreciation why God gave these highly specific activities? If so, you cannot attain any appreciation for God (i.e., His wisdom), which is why you were created. Performing one mitzvah, then another and another, all of which you are equally bereft of their ideas, will have a dulling affect on you. You will view each command with the same ignorance and blank value. If so, why did God give so many ‘different’ commands? In truth, each command must achieve some ‘new’ purpose that any other command could not. And that purpose is only attained when you understand its idea. So let us seek out those beautiful pearls of wisdom as a means of appreciating what is, and what is not Torah Law.
What is the Torah’s Prescription: Tehillim or Prayer?
From the patriarchs and matriarchs, throughout Talmud...this is clear with cases too numerous to count: we are to daven – pray – to God and include our requests in the appropriate Shmoneh Essray blessing. When one is sick, we insert a request in “Heal us” (Ripha-aynu). When in need of finances, we insert a request in “Barache Alaynu”, and so on. The Rabbis did not institute Tehillim as our response to our needs. They instituted Shmoneh Essray, a highly structured formulation.
How did Tehillim’s Author use Tehillim?
What must impress you most, is that the very author of Tehillim – King David – did not recite Tehillim when his own son was deathly ill. King David said, “While the baby was still alive, I fasted and cried...” (Samuel II, 12:22) Consider this clearly: if Tehillim’s author did not say Tehillim for the sick, but instead, he fasted and cried (prayed), then no one can give his work a new designation, which King David did not.
Can Words Heal? If not, is there any Harm in Reciting Tehillim?
There is a primary difference between a sick person intent on healing himself using Tehillim (or any Torah verse) as opposed to a healthy person shielding against future mishaps through the merit of Torah study.
Rabbi Joshua Ben Levi (Talmud Shavuos 15b) recited verses concerning afflictions before retiring at night. He was not ill, but wished his ‘merit’ of engaging in Torah to earn him God’s providence. But he also taught, “It is prohibited to heal with the words of Torah”, so was he contradicting himself? Not at all. Rabbi Joshua Ben Levi taught, “It is prohibited to heal with the words of Torah” because this is a prohibition of Nichush. Nichush stems from idolatrous cultures. An example of Nichush is a person who refrains from work, as he saw a black cat and assumes there to exist a ‘causal relationship’ between animals and financial success. Seeing the cat has caused him bad luck, he assumes. However, the Torah is a system of reason. This is why the Talmud (Shabbos 67a) prohibits amulets that have not been proven successful. We don’t ‘believe’. We demand proof.
Thus, Rabbi Joshua Ben Levi taught, “It is prohibited to heal with the words of Torah” as there is no relationship between reciting words and physical health. If one refrains from work after having seen a black cat, or, if one carries a rabbits foot, a horseshoe, tosses pennies into wells, avoids walking under ladders, fears broken mirrors, thinks elephant trunks in an upward position are “lucky”, bakes challas with keys inside, or recites Tehillim assuming the words heal...all such acts are Torah violations. In all these cases, the person assumes a relation to exist, when it does not. He has fallen prey to superstition, while the Talmud prohibits it. If so, why did Rabbi Joshua Ben Levi recite verses about afflictions before going to sleep? In this case, he adhered to the principle of Reward and Punishment. Sleep is a vulnerable state. This alerted the Rabbi to other vulnerabilities, and he wished God’s protection. Therefore, he engaged in the greatest mitzvah of Torah study, so that the ‘merit’ of the study – not the recital of a verse – would generate merit enough for God to shield him. Make sure you have this distinction clear in your mind.
The Greatest Minds Prohibited Tehillim
But Rabbi Joshua Ben Levi is not the only great mind who taught, “It is prohibited to heal with the words of Torah”. The Shulchan Aruch and Tur also prohibit this, and it is from here that we derive Jewish law. (Yoreh Dayah 179:8,9) If you have not read this section, cease from your Tehillim practices until you do.
Maimonides’ words are essential, and as always, this great Rabbi’s words reveal deep insight, if we respect Torah’s depth and duly analyze what he wrote (Laws of Idolatry, 11:12):
“One who chants over a wound and reads a verse from the Torah, and similarly, one who reads on behalf of an infant to calm his fear, and one who places a Torah scroll or Tefillin on a child so he might sleep...it is not sufficient for them that they are in the category of Nichush and conjurer practitioners. But they are categorized as heretics. For they render the Torah’s words as physical remedies, while it is truly a remedy for the soul, as it says, ‘And they will be life to your soul’. However, a healthy person who reads verses and songs from Tehillim so that the merit of his reading might shield him from mishaps and injuries, this is permitted.”
You must note that the last case when no illness is present, is “permitted”, and not ‘commanded’ or even ‘suggested’. Maimonides does not suggest in the least, that although permitted, such recital will have any results. However, when an illness or a wound is present, one who recites verses as a bodily remedy is deemed a heretic. Maimonides uses the harshest condemnation, which must cause your trepidation, not your dismissal.
Only under extreme circumstances is the recital of Torah words permitted: when ill and in danger. (Shabbos 67a) This permission is so one does not become distraught, and that he retains his senses to address his or her ailment with presence of mind. Hopefully, he or she will also consult a physician. But in no way does any Rabbi suggest that reciting Tehillim heals. As Maimonides teaches, it is superstitious, if not idolatrous.
Maimonides: A Lesson in Torah’s Requirement for Study
Maimonides’ wording is exact – his lesson, profound. Note what he describes as prohibited: reading a “verse” from the Torah, in the singular. At the end describing what is permitted, he writes that a healthy person who reads “verses” and “songs” from Tehillim, in the plural. What is his lesson?
We stated earlier that the primary error in this practice is that one assumes a relationship to exist between his reciting of words and his health, or the health of others. But in fact, no evidence in reality exists for such a relationship. And Torah demands that we follow reality. This act is viewed as superstition: a belief in something that does not exist, and is therefore prohibited. Based on this understanding, we appreciate Maimonides’ distinction...
In describing the prohibited act, Maimonides teaches that if one assumes a specific verse will heal, he thereby violates. For he expresses belief – in action – that something in ‘particular’ is causative...when it is not. But when describing what is permitted, one must not assume a ‘specific’ verse is causative, but he may follow the principle of Reward & Punishment, that Torah in general (many verses, i.e., study) may offer him merit from “mishaps and injuries” (again plural). In this manner, one does not project a causative nature onto 1) a specific verse or object; nor does he assume a definite, shielding against 2) a specific harm, as he speaks of “mishaps and injuries” without identifying a specific harm. If however one is healthy, and he either recites a single verse; alternatively if he recites many verses but intending to shield against a ‘specific’ eventual harm, then he violates Nichush. Furthermore, Maimonides’ lesson embellishes the earlier point of how Torah life demands study, not the simply mimicking our peers’ “religious” actions.
In summary, all sources prohibit Nichush, from the Torah (Lev. 19:26) through Talmud and our greatest Rabbis. Nowhere and at no time did Nichush ever produce results.
We become aware that our failure to study Torah has resulted in widespread, heretical religious rites, which even you – the reader – felt were unquestionable until now. But with study, we have just learned the contrary: Nichush, as in attempting to cure through Torah verses is condemned in the harshest terms by Maimonides, Rabbi Joshua Ben Levi, the Shulchan Aruch and the Tur.
This must be a wake-up call many other “Jewish” superstitions. Certainly, when such actions violate reason and we witness no connection between Torah words and healing the sick, we must cease from this action. When acting this way, we’re not following Torah, but misguided people. Following this practice, we in turn misguide others.
Please read this again to ensure you remember all the sources, that you grasp the ideas, and so you might correct others.
Let us follow the Torah’s very statement that Torah “will be life to your soul” – you “soul”, not your body.