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Is it Permissible to Recite a Mee Sheberakh (Prayer for the Sick) for a Non-Jew?

Responsa by David Golinkin
Symbols and Rituals

Question from an Israeli rabbi:

A member of my congregation came back from a trip abroad. She met there with a friend of hers who is a Protestant Minister who has cancer. The woman suggested to him that she would add his name to the Mee Sheberakh list in our congregation and the Minister was very touched by her suggestion. I know that her initiative is praiseworthy, but I don’t exactly know how to apply it. How do you mention a non-Jew in a Mee Sheberakh? Do you know of any responsa on the subject?  (This question was asked on Ravdibur on May 16, 2007 and led to a lively debate. I wrote a brief Teshuvah on Ravdibur on May 18, 2007. This is an expanded version of that Teshuvah).

Responsum:

In order to answer this question, it is preferable to break it down into two questions:

  1. Is it permissible to pray for a non-Jew?
  2. If so, can a non-Jew be included in the standard Mee Sheberakh prayer together with Jews?
  3. I) Is it Permissible to Pray for a Non-Jew?

The simple answer is an unequivocal yes. Since the biblical period, Jews have prayed for the health and well-being of non-Jews.

  1. A) The Biblical Period
  2. Moses prayed for the Egyptians on three occasions. First he prayed that God should remove the plague of frogs from the Egyptians and God answered his prayer (Exodus 8:8-9). Then he prayed that God should remove the plague of Arov (Arov may mean “various kinds of wild animals” or “swarms of insects”. See for example, Nahum Sarna, The JPS Torah Commentary: Exodus, Philadelphia and New York, 1991, p. 42). and God answered his prayer (Exodus 8:26-27). Finally, Moses prayed that God should remove the plague of locusts and God answered his prayer (Exodus 10:18-19).
  3. In his lengthy prayer recited at the dedication of the First Temple, King Solomon said that when a non-Israelite foreigner comes to pray towards the Temple, “oh, hear in Your heavenly abode and grant all that the foreigner asks You for” (I Kings 8:41-43). In other words, King Solomon is praying that God should answer the prayers of non-Jews.
  4. In II Kings, Chapter 5, we read the story of Na’aman, the General of Aram, who goes to see the king of Israel in order to be cured of his leprosy. The Prophet Elisha then cures Na’aman from his leprosy by telling him to bathe seven times in the Jordan River (v. 10-14). If a Jewish Prophet can heal a non-Jew, then he can certainly pray for a non-Jew who is ill. Indeed, it is worth noting that God is mentioned, among other things, as the “healer of Na’aman from his leprosy” in Mee Sheberakh prayers for the sick from Worms in the year 1190 (Ya’ari, No. 38) and Halberstadt in the year 1695 (Cohen, No. 27).
  5. B) Prayers for the King and for the Government

As I have shown elsewhere, from 594 BCE until today, Jews have offered sacrifices or prayed for non-Jewish Kings and non-Jewish Governments (David Golinkin, Insight Israel: The View from Schechter, Second Series, Jerusalem, 2006, Chapter Twelve = www.schechter.edu under “Insight Israel ” May 2006).

  1. C) The Rabbinic Period
  2. A baraita found in both Talmuds (Yerushalmi Gittin 5:9, fol. 47c and parallels and Bavli Gittin 61a) says that Jews visit sick non-Jews together with sick Jews mipney darkey shalom, for the sake of peace (Cf. my discussion of this baraita in Responsa of the Va’ad Halakhah of the Rabbinical Assembly of Israel, Vol. 6 (5755-5758), pp. 287-288, which is also available at www.responsafortoday.com). This implies prayer as well, because in the Talmudic period when you visited sick people, you also prayed for them (see, for example, Berakhot 54b at bottom, Shabbat 12a-b, Nedarim 40a). In any case, the baraita from Gittin 61a was codified in the Shulhan Arukh (Yoreh De’ah 151:12; 335:9).
  3. A midrash relates (Bereishit Rabbah 39:6, ed. Theodor-Albeck, p. 368 = Vayikra Rabbah 10:1, ed. Margaliot, pp. 195-196) that Abraham prayed for the people of Sedom.
  4. D) The Medieval Period

Sefer Hassidim, the Book of the Pious, attributed to R. Judah Hehassid (d. 1217) had a huge effect on Jewish belief and practice (See Louis Jacobs, A Tree of Life, Oxford , 1984, p. 72 and p. 80, note 19. This topic deserves thorough study). Paragraph 257 (ed. Margaliot, p. 222) states that a Jew may pray that a non-Jew whom he sent to a distant place should return in peace, because if he does not return, the non-Jews will libel the Jews. (Cf. also paragraphs 746 = 982.)

  1. E) The Responsa Literature

1) R. Hayyim Palache (1788-1869) of Izmir, Turkey was asked by a Jew: a non-Jew whom he does business with is sick. Is it permissible to pray for him that he should live and also give tzedakah to scholars that they should learn on his behalf to heal him? Rabbi Palache replied that this is “mutar gamur”,entirely permissible.  He relied on Sefer Hassidim and on the story of Elisha and Na’aman.

He also relied on Rabbi Yehudah Katzin who knew how to whisper incantations (lilhosh) (Regarding this topic, see Julius Preuss, Biblical and Talmudic Medicine, New York , 1978, pp. 144-146 and Joshua Trachtenberg, Jewish Magic and Superstition, New York , 1974, Index, s.v. Incantations). They brought him a non-Jewish baby who was very ill, like a dead baby, and he whispered and said a berakhah and the child was cured immediately and this was a great Kiddush Hashem [sanctification of God’s name].

He then relates that he permitted his son, Rabbi Ya’akov Palache, to write an amulet for a sick non-Jewish friend, but without the usual holy names of God (See Preuss, pp. 146-149 and Trachtenberg, pp. 132-152).

He then relates that a Jew asked him to pray for a mortally ill non-Jew because, if that man died, it would cause him monetary loss. Rabbi Palache gathered a minyan of scholars to study Psalms “and it was a great Kiddush Hashem, for he recovered and recognized the greatness of the Jewish people”.

“And an English Turk who was mortally ill sent to me that I should pray for him [and I did] and he recovered and he had a dream that my prayer worked.”

2) Rabbi Amram Bloom (1834-1907) also ruled that it is permissible to pray for sick non-Jews. He relies on R. Yosef Karo in his Kesef Mishneh (to Maimonides, Hilkhot Avodah Zarah 10:2) that, for a fee,  it is permissible to heal a non-Jew who is not an idol-worshipper. Rabbi Bloom adds that non-Jews in our day are not idol worshippers. “All the more-so when they request that we pray for them, which indicates that they believe in the God of Israel.”

3) R. Ephraim Oshry (1914-2003), who was a rabbi in Kovno , Lithuania , during the Holocaust, wrote dozens of responsa during and after the Shoah. He relates that a non-Jewish woman saved a Jewish boy named Yehudah by hiding him, returned him to the Jewish community after the Shoah, and he is now living in New York. She later came to Rabbi Oshry and said that she was very ill and asked that the Jews should pray for her “and she is certain that since she saved the boy, the prayer will be accepted [in heaven] and she will recover”.

Rabbi Oshry ruled that “it is permissible to pray for her and to recite a mee sheberakh for her and so I instructed to do”. He relies on Gittin and Yoreh Deah that we visit non-Jews who are sick, on R. Hayyim Palache, and on Sefer Hassidim.

4)  R. Ovadia Yosef (born 1920) was asked by a convert whether he may pray for his non-Jewish father who is sick. He discusses at length the passage in the Shulhan Arukh (Yoreh Deah 158:1) which rules that if an idol-worshipper is dying, a Jew may not save him or even cure him for a fee unless he is afraid of eivah [ill-feeling by non-Jews]. Rabbi Yosef then demonstrates that this law does not apply to Muslims. Indeed, Maimonides healed Muslims for a living. He further proves that it does not apply to Christians who are not considered idol-worshippers (As to whether Muslims and Christians are idol worshippers, see the thorough discussion by Rabbi David Frankel in Responsa (above, note 4), pp. 211-230).

Rabbi Yosef then quotes at length from R. Hayyim Palache and R. Amram Bloom and rules that it is permissible for a convert to pray for his non-Jewish father.

  1. II) Is it Permissible to Include a Non-Jew in the Standard Mee Sheberakh Prayer Together with Jews who Are Ill?

The standard Ashkenazic Mee Sheberakh asks God to heal ploni ben plonit, so-snd-so, the son of his mother,  (For a thorough explanation of this custom, see Golinkin, “The Use of the Matronymic”). “b’tokh she’ar holey yisrael”, “among the other sick of Israel”. Indeed, the Shulhan Arukh states (Yoreh De’ah 335:6) that when one visits the sick, one “should include him [=the sick person] “b’tokh holey Yisrael [among the sick of Israel]. This phrase would seem to preclude including a non-Jew in the standard Mee Sheberakh in the synagogue.

There are three ways of dealing with this problem:

  1. The non-Jew or non-Jews may be mentioned in a separate Mee Sheberakh prayer without the phrase “b’tokh she’ar holey Yisrael”. Indeed, most of the sources and responsa mentioned above are referring to separate prayers for non-Jews who are sick.
  2. It may be possible to omit this phrase. The paragraph in the Shulhan Arukh quoted above is based on the opinions of Rabbi Yossi and Rabbi Hanina in the Talmud (Shabbat 12a-b). Rabbi Yossi tells us what to recite when we visit the sick on Shabbat, while Rabbi Hanina says what to pray to God if you have a sick person in your house. Neither of them mentions the Mee Sheberakh prayer in the synagogue, which is from a much later period in Jewish history. Therefore, it is possible that there is no Talmudic requirement to use this phrase in the Mee Sheberakh prayer.
  3. The phrase “b’tokh she’ar holey Yisrael” – “among the sick of Israel” can be changed to “im holey Yisrael” – “with the sick of Israel”.

As explained above, the phrase”b’tokh” is based on the opinions of Rabbi Yossi and Rabbi Hanina in the Talmud. Indeed, five manuscripts or printed versions of Shabbat 12b contain the reading”b’tokh” in both their opinions (The reading b’tokh is found twice in Ms. Munich 95; Oxford Opp. Add. 23; ed. Soncino, ca. 1490; and ed. Vilna. The genizah fragment JTS ENA 2069.22-23 only has the reading b’tokh in the words of Rabbi Hanina, because it does not contain the words of Rabbi Yossi. I found these readings in The Sol and Evelyn Henkind Talmud Text Databank CD produced by the Saul Lieberman Institute of Talmudic Research of JTS). But one Genizah fragment of Tractate Shabbat (TS NS 329.429) as well as Nahmanides (Torat Ha’adam, ed. Chavel, p. 18) and Rabbi Yosef Karo (Bet Yosef to Yoreh Deah 335) quote Rabbi Hanina as saying: “tzarikh she’ye’arvenuim holey Yisrael” – “he needs to mention him with the sick of Israel”. Rabbi Ya’akov ben Asher (Tur Yoreh Deah 335) rules that he should include the sick person “im holey Yisrael” and he should say “b’tokh holey Yisrael”. This indicates that he was familiar with both readings in the Talmud. The reading “im” is probably the original reading in Rabbi Hanina’s opinion, because it is likely that the copyists changed “im” to “b’tokh” in order to make Rabbi Hanina more similar to Rabbi Yossi. Furthermore, the phrase “im” was actually used instead of “b’tokh” in the community of Konitz in the year 1729 (Ya’ari, No. 40). Finally, the reading “im” ties in beautifully with the baraita in Gittin 61a quoted above: ” “Mevakrin holey goyim im holey yisrael” – “One visits the non-Jewish sick with the sick of Israel”.

In conclusion, it is permissible to recite a mee sheberakh for non-Jews using one of the three methods described above. May God heal Jews and non-Jews who are sick and send them all a Refuah Shleimah.

David Golinkin
Jerusalem
11 Tammuz 5767

Bibliography

  1. I) General

Howard Addison, “The Theology of the Mi Shebeirakh: Does God Hear our Prayers?”, Proceedings of the Rabbinical Assembly 57 (1995), pp. 133-134.

Entziklopedia Talmudit, Vol. 4, cols. 158-162, s.v. Bikur Holim.

David Golinkin, “The Use of the Matronymic in Prayers for the Sick” in: Aaron Demsky, ed., These Are the Names: Studies in Jewish Onomastics, Vol. 3 (2002), pp. 59-72.

Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg, Responsa Tzitz Eliezer, Vol. 5, Jerusalem , 1985, in: Ramat Rachel, parag. 17.

Avraham Yaari, ” Tefillot Mee Sheberakh” etc.,

Kiryat Sefer 33 (5718), pp. 118-130, 233-250; ibid., 36 (5721), pp. 103-118; Nathan Fried, ibid., 37 (5722), pp. 511-514; Daniel Cohen, ibid., 40 (5725), pp. 542-559.

Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, Sefer Yalkut Yosef: Hilhot Bikur Holim V’aveilut,Jerusalem, 5764, pp. 37-65.

  1. II) Responsa

Rabbi Amram Bloom, Responsa Bet She’arim, Yoreh Deah, Grosswardein, 1941, No. 229.

Rabbi Ephraim Oshry, She’elot Uteshuvot Meema’amakim, Vol. 4, New York , 1976, No. 16.

Rabbi Hayyim Palache, Responsa Hayyim Bayad, Izmir, 1873, No. 33.

Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, Responsa Yehaveh Da’at, Vol. 6, Jerusalem, 1984, No. 60.


Prof. David Golinkin is President of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem . Feel free to reprint this article in its entirety. If you wish to abbreviate it, please contact Rabbi Golinkin atgolinkin@schechter.ac.il . The opinions expressed here are the author’s and in no way reflect an official policy of the Schechter Institute

David Golinkin is President of The Schechter Institutes, Inc. and President Emeritus of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies. For twenty years he served as Chair of the Va’ad Halakhah (Law Committee) of the Rabbinical Assembly which gives halakhic guidance to the Masorti Movement in Israel. He is the founder and director of the Institute of Applied Halakhah at Schechter and also directs the Center for Women in Jewish Law. Rabbi Professor Golinkin made aliyah in 1972, earning a BA in Jewish History and two teaching certificates from The Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He received an MA in Rabbinics and a PhD in Talmud from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America where he was also ordained as Rabbi. For a complete bio click here.

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