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Bikur Cholim by Electronic Means

Does one fulfill the mitzva of bikur cholim by “visiting” a sick person by electronic means?


Rabbi Daniel Mann

Shvat 1 5782
Question: Does one fulfill the mitzva of bikur cholim by "visiting" a sick person (choleh) by electronic means?

Answer: It is difficult to speak definitely about "fulfilling" bikur cholim, as it is regarding many mitzvot bein adam lachaveiro. There is a consensus among poskim (many of whom we will cite, discussing phone calls) that there is moral and mitzva value to "visit" not in person. On the other hand, they all say that if one can come in person, he should. In order to appreciate both the value of a visit by telecommunication and the preference of in-person, we need to see the goals of bikur cholim and some sources on them.

One of the main of many reasons for visiting the sick (featured in the Ramban’s Torat Ha’adam and the Tur, Yoreh Deah 335), is to be moved by his condition and inspired to daven powerfully for him (Nedarim 40a). This is important enough to give cause for a halacha that one should visit at times of the day when his situation looks more severe, thereby increasing the prayer’s likely intensity (ibid.; Shulchan Aruch, YD 335:4). The Rama (ibid.) says that one who visited but did not pray for the choleh did not fulfill the mitzva. Considering the importance of the tefilla’s quality, being there in person helps in two ways: 1. It helps one feel the choleh’s condition more acutely (B’er Moshe II:105). 2. The Divine Presence is found around the choleh’s bed (Nedarim 40a). For that reason, one who davens away from the choleh should daven in Hebrew, as the angels do not bring before Hashem tefillot from other languages (at least, Aramaic), whereas before the choleh, Hashem Himself accepts the tefilla in any language (Shulchan Aruch ibid. 5). Therefore, while we value tefilla for cholim at all times and places, when we aim for the best tefillot (i.e., while visiting), it is best in person (Igrot Moshe, YD I, 223; Yechaveh Da’at III:83).

Another major reason for visiting is seeing to his practical needs, including advice (Nedarim 40a). The Minchat Yitzchak (II:84) presumes that one can get a fuller assessment when being there. On the other hand, he posits that if one has visited in person once, he can subsequently fulfill this element of the mitzva by phone. Tzitz Eliezer (V, Ramat Rachel 3) suggests that this element is rarely necessary in our days when the choleh is getting good care and medical advice in a hospital. The Minchat Yitzchak (died, 1989) also foresaw that when "television technology" would develop to the point that one could speak and see the choleh, that would suffice.

There is a concept that someone born at the same time of year (Bava Metzia 30b) or perhaps anyone (see Rambam, Avel 14:4) may relieve some of the illness. If this is mystically based, it would presumably work only in person. Another element is psychological encouragement, which Igrot Moshe (ibid.) posits works better in person than by phone. It would seem that while audio-visual contact is stronger than telephone, it still does not compare to being in person, especially because part of the encouragement comes from knowing that the visitor made a real effort to come visit, which is obviously harder than reaching out by telecommunication.

The gemara discusses cases where there is more to lose than to gain from one coming in person to visit, and the Shulchan Aruch (ibid. 8) says that one can stay outside in such cases. So one who is unable to come should not use that as an excuse to do nothing. Rather, the consensus of poskim is that in addition to davening for the choleh, one should "visit" electronically when appreciated. On the other hand, while we can use modern technology to help significantly in many mitzvot, it should not turn into a replacement for the full-fledged personal fulfillment. The following is a scenario upon which I have not seen discussion and am unable to say anything conclusive: one (especially a rabbi) has only enough time to either visit many electronically or a few in person. Which is preferable? About such cases, Kohelet says: "The eyes of the wise are in his head" (2:14).
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