Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Reciting Tehillim for the Sick

By: Rabbi Ari Enkin

Although reciting Tehillim on behalf of those who are ill is a widespread and seemingly meritorious practice, doing so may actually be forbidden from a halachic perspective. Among the sources for this allegation is the Talmud, which teaches that it is forbidden to make use of "words of Torah" in order to bring about healing, and doing so is a form of sorcery.[1] The Rambam elaborates on this idea and writes that: "One who reads a verse from the Torah…not only are they engaging in sorcery but such people are heretics (kofrim batorah)…they are using words of Torah for physical healing but Torah is only for spiritual healing".[2] Indeed, one who utters a verse or selection of verses with the expectation or assumption that it serve to bring healing "has no share in the World-to-Come."[3] Even the Shulchan Aruch rules that it is forbidden for one who to read a verse of Torah as a remedy to heal one's wounds or on behalf of one who is ill. There too, it is written that one who does so has "no share in the World-to-Come".[4]

Click here to read moreIt is likely that the custom of reciting Tehillim for those who are ill derives from a different, somewhat contradictory, Talmudic source. In another passage, the Talmud teaches that to cure a number of ailments, such as a headache, throat ache, and stomach ache, one should engage in Torah study.[5] Commentators are quick to point out that one should not assume for a moment that Torah study posses a direct inherent ability to heal a physical ailment, but rather, the idea is that in the merit of the Torah study God should send healing. One should never accept, let alone report, that specific words of Torah have the ability to arouse Divine assistance or healing.[6] Those who do recite Tehillim for those who are ill, should bear in mind that no specific chapter of Tehillim possesses an inherent power to heal over any other, but rather, it is the general merit of the Tehillim (or any other Torah) being recited.[7]

As such, the custom of reciting specific chapters of Tehillim or those chapters which correspond to a person's name may be especially problematic. Doing so seems to imply that there are specific verses or chapters in Scripture which are more auspicious to bring healing than others. As mentioned, there is no basis for favoring any chapter of Tehillim over any other -- our efforts must be focused on arousing merits not incantations.[9]

Nevertheless, a number of authorities justify the custom of reciting Tehillim for the sick by noting that the Rambam and Shulchan Aruch specifically mention reciting "a verse of the Torah" (sing.) as forbidden. Some derive from here that it is only the recitation or isolation of a single verse of Tehillim for healing which is problematic but reciting entire chapters of Tehillim, preferably at random, is of no concern.[10] Additionally, the concerns for sorcery or kefira only pertain when verses are recited in the original Hebrew. It is permitted, however, to recite verses of scripture in any other language, without reservation, should one feel a need to do so.[11] Finally, in the event that someone's life is in immediate danger one is permitted to recite any verse, chapter, or combination of Tehillim under the clause of Pikuach Nefesh.[12] Even in such a situation, however, the Rambam writes that doing so serves no purpose other than to provide a false sense of security – the placebo effect.

In contrast to all the above, it is permitted to "use" the recitation of Tehillim to pre-empt illness or other misfortune. For example, one is permitted to recite Tehillim in order to be protected from a potentially harmful or dangerous situation.[13] Similarly, it is completely permissible for a healthy person to recite Tehillim with the hopes of remaining healthy and avoiding any suffering in the future.


[1] Shevuot 15b
[2] Rambam Avodat Kochavim 11:12
[3] Shevuot 15b
[4] Y.D. 179:8
[5] Eruvin 54a
[6] Sefer Hachinuch 512
[7] Minhag Yisrael Torah Y.D. 178:2
[9] Segulat Yisrael in the intoduction
[10] Teferet Yisrael;Sanhedrin;Chelek
[11] Rema Y.D. 179:8
[12] Tosfot;Shevuot 15b, Y.D. 179:8
[13] Berachot 3a, Shevuot 15b

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