Friday, August 25, 2017

Parashas Shoftim: How to Say Tehilim for the Sick Without Violating Halacha

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Artwork: Devout Invocation, by David Palumbo
(Note: If this is what you think you're doing when you say Tehilm, then you're doing it wrong.)

Parashas Shoftim: How to Tehilim for the Sick Without Violating Halacha


Broadly speaking, there are two ways to say Tehilim (Psalms) for the sick: one which is halachically permitted and in line with Hashem's will, and the other which is halachically prohibited and is considered by Hashem to be an "abomination."

In Parashas Shoftim Moshe Rabbeinu warns Bnei Yisrael:
When you come to the Land that Hashem, your God, gives you, you shall not learn to act according to the abominations of those nations. There shall not be found among you one who causes his son or daughter to pass through the fire, a kosem kesamim (diviner), a meonein (astrologer), a menachesh (omen-reader), a mechashef (sorcerer), a chover chaver (one who recites incantations), one who inquires of Ov or Yidoni, or one who consults the dead. For anyone who does these is an abomination of Hashem, and because of these abominations Hashem, your God, banishes [the nations] from before you. You shall be whole with Hashem, your God. For these nations that you are possessing - they hearken to astrologers and diviners; but as for you - not so has Hashem, your God, given for you. (Devarim 18:9-14)
The Torah prohibition we will be discussing is chover chaver with a focus on its application to reciting Tehilim for the sick. In Part I we will examine the Sefer ha'Chinuch's treatment of the topic. In Part II we will summarize the various halacha l'maaseh (practical halacha) views.

Part I: Sefer ha'Chinuch on Chover Chaver

The Sefer ha'Chinuch [1] defines chover chaver as follows:
We are prohibited from making incantations about any matter. By this we are referring to a person who will recite words and tell people that those words cause benefit or harm in a certain matter. About this it is stated, “There shall not be found among you … a speaker of incantations” (Devarim 18:10-11). The Sifri says: “whether one charms a snake or a scorpion,” meaning to say, one who recites words upon them so that they will not bite him – according to his view. So too, if one recites words over an affliction in order to gain relief from the pain, etc.
According to this definition it would seem that if a person recites Tehilim and believes that the words themselves will have a beneficial effect on a choleh (sick person), then this would be a violation of chover chaver

The Sefer ha'Chinuch anticipates this question and addresses it head-on by citing a Gemara which ostensibly endorses the practice of reciting Tehilim in order to save a person from harm:
Now perhaps, my son, you will pose a question to me from what we read in the second chapter of the Talmud tractate Shevuos (15b): 
"The psalm against afflictions is with lutes and harps; and one says, 'He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High,' until 'For You, Hashem, are my refuge' (Tehilim 91); then he says, 'Hashem, how many are my foes,' until 'Salvation belongs to Hashem' (ibid. 3)." 
In other words, [the Talmud seems to indicate that] the recitation of these psalms works to provide protection from harm. And it was stated in the tractate Berachos (3a): "R. Yehoshua ben Levi would say these verses before going to bed [to protect himself from harm]."
The Sefer ha'Chinuch answers this difficulty by making a distinction. In doing so, he instructs us in how to say Tehilim in a manner which has a beneficial effect on our physical well-being without straying into chover chaver territory:
However, this matter is not similar to the matter of chover chaver that we mentioned, God forbid! Long ago, the Sages of blessed memory said in this regard (Shevuos 15b): "It is forbidden to heal oneself with words of Torah." Yet they mentioned to say these psalms since they contain words that inspire the soul that knows them to shelter in Hashem, to take security in Him, to establish a reverent fear of Him firmly in his heart, and to rely on His kindness and goodness. As a result of this inspiration, he will be protected from every harm, without a doubt
Therein lies the answer. If a person says Tehilim, believing that the words themselves will have a beneficial effect on the physical world, then - according to the Sefer ha'Chinuch - he or she has violated the Torah prohibition of chover chaver, and is considered on the basis of that act to be an abomination to Hashem, as the Torah unequivocally states: "for anyone who does these is an abomination of Hashem." However, if a person recites Tehilim, understands the meaning of what he is saying, and is inspired to trust, fear, and rely on Hashem, then he will not be in violation of halacha, and he will be protected from all harm.

The Sefer ha'Chinuch reinforces this distinction by quoting the Gemara's formulation of this same question, and the answer given there, which he explains in accordance with his view:
This is what was answered in the Talmud in this regard, for it was asked there: "But how could R. Yehoshua do this (i.e. recite these chapters of psalms against afflictions) when R. Yehoshua, himself, said it is forbidden to heal oneself with words of Torah?!" and the reply was given: "to protect is different." In other words, the Torah did not forbid a person to say words of Torah so as to inspire his soul in a good direction, so that this merit should shield him to protect him [but rather, the Torah only prohibited the recitation of words of Torah in order to heal].
The Rambam [2] codifies this distinction as halacha:
One who recites an incantation over a bodily affliction and reads a verse from the Torah, and likewise one who reads [Torah] over an infant so that he not be frightened, and one who places a Torah Scroll or tefilin on a child so that he will sleep – it is not enough that such people are included among the chovrim (incantation-sayers) and menachashim (omen-readers), but they [are also] included among the kofrim ba’Torah (the deniers of Torah), for they utilize words of Torah as remedies for the body, whereas they are truly only remedies for the soul, as it is stated, “[the words of Torah] shall be life for your soul” (Mishlei 3:22). But if a healthy person reads Scriptural verses and chapters from Tehilim so that the merit of their reading will protect him and save him from suffering and harm, this is permissible
It is reasonable to assume that the permissible type of Tehilim reading ("so that the merit of their reading will protect him") qualifies as using words of Torah as "remedies for the soul," as described by the Sefer ha'Chinuch. In other words, if a person reads Tehilim with the intention of "inspiring his soul in a good direction" and making an effort to internalize what he reads, then this will bring him merit, and save him from suffering and harm. 

Part II: Practical Halacha

While it is usually the policy of this blog to stay away from commenting on matters of halacha l'maaseh, I fear that some will read this post and feel at a loss about whether their own way of saying Tehilim constitutes a violation of halacha. They would then either cease saying Tehilim altogether, which would be detrimental insofar as this would deprive them of a means of connecting to Hashem, or else they would continue saying Tehilim, thereby running the risk of violating a Torah prohibition.

Thankfully, I found a tshuvah (responsa) by the Tzitz Eliezer [3] which summarizes six different views on how to (and how not to) recite Tehilim, in practice. Here is my summary of his summaries (i.e. I didn't go back and learn through all of the primary sources; I just paraphrased the conclusions as stated in his tshuvah). I've appended the psak (ruling) of my Rosh ha'Yeshiva to the end of this list, since this is the view I follow, and since it wasn't mentioned by the Tzitz Eliezer:
(1) Rambam / Shulchan Aruch [4]: It is prohibited to read Tehilim - indeed, any pesukim from Tanach - for the sake of healing a choleh, but it is permissible for a healthy person to read pesukim so that the merit of their reading will protect him (i.e. the healthy person) from harm.
(2) Meiri [5]: The recitation of Tehilim for healing is only prohibited if it is being relied upon as the primary remedy, but if the choleh is also taking medicine or undergoing medical treatment, then it is permissible to supplement this medical care with the recitation of Tehilim. 
(3) Maharsha [6] / Toras Chayim [7]: The recitation of Tehilim for healing is only prohibited if they are recited in the manner of an incantation, but if one uses Tehilim as a vehicle of tefilah (prayer) or learns Torah for the sake of learning, and requests from Hashem that the merit of this tefilah or learning should heal a choleh, then this is permitted. [8]
(4) Ritva [9] / Ohr Zarua [10] / Rabbeinu Yeshaya [11]: The recitation of Tehilim for healing is only prohibited if there is a physically manifest bodily affliction, but to relieve a non-manifest pain (e.g. a headache) is permitted. 
(5) Tzitz Eliezer #1: The recitation of Tehilim for healing is only prohibited if one selects specific Tehilim (or pesukim to say), but if one chooses Tehilim at random or follows one's normal routine (e.g. reciting Tehilim daily), then this is permitted.
(6) Tzitz Eliezer #2: The recitation of Tehilim for healing is only prohibited if said exclusively for a choleh, but if it is also said for the sake of those who are healthy, then this is permitted, since it demonstrates that the Tehilim are being said for the sake of merit and protection, as the Sefer ha'Chinuch described. 
(7) My Rosh ha'Yeshiva [12]: The recitation of Tehilim for healing is only prohibited if only Tehilim (and/or pesukim) are recited, but if one adds a tefilah (e.g. Mi she'Beirach) before or after the Tehilim, then this is permissible, since in this case, one is using the tefilah as a vehicle of beseeching God - as opposed to relying on the words of the Tehilim themselves. 
I hope that this list provides solace and guidance for those who choose to recite Tehilim for the sake of healing. While I advise those who plan on reciting Tehilim for the sick to consult their own posek (halachic decisor), that the Tzitz Eliezer can serve as a backup option for those who have not yet asked a shaila (halachic inquiry).

Concluding Thoughts

I think that the widespread practice of saying Tehilim for the sick is a good thing. I believe that most people relate to Tehilim exactly as they relate to tefilah, and that their recitation of Tehilim for the sick is in line with the view of the Maharsha and Toras Chaim cited above. 

Nevertheless, I think it is also important for people to be aware of the halachic and spiritual perils of relating to the recitation of Tehilim for the sick in the wrong way. There are definitely people out there who mindlessly recite Tehilim, in the manner of an incantation, without any idea what they're saying, and who relate to the Tehilim as a sort of magic charm. These are the people whom the Rambam condemned, and about whom Chazal said: "one who says an incantation over a wound has no portion in the World to Come" (Shevuos 15b; Sanhedrin 90a).

I believe it is important for all people - especially those just described - to be educated about the topic of chover chaver and to be informed of the Sefer ha'Chinuch's method of using Tehilim as a legitimate way to become closer to Hashem, in order to take refuge "in the [protective] shade of the Almighty" (Tehilim 91:1).

[1] Sefer ha'Chinuch, Mitzvah #512
[2] Rabbeinu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides), Mishneh Torah: Sefer ha'Mada, Hilchos Avodah Zarah 11:6. It should be noted that whereas the Sefer ha'Chinuch defines chover chaver as "a person who will recite words and tell people that those words cause benefit or harm in a certain matter," the Rambam defines it as "a person who speaks words which do not belong to any language and have no meaning, but he – in his foolishness – imagines that those words produce a beneficial effect." And yet, the Rambam writes in our halacha that one who uses words of Torah to heal is included in the category of chover chaver
[3] Ha'Rav Eliezer Yehuda Waldenberg, Tzitz Eliezer 17:30 
[4] Ha'Rav Yosef Karo, Shulchan Aruch: Yoreh Deah 179:8
[5] Rabbeinu Menachem ben Shlomo Meiri, Beis ha'Bechirah: Shabbos 67a
[6] Ha'Rav Shmuel Eidels (Maharsha), Chidushei Aggados: Shabbos 67a
[7] Ha'Rav Abraham Hayyim ben ha'Rav Naftali Tzvi Hirsch Schor, Toras Chaim: Shevuos 15b
[8] The Tzitz Eliezer learns that this is also the view of the Sefer ha'Chinuch, who only differentiated between the manner in which the Tehilim are being said, but didn't distinguish between a healthy person and a sick person.
[9] Rabbeinu Yom Tov ben Avraham Asevilli (Ritva), citation not provided by the Tzitz Eliezer
[10] Rabbeinu Yitzchak ben Moshe (Ohr Zarua / Riaz), citation not provided by the Tzitz Eliezer
[11] Rabbeinu Yeshaya di Trani (I think?), citation not provided by the Tzitz Eliezer
[12] I heard this verbally, but do not know whether an audio or written source is available. However, the Tzitz Eliezer cited the Mishnas Yaakov as suggesting an answer along these lines. 


  1. More of a general comment, thank you so much for all the wisdom you have shared and taught through this blog. Every entry gives me a whole new perspective on its subject and your fantastic writing style makes learning here even more of a pleasure. I for one certainly have you in mind when reciting Al Hatzadikim. Many thanks again and kol hakavod!

  2. Thank you! So according to shita number 7, what role does tehilim play in our request for healing? Merit?

    1. You can call it "merit" but I think of it more as "preparation" for the mi she'beirach - similar to how reading the chapters of pesukei d'zimra prepares a person for tefilah by putting a person in the proper frame of mind.

  3. Thanks, Anonymous! (Sorry - I missed this comment and didn't see it until just now.)