Visiting The Infectiously Sick

Question

Yankel has a good friend who has unfortunately come down
with a highly infectious disease. Although Yankel very much wishes to visit
this friend, he is concerned about the possibility of his catching the
disease. Does the mitzvah of visiting the sick even apply under such
circumstances? Could he fulfill the mitzvah by speaking to him by
phone, even though he is not in his presence?


Answer

There is a difference of opinion amongst the Rishonim
(Earlier Commentaries) as to whether the mitzvah of visiting the sick
is a Torah obligation (Rabenu Yona and Ritva) or just
rabbinically ordained (Rambam, but see Tshuvos V’hanhogos by
Rav Moshe Sternbuch, 2:592). Our Sages highlight the importance of this
mitzvah
, pointing out that even though we reap the fruits of these good
deeds in this world, this does not prevent us receiving a full reward in the
World-to-come (Tractate Shabbos 127a). Indeed, by visiting the sick we
are walking in the footsteps of our Maker, who visited our father, Avrohom,
after he was circumcised (Tractate Sotah14a). The Shulchan
Oruch
(Yoreh Deah 335:3) rules that even the great should visit a
lowly sick person. It is therefore not surprising that great sages made an
unusual effort to visit the sick. Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, zt"l, was known
to go to great lengths to visit the sick and care of their needs.

Does this mitzvah extend to visiting those who are
suffering from infectious diseases, Heaven forbid? The Rema (Responsa,
end of No.20) writes that we find no distinction drawn between infectious and
non-infectious diseases, with the exception of ba’alei ro’oson
(interpreted as epilepsy or leprosy). According to the Rema, one would
be obligated to visit the infectiously sick. The S’dei Chemed (Vol.1,
Ma’reches Beis, No.116) quotes the Knessess HaGedolah,
who is of the same opinion as the Rema. On the other hand, he cites
the Shulchan Govo’ah who wonders if anyone would be prepared to put
himself into danger by visiting a person infected with an infectious disease.
He therefore writes that the custom is to refrain from visiting those who are
infectiously ill. The S’dei Chemed concludes that it is difficult to
come to a decision on this subject. However, it is accepted practice not to
visit those suffering from a contagious disease.

Can one then fulfill this important mitzvah by speaking to
the patient by phone? The object of visiting the sick is to give them
encouragement and to enquire as to their needs. Additionally, one is meant to
pray for the patient’s recovery at his bedside, since the Divine Presence
rests over the head of a sick person. It is for this reason that one should
not visit the sick during the first three hours of the day, since he is
generally feeling better and one does not feel a strong need for prayer.
Similarly, visiting him during the last three hours of daylight is also not
advised, since his condition has a tendency to worsen. A visitor might then
despair of his recovery and see no point in praying for him. Obviously, this
special type of prayer can only take place at the patient’s bedside, and not
over the phone. Therefore, Rav Moshe Feinstein (Igros Moshe, Yoreh
Deah
1:223) rules that one should make every effort to go and visit the
sick in person. However, he adds that if this is not possible, as in the case
of contagious disease, one should speak to him by phone, encouraging him and
enquiring as to his needs. After the conversation has ended, one should pray
for the patient’s recovery, at home or in the synagogue.