Tuesday, May 15, 2012

When do you stop saying Tehillim?

[Support my friend's Chai Lifeline fundraiser here.]

[Note: This post takes it as given that reciting Tehillim for those who are ill is a good and efficacious practice. The debate regarding that is interesting, but not for right now.]

I began saying two paragraphs of Tehillim each morning before Shacharis some time back, and the practice has grown on me. Aside from the contribution I believe I am making to people's health, I find it helps me get ready for my own davening, as well as feel good for the day.

But I have the question myself: When do you take someone off the list?

I am not talking about halting Tehillim [Psalms] because a situation is hopeless; rather, I'm talking about halting Tehillim because it seems that a person has recovered, or, at least, seems to be out of danger.

You know the situations; you are saying Tehillim –
-on behalf of someone who is battling cancer, and the disease seems to have gone into remission.
-on behalf of a person with Parkinsons's, and the progression seems to have slowed.
-on behalf of a person who had a heart attack, and doctors have now determined that she has a chronic heart condition with which she will struggle for the rest of her life.
-on behalf of a person who is recovering from a hip replacement, but she will need weeks of physical therapy.
-on behalf of a person who had a stroke, and doctors think he may be out of danger, but he will be on blood thinners for the foreseeable future.

Rabbi, when do I stop saying Tehillim?

This is one of the hardest questions to answer, because it's much more about personality than it is about any halachah. It's also about superstition. Hope. Fear and uncertainty. Relationships.

So one might suggest that we never remove names, but that could be counterproductive. Part of the value, for me, is thinking about each individual name – but how do you do that, as they add up? And doesn't the intensity of the prayer bceome diluted as you add names and include less intense situations? And shouldn't someone be left out, to be included in the catch-all בתוך שאר חולי ישראל, "among the other ill of Israel"?

So I've never had a great answer for this one… The best I can come up with is to reduce the frequency of including certain names, or to create a substitute practice for them, such as dedicating part of one's learning on their behalf, or including them in the general shul "Mi sheBeirach". But I'm still searching for criteria.


  1. On a personal level, the answer might be, "I limit my list of names that I mention to 4 names, so that I can actually focus on each individual. Everyone else gets included in b'soch sh'ar cholei yisrael." This is intellectually unsatisfying, but practically it might just work.

  2. A person with a mental illness may have no outward signs of illness at all, yet struggle indefinitely.

    I am currently davening that a friend who is bipolar and had a severe episode fairly recently remains healthy and does not relapse; I have not decided when I will stop - it is, as you say, very difficult.

  3. Its so sad. Would hate to see it in my life :(

  4. Michael-
    If only "4" wasn't such an arbitrary number!

    Very true; add that one to the cases above.

  5. Tehillim needs an exit strategy.

    I think one should take on saying tehillim for someone for a specified time period. Not open ended.

    In any event, I would assume once the person is ambulatory, you stop saying tehillim b/c he is no longer a choleh. A choleh is someone in bed for three days. That's my rule of thumb. So too you don't start saying tehillim unless they are actually bedridden for three days.

    Not that I advocate saying tehillim.

  6. What about when the Tehillim are not being recited for an individual? During the 2nd intifada in Israel, my shul starting saying 3 chapters after every davening "for eretz yisrael"

    Fast forward 10 years. We still say "tehillim for eretz yisrael" after every davening, including on Shabbat. Will the situation in Israel ever change to the point where the powers that be can decide that there's no need for the recitation? Aren't the Israelis under constant threat of attack? Have we now altered the basic structure of our tefilla so that now the daily davening includes 3 new chapters that heretofore did not appear in our siddurim? Is there/Should there be an exit strategy?

  7. Sometimes it's enough to ask the person who had requested it.

  8. In the yeshivos, they take the list off and replace with a blank sheet every Rpsh Chodesh for people to fill or refill names if need be. I think it's the best way to do it, removes need for follow up, or mistakes.

  9. Melech-
    You can really be that technical?

    Anonymous 5:29 PM-
    Indeed; I wrote about that some time back, but can't find it now.


    To me, the communal list is simpler to handle, as you describe; there is no great price in keeping on people who are chronically ill. The bigger problem is the personal list.

  10. Can I be that technical? Orthodoxy is a technocrat's dream.

    Anyway I didn't pull the definition of a choleh as confined to bed for three days out of thin air. It is relevant to birkat hagomel.

  11. I really do thing people should be careful not to take on tehillim, mishebeirachs or other prayers on behalf of the sick without an exit strategy. Never make it open ended.

    So that means foe example a time limit (eg. One month) or a finite number of times (three mishebeirachs... Whatever time or number limit).

    Then you can revisit it.

    Otherwise what happens is tehillim circles take on a name and sometimes have no idea who it is or what the ailment is, but feel guilty deleting anyone from the list.

    Always have a tehillim exit strategy.

  12. Melech-
    1. Yes, it has relevance in several areas.

    2. I agree that this is a good idea.