Question: Can one fulfill the Mitzvah of visiting the sick by calling the individual on the phone or must one physically go and visit the sick person?
Answer: In the previous Halacha we have explained the primary ideas behind the Mitzvah of visiting the sick which is meant to assist the ill individual and to take care of all of his needs.
Maran Rabbeinu Ovadia Yosef zt”l writes that by personally visiting the sick individual, one gets a first-hand impression regarding the individual’s plight, since seeing has more of an impact than merely hearing, and as a result, one will be moved to pray to Hashem to have mercy on this individual with all of one’s heart. Indeed, the Gemara (Nedarim 40a) tells us that when one visits the sick, one requests Heavenly mercy for him to live and one who does not visit the sick does not request mercy for him.
This means that as a result of visiting the sick person, one is moved to request Heavenly mercy for him and that Hashem send His word and heal him by placing knowledge and understanding in the minds of the doctors to bring him to a speedy and full recovery, as the verse states, “He sent His word and healed them and delivered them from their graves.” This certainly makes one’s prayer closer to being answered, as the Gemara (Shabbat 12b) states that Hashem’s presence is above the head of a sick person, as the verse states, “Hashem shall assist him on his sickbed.” The Ramban mentions all of these reasons in his Sefer Torat Ha’Adam with regards to the Mitzvah of visiting the sick and he concludes, “thus, one who visits the sick and does not request Heavenly mercy for him has not fulfilled this Mitzvah.”
We have written other reasons behind the Mitzvah of visiting the sick, such as seeing first-hand what the individual requires and offering any assistance necessary and clearly, this is not applicable until one personally goes and visits the sick individual and suffices by calling him on the phone.
Thus, Maran zt”l writes (in his Responsa Yechave Da’at, Volume 3, Chapter 83) that if one is able to go visit the sick individual himself, one does not fulfill his obligation completely by calling him or sending him a letter. Even of one knows for certain that the ill individual does not require any physical or emotional assistance whatsoever, nevertheless, we have written above that one of the main ideas behind this Mitzvah is in order for one to pray for the individual.
Although requesting Heavenly mercy for the individual can be performed even when not in the ill individual’s presence, such as by saying a “Mi She’Berach” prayer on behalf of the person while praying with a Minyan (which is extremely beneficial since anywhere ten or more men pray, Hashem’s presence rests upon them, as the Gemara states in Sanhedrin 39a), nevertheless, praying for the sick individual in the individual’s presence is more beneficial, based on the Gemara (Berachot 34a) which states, “One who prays for an ill individual need not mention his name, as the verse states, ‘Oh G-d, please heal her.’” This verse refers to Moshe Rabbeinu praying to Hashem to heal his sister Miriam from her leprosy and he did not mention her name in his prayer. Although the holy Zohar states that one must mention names within one’s prayer, as Yaakov Avinu said in his prayer, “Please save me from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esav,” nevertheless, the Magen Avraham explains that only when praying in the presence of the sick person need one not mention his name. However, when is praying not in the presence of the ill individual, one must mention his name. A prayer without mentioning the ill person’s name, meaning when one prays in the presence of the individual, is the most beneficial kind of prayer, for sometimes, the ill person’s name is what causes his illness and mentioning his name will only serve to arouse more Heavenly judgment. Thus, praying in the presence of the sick person has great benefits that do not exist when praying not in his presence.
Thus, by inquiring about the welfare of an ill person via telephone, one cannot fully fulfill the Mitzvah of visiting the sick, for an integral part of this Mitzvah is praying for him in his presence which is more prone to bring about his recovery. Hagaon Harav Moshe Feinstein zt”l rules likewise.
Nevertheless, if one cannot personally visit the sick individual, such as when the patient has a contagious illness like the Coronavirus, it is nevertheless good for one to call the individual to encourage him, lift his spirits, and wish him a speedy recovery, for in this manner, at least some of the points of the Mitzvah of visiting the sick are fulfilled.
Indeed, when Maran zt”l’s wife fell ill and was unconscious for a long time, Maran would take care to take some time out of his busy schedule to go visit her every day and pray for her in her presence. When other relatives fell ill at different times and Maran zt”l could not go and physically visit them, Maran sufficed by calling them on the phone and wishing them a full and speedy recovery.
Although there are those who rule that one need not be concerned about contracting a contagious illness when one stays far away and the like, nevertheless, Maran zt”l rejects this position, for even in a case of doubt regarding a life-threatening situation, one must act stringently and not take any chances. This was indeed the behavior of many great luminaries of the previous generations during outbreaks of epidemics and pandemics.
Those who treat COVID restrictions lightly, whether in the context of prayer in synagogues or mass weddings and the like, will be judged severely by Hashem, for such behavior clearly stands contrary to everything our holy Torah stands for. Even if some rabbis and communal leaders instruct people to act in this manner, they are certainly vastly outnumbered by the Sages of the Talmud and the great Poskim throughout the ages who strongly warned against such reckless behavior.