JStandard: My Dear Rabbi Talmudic Advice Column for November: Praying for a sick pet and making Talmudic Life Decisions

Published in The Jewish Standard: Dear Rabbi. Your Talmudic Advice Column

Dear Rabbi,

In our shul on Shabbat, in the middle of the Torah Reading Service, the Gabbai announces that he is going to recite the prayer for those who are sick. He says that when he pauses at the place for the name of the sick person, anyone who wishes to make a prayer for someone who is ill should stand in his pew and speak the name of the person they wish to include in the prayer. I follow the instructions and in an undertone, at the pause, I recite the legal name of my friends and relatives who are ailing. I also include the name of my pet dog who is ill. Is this okay?

Love my pet

Dear Pet Lover,

You ask about whom we can pray for in the synagogue, and how we can pray for them. Yes, in my view you can include anyone you want in your mesheberach prayer list. In that prayer we ask that God who blessed our ancestors (Hebrew words: “mi sheberach”) to bestow on the people whom we name, “healing of the soul and healing of the body -- along with (healing) all the ill of Israel (some add: and all the ill who dwell on Earth)… soon, speedily, without delay, and let us all say: Amen.”

There are several issues related to your question. To begin with, is there any evidence that prayers like this one that we make for the sick are effective? Second, when you recite the prayer does it matter with what name you identify the person for whom you are praying? Third, can you pray for the health of an animal?

I’m quite accommodating and nonjudgmental about whom you pray for and what name you use in this prayer for the sick. Put simply, because we recently and openly made up this mode of praying, we have much leeway to accept as valid whatever we deem proper for the prayer.

In some of our local Teaneck shuls we changed these prayers to fill-in-the-blank-at-your-pew-recitations just a few years ago. It used to be the case that those who wanted to make an individual prayer on behalf of a sick person would go up to the bimah and request that the gabbai recite an individual prayer or recite the Hebrew name of the ill person aloud from his list.

The stipulation in the text is clear -- that the person who seeks the prayer for healing will make a donation on behalf of the sick person. The recent change from gabbai-recited prayers for each sick person to a more economical prayer for all was necessitated perhaps by the large number of people on whose behalf people in the synagogue are praying these days. And likely it was motivated by the lack of patience that synagogue-goers have for a few extra minutes it would take to recite all of those names aloud in the prayer for the sick.

It’s possible that you will find some rabbis who will say that you may make this prayer for Jews only, and not for pets, and that you must use the Hebrew name of the person you are praying for and his or her parents’ names, also in Hebrew. Still, it’s my view that you can include the name of anyone you wish, using any form of the name, and pets are included. My reasoning is that God can tell who you are praying for even if you use a person's legal name, and even if you just imagine a mental picture of the person.

You still might object about pets, because some people consider pets to be property and unworthy of synagogue prayers. On this subject consider the essay by Gregory Berns in the New York Times (10-5-2013), called “Dogs are People Too.” Berns argues, “…by using the M.R.I. to push away the limitations of behaviorism, we can no longer hide from the evidence. Dogs, and probably many other animals (especially our closest primate relatives), seem to have emotions just like us. And this means we must reconsider their treatment as property.”

Most pet owners know on their own that their pet is "people too," even without the support of a quasi-scientific study summarized by the Times. Taking this perspective into account, you certainly can pray for a pet who is ill.

There are those who will argue that a prayer for a specific sick person is a lot of hocus-pocus, a magical wish that has no place in our religion. Yet on the other side of that argument, there are recent credible studies that have been conducted that show that prayer-at-a-distance for a sick person is effective in helping that person recover. Larry Dossey argued in his well-known 2011 book “Healing Words” that prayer is as “valid and vital a healing tool as drugs or surgery.”

So to sum up, continue to pray for your list of people who are ill. And include your pet as well. May they all have a refuah shelemah – complete and speedy recoveries.

Finally, there are recent credible studies that have been conducted that show that prayer-at-a-distance for a sick person is effective in helping that person recover. Larry Dossey argued in his well-known 2011 book “Healing Words” that prayer is as “valid and vital a healing tool as drugs or surgery.”
So to sum up, you should continue to pray for your list of persons who are ill. And you may include your pet as well. May they all have a refuah shelemah – complete and speedy recoveries.

Dear Rabbi,

I want to improve the quality of my existence – to have better relationships, make better investments, more sensible purchases, and in general to lead a healthier and happier life. How can a Talmudic approach to decision making help me?

Wants Better Outcomes
Woodcliff Lake

Dear Wants Better,

No matter how much we crave stability and seek out guidance from others for right paths for our actions and ethics, life throws our way many situations that require us to make crucial decisions on our own.

The authors of the Talmud developed an energetic view of how to deal with the world, based on several vital premises. The talmudic approach can provide you with the equipment to make the choices that you need to make at the crucial junctures of your life’s challenges. You can extract these Talmudic premises and live by them. Here is a brief capsule view of some of the fundamentals as I see them.

Premise one: The goal of talmudic culture is that all Jews become rabbis and live as rabbis. That means all Jews ought to become talmudic virtuosos who can have opinions, state opinions, argue opinions and make decisions.

Premise two: Jews and all persons are possessors of individual personalities. Every person needs to recognize his or her own composition and the distinctive personality elements of his or her relatives, friends and neighbors.

Premise three: The world throws thorny problems that require complex solutions at you. Talmudic culture recognizes that our world is not populated by simple artificial dualisms like yin and yang, good and evil, mind and body.

Premise four: You and your neighbors act to make choices in dynamic ways, working energetically in varied roles and in changing modes.

Based on those suppositions, here are some of the many Talmudic ways that I employ to look at a situation and make a decision—ways that recognize that I may act through a multiplicity of divergent roles and forces.

Before I make a decision I strive to be part meditative and part mystical. I need to take account of forces visible and invisible before I make a choice. That means to assess a situation I look carefully – like a mindful meditator—at what tangible forces surround me. But I also imagine – like a mystic—how other imperceptible intangibles that are not present can come into play.

Before I make a decision I make efforts to be part scribal and part priestly. I look for all the details related to the situation, and I make lists, as an ancient scribe had to do to make accurate scrolls and records. And in addition I accept the reality that we possess received traditions that govern how we think and act, as an ancient priest had do when he performed the rituals in the Temple.

When finally I make a decision I act in part as a performer and in part as a competitor. I recognize that I need to know my lines and my texts when I go into any congregation, into any meeting. I must know my co-players and my audience as best as I can. And I derive my energy from the adventure of competing in the arena of my choosing, whether it is in business, professional or academic. Of course, when the score is tallied, I want to be number one, the victor, amidst high drama, and yet accompanied by impeccable sportsmanship.

In sum: in approaching all decisions I employ what I call “a Talmudic approach to living” that is multi-textured and analytical. Adhering to such demanding yet inspiring Talmudic modes of action has helped me to achieve better relationships, make better decisions and live a happier life.

The Dear Rabbi column offers timely advice based on timeless Talmudic wisdom. It aspires to be equally respectful and meaningful to all varieties and denominations of Judaism. You can find it here on the first Friday of the month. Send your questions to DearRabbi@jewishmediagroup.com

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