When You Have Nobody to Pray For

Art of Healing
Creative Commons License photo credit: h.koppdelaney

At some point during the Shabbat service there comes a moment when the leader stops and invites the congregation to speak the names of people in need of healing. The congregation, having heard those names, keeps those people in their thoughts as a prayer is spoken.

The prayer is the Mi Sheberach. It is based on a tersely worded entreaty to God by Moses himself – the shortest supplication recorded in Torah: “El na refa na la” (Please God, heal her now!”). It appears in Parsha Beha’alotcha, which we’ll read this comming Shabbat.

There is, of course, something every exposing about the whole process. I know people who would be horrified to know that they had been “outed” in this way.

I don’t believe the tradition developed as a way to satisfy the voyeuristic impulse. I believe that the mi sheberach is a communal experience. We say the names out loud and in the public of our chosen community so that everyone can know when someone needs support without the need for the suffer-er to ask people directly, or to have someone ask on their behalf.

This week, I realized that having this moment during the service accomplishes another important task: it’s a good indicator of how self-absorbed you are.

There are plenty of good reasons not to speak someone’s name: you know someone else is in the congregation is going to do it, you don’t know their Hebrew name and your congregation prefers it, etc. But even so, you have have a name in mind. Your intention is clear.

This week – as most weeks – I sat silently as those around me spoke the names of those they knew who needed healing. I marveled at the 3 people who each held a list of a dozen (or more) names to recite. And that’s when it struck me:

If you have nobody in your life who needs healing on some level; nobody in such a condition – whom you know well enough to want to say their name out loud in the congregation – then there are really only two explanations:

  • Either you are remarkably blessed to be surrounded by incredibly healthy people…
  • Or you are so wrapped up in your own life that you aren’t paying attention to those around you. You aren’t part of your community at all.

So… which is it, and what are you going to do about it?

One Response to “When You Have Nobody to Pray For”

  1. Gedaliah Yitzchak says:


    Thank you for your insights.

    My Rav in Toronto held differently.

    He says that the Mi Shabereach prayer the leader does by the Torah is only for acute illness – in his words, “The person is on the table right now.”
    He shuned the concept in some (many?) shuls of people queuing up, armed with lists of names.
    There is also no such thing as people being permanently placed on this list. No one is having surgery permanently.
    If you know someone who will be having surgery at that time, then call it into the shul and we’ll read their name.
    It was unusual for people to line up like they do at other shuls. And we didn’t keep lists of names from one week to another for the reason described above.
    He felt that it was an unnecessary interruption in the service that encouraged unnecessary talking among the worshipers.
    All of this, not to to mention that Shabbos really isn’t the time to be beseeching G-d.
    He was hesitant to ban it outright on Shabbos because although weekdays are the more proper time, people do not have time to wait around for names to be read as they have to run off to work.
    “Besides”, he added, “if I were to ban it on Shabbos, we’d have a revolt in the Synagogue.”

    So, with that being said, I’ll take your first option, I do not know anyone who is “undergoing the knife” at that moment.

Leave a Reply