The Talmud recounts that when Rabbi Hiya bar Abba was ill, Rabbi Yohanan went to visit him. “Is your suffering dear to you?” asked Rabbi Yohanan. The sick Rabbi Hiya bar Abba retorted: “I don’t want the suffering, nor the reward that comes with accepting the suffering.” Rabbi Yohanan outstretched his arm: “Give me your hand.” Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba extended his hand and Rabbi Yonahan restored him to health (Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 5b).
Is it necessary to touch someone in order to be a mystical medium for their recovery?
In 1842, Rabbi Hayim Hager of Kosov (1795-1854) travelled with his son, Menahem Mendel (1830-1884), to the home of Rabbi Yisrael of Ruzhin (1796-1850) – then in Sadigora. The reason for the journey was that his young son was betrothed to Miriam (1826-1882), the daughter of the Holy Ruzhiner.
Menahem Mendel would later become the founder of Vizhnitz Hasidism, but at the time he was a young boy flanked by two famed leaders with illustrious Hasidic lineage. Perhaps in a bid to encourage the young boy, Rabbi Yisrael of Ruzhin declared that it is important to praise the groom in front of the bride, and to praise the bride in front of the groom. He began by singing the praises of his daughter, before turning to heap blessings on the groom.
While the Holy Ruzhiner was sitting next to his prospective son-in-law and offering the boy his blessings, he did not put his hands on the boy’s head: “It is not necessary to bless with the hands,” explained Rabbi Yisrael of Ruzhin, “The mouth is holier than the hands.”
Offering a proof text for his claim, the Holy Ruzhiner referenced Moses’ instruction to Aaron regarding the priestly blessing: “Thus shall you bless the people of Israel. Say to them” (Numbers 6:23) – say with the mouth, not with the hands. Indeed – explained the Holy Ruzhiner – blessings are transferred by speech, not by touch.
Perhaps even speech is not necessary in order to transfer blessings. It once happened that three great Hasidic masters perchanced together: the aforementioned Rabbi Yisrael of Ruzhin together with two older contemporaries – Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Heshel of Opatow (1748-1825) and Rabbi Moshe Zvi Gitterman of Sawran (1775-1837). Drinks were placed before the Hasidic leaders so that they could imbibe a l’haim together.
Rabbi Moshe of Sawran drank and dutifully shook hands with the others as he wished them a long life. Rabbi Yisrael of Ruzhin – who would have still been in his twenties – then drank, offering his blessings verbally but without shaking hands with the others.
Rabbi Moshe of Sawran was perturbed and responded by referencing the verse “He gave an order and healed them” (Psalms 107:20): The first letter of the Hebrew words of the verse – yishlah devaro veyirpa’em – spells the word yado, his hand. Rabbi Moshe of Sawran explained that in order to merit God giving the order to heal, one needs to shake hands.
The Holy Ruzhiner responded: the final letters of those very words spell the word mo’ah, the mind. Rabbi Yisrael of Ruzhin did not explain what he exactly meant. Presumably, he was suggesting that there is no need for a thaumaturgic touch in order to transmit blessings. Good intentions and positive thoughts can trigger God’s blessings for healing.
In a different iteration of this story, Rabbi Shalom Rosenfeld of Kaminka (1800-1851) told Rabbi Yisrael of Ruzhin that his master, Rabbi Shalom Rokeah of Belz (1781-1855) had such spiritually refined hands that he could heal by touch. The Holy Ruzhiner retorted by recounting the last letter acronym and adding: “With the mind alone one can work wonders.”
Rabbi Yisrael of Ruzhin expressed a preference for sofei teivot – an acronym made from the final letters of the words – rather than rashei teivot – the more standard acronym made from the first letters of words. The Holy Ruzhiner did not explain his preference. Perhaps we might suggest that first-letter acronyms are like accessing the world of mysticism through the main entrance, whereas last-letter acronyms are like sneaking in through the back door. There are times when the main gates are open for our blessings. A warm handshake or heartfelt words of comfort convey caring and may strengthen the recipient. Yet there are times when our blessings cannot gain admittance through the front door. We have to find a way to breach the fortress, so we dart around to a back entrance – sofei teivot. Blessings conjured up in the mind, furtively find a way to provide solace.
Over the last year, medical experts have taught us about the dangers of extending a hand. Whether the intention is to express human warmth or to convey divine blessings, we have been warned that one could be transmitting a deadly virus. Heaping verbal blessings has also become challenging, as we have been taught about the dangers of face-to-face conversation. We have been forced to communicate from behind masks, or with hard plastic dividers separating us, or in virtual gatherings.
As we pine for God to give the order and heal everyone the world over, we do well to remember the counsel of Rabbi Yisrael of Ruzhin: There are ways to convey God’s blessings even without touching. Experts might tell us not to extend a hand, and they may instruct us to cover our mouths, muffling the blessings we aspire to bestow. Mentally, however, we are still able to wish each other well and focus on the blessings we wish to transmit.
Perhaps the Holy Ruzhiner was also suggesting that we should use the common sense of our minds in order to make sure that we are sources of salvation rather than sickness; conveyers of boons rather than bugs.
The Maggid of Melbourne is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassa. He is a teaching fellow at Tel Aviv University’s Faculty of Law. His column appears in The Jerusalem Post Magazine. He can be contacted at email@example.com.