There is a basic human urge to want to help another, especially someone who is sick. Visiting the sick is a great kindness, one which, in theory, we would all readily perform. When considering visiting the sick in a halachic context, however, the exact nature of the mitzvah is unclear. First, what is the source for this mitzvah, and second, is visiting the sick a biblical or rabbinic mitzvah? As we shall see, there is a dispute among the early commentators about both of these issues, which may lead to differences in the method of our performance of this most basic mitzvah.
Three Different Sources Brought in the Talmud
The Gemara in Masechet Sota derives the mitzvah of visiting the sick from a verse in Devarim: “אחרי ה’ אלוקיכם תלכו”, “follow after the Lord your God.” The Gemara explains that just as God visits the sick – as is evident from the story in Bereishit with Avraham – so too must we emulate His ways and visit the sick.
However the Gemara in Masechet Bava Metzia brings another verse to derive the mitzvah of visiting the sick: “וְהוֹדַעְתָּ֣ לָהֶ֗ם אֶת־הַדֶּ֙רֶךְ֙ יֵ֣לְכוּ בָ֔הּ וְאֶת־הַֽמַּעֲשֶׂ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר יַעֲשֽׂוּן”, “And you shall show them the path in which they shall walk and the action they must perform.” This pasuk is part of the advice that Yitro gave Moshe Rabbeinu. The Gemara explains that the term in the pasuk “ילכו – they shall walk,” refers to the mitzvah of visiting the sick.
Yet a third source is brought in the Gemara in Nedarim from Bamidbar in the context of the episode of Korach: “אִם־כְּמ֤וֹת כָּל־הָֽאָדָם֙ יְמֻת֣וּן אֵ֔לֶּה וּפְקֻדַּת֙ כָּל־הָ֣אָדָ֔ם יִפָּקֵ֖ד עֲלֵיהֶ֑ם לֹ֥א יְקֹוָ֖ק שְׁלָחָֽנִי”, “if these men die the common death of all men, and be visited after the visitation of all men, then the Lord has not sent me.” The Gemara states: “Reish Lakish said: From where is there an allusion from the Torah to visiting the ill? It is as it is stated: “If these men die the common death of all men, and be visited after the visitation of all men, then the Lord has not sent me.”
The Opinions of the Rishonim
The Behag lists the mitzvah of visiting the sick as one of the biblical mitzvot, yet he does not give the source or the reason for his codification. The Ramban explains that the source of the Behag is based on verse “והלכת בדרכיו”, “and you should emulate His ways,” and the Gemara cited above from Masechet Sota. In the Behag’s opinion, visiting the sick is part of emulating God. The Ramban further elaborates that the pasuk in Shemot cannot be used as the primary source as this is only the advice of Yitro to Moshe, and does not necessarily constitute a commandment.
Some Acharonim state that Rabbeinu Yona also holds that visiting the sick is a biblical mitzvah with the source being the pasuk in Yitro of “והודעת להם”, as quoted in Mesechet Bava Metzia.
Based on the Gemara in Nedarim, the Shelah writes that it is clear that the mitzvah of visiting the sick is biblical, as the Gemara writes, “from where is it known that visiting the sick is from the Torah.” However, the text extant in our version of the Gemara is slightly different, as it adds the word “allusion,” implying that the source given in the Gemara is only an asmachta and of a rabbinic nature.
It could be argued that even with the version of the text that we have, one could still derive from the Gemara in Nedarim that the mitzvah is biblical. Indeed, this approach has a basis in the commentary of the Rosh on Masechet Nedarim, who states as follows: “Where is there an allusion to visiting the sick from the Torah? Meaning, where is there an explicit allusion? For that which is derived in the Gemara Bava Kamma 100a and Bava Metzia 30b, from the verse “yelchu” is not explicit.”
The Rosh seems to hold that the mitzvah is biblical, even with the version of the text that contains the word “allusion,” and this may be the basis of the Shelah’s opinion. However, one could understand that the Rosh only intended that the allusion mentioned in the Gemara in Bava Metzia from the verse “yelchu” does not even hint to visiting the sick, and is based completely on a derivation of the Sages. On the other hand, the verse brought in the Gemara in Nedarim is more explicit in its connection to visiting the sick, yet remains only an allusion, and therefore the mitzvah is rabbinic in nature. Indeed, this is how the Tzitz Eliezer explains the Rosh.
Up to this point, we have seen that the Behag, and potentially Rabbeinu Yona and the Rosh, hold that the mitzvah is biblical. Each of these Rishonim derived the mitzvah from one of the three sources brought in the three sugyot mentioned above.
However, the Rambam has a completely different understanding. The Rambam writes in Hilchot Avel as follows: “It is a rabbinic positive precept to visit the sick, comfort the mourners, escort the dead… Even though all these precepts are of rabbinic origin, they are implied in the biblical verse: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Vayikra 19:18); that is, whatever you would have others do to you, do to those who are your brothers in Torah and precepts.”
The Rambam appears to ignore all three verses mentioned in the three sugyot brought above and instead views the basis of the mitzvah as included in the general mitzvah of “ve’ahavta l’rei’acha kamocha.”
In addition, we must understand why the Rambam begins his codification of this mitzvah by stating that it is a positive rabbinic precept, but then adds that it is included in the general Torah obligation of “loving one’s neighbor.” How exactly are we to understand the wording of the Rambam? Does he hold that the mitzvah is biblical or rabbinic?
Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik explains that although there is a Torah obligation of performing acts of kindness based on the verse of ואהבת לרעך כמוך, the Sages instituted the mitzvah of performing acts of kindness on a rabbinic level as well. The biblical obligation is based on the principle that one has to do to others what one would want done to himself, whereas the Sages instituted the performance of acts of kindness on a rabbinic level that are not dependent on this rule.
The Tzitz Eliezer understands the Rambam slightly differently. In his opinion, although there is an overarching obligation from the Torah, the Sages were given the mandate to define the specific halachot and definitions of how to fulfill specific mitzvot.
Halachic Ramifications of the Source of the Mitzvah
There could be an inherent difference whether the source of the mitzvah is derived from imitating God’s attributes – as the Behag holds – or whether it is couched in the mitzvah of loving one’s neighbor, as the Rambam holds. Imitating God’s attributes falls under the rubric of mitzvot between man and God, while the mitzvah of loving one’s neighbor is within the rubric of mitzvot between fellow human beings. If we were to posit that visiting the sick was based on the verse of “loving one’s neighbor as oneself,” one might arrive at the conclusion that the mitzvah could be limited to scenarios where we ourselves would want to be visited if we were in the same situation, or where the sick person wants people to visit him, and also might be limited to Jews. However, if this mitzvah is in essence part of the mitzvah of Imatatio Dei – imitating God – it would make no difference whether we would want to be visited ourselves if we were in the same scenario or whether the sick person is desirous of visitors, nor would one have a basis to limit this mitzvah to Jews alone. Another possible ramification could be whether an enemy of a sick person can visit the sick person. The Maharil permits this while the Rema prohibits visiting one’s enemy.
Furthermore, one could suggest that the nature of the mitzvah according to the Rambam is to create a better society, whereas the Behag focuses on the individual’s development, irrespective of the outcome to society.
Halachic Ramifications of Whether the Mitzvah is Biblical or Rabbinic
In addition to the potential halachic ramifications based on the source of the mitzvah, a number of practical ramifications could also stem from whether this mitzvah is of a biblical or rabbinic nature, which as we saw, appears to be subject to a dispute among the Rishonim. If it is biblical in nature, a person visiting the sick might be exempt from performing another Torah obligation due to the principle of osek b’mitzvah patur min hamitzvah. However, if it is only a rabbinic mitzvah, this might not apply. Another possible ramification might be whether kohanim are permitted to enter a hospital to visit the sick. If someone in the hospital has passed away, the kohen may become tamei when entering the building, depending upon the structure and the layout of the particular building in question. One could argue that the answer to this question might hinge upon whether the mitzvah of bikur cholim being fulfilled is biblical or not, though most of the poskim that deal with this question did not make such a distinction.
Although there is a dispute among the Rishonim as to the actual source of the mitzvah of bikur cholim and whether it is a biblical or rabbinic obligation, it is agreed upon by all that this is a great mitzvah that we should all strive to fulfill. By visiting the sick and davening for them, we can sometimes literally save lives.
 Masechet Sota 14a
 Devarim 13:5
 Bereishit 18:1
 Masechet Bava Metzia 30b
 Shemot 18:20
 Masechet Nedarim 39b
 Bamidbar 16:29
 Introduction to Sefer Ba’al Hilchot Gedolot, Minyan Ha’asin, mitzvah 36
 Hasagot HaRamban on the Rambam, Sefer HaMitzvot, Shoresh 1
 Chokkei Lev quoted in the Sedei Chemed, Maarechet Bet, klal 116. The Sedei Chemed himself argues that Rabbeinu Yona holds that the mitzvah is derabanan, and the fact that Rabbeinu Yona states that one who is osek in visiting the sick is patur from a mitzvah de’oraita (the reason why Rabbeinu Yona is often quoted as holding that the mitzvah has a de’oraita status) is not a proof, as the Sedei Chemed holds that even a mitzvah derabanan can exempt a person from a mitzvah de’oraita.
 Shelah, Pesachim, Ner Mitzvah 75
 In Talmudical hermeneutics, an asmachta is a hint found in the Hebrew Bible for rabbinic prohibitions or any other halacha. It is different than most other forms of Talmudic hermeneutics, since it doesn’t base the law on the cited verse, but uses the verse as a hint. For more information, see
 Responsa Tzitz Eliezer 5, Ramat Rachel 4
 Rambam, Hilchot Avel 14:1
 Reshimot Shiurim HaGrid, Bava Kamma 100a
 Rav Hershel Schachter stated in a shiur that the mitzvah of v’ahavta l’reicha kamocha is limited to Jews, while the mitzvah of v’halachta bidrachav applies to all people.
 Responsa Maharil 197
 Rema, Yoreh Deah 335
 However, the proofs brought by the Maharil and Rema seem to ignore this distinction and actually refute the notion that this halachic debate stems from the chakira (analytical question) above.
 See Sedei Chemed, Maarechet Bet, klal 116 who discusses this issue.
 See, for example, Responsa Shevet HaLevi 5:184, who quotes the Shulchan Aruch, Y.D. 372, who permits a kohen to become tamei miderabanan in order to fulfill the mitzvah of nichum aveilim and then cites the Aruch HaShulchan who applies the same principle to bikur cholim. Based on this, he allows a kohen to enter a hospital to visit the sick, as the principle of sof tuma latzeit (a complex principle that often causes tumat meit to be transferred through a large building such as a hospital) is derabanan. However, the Shevet HaLevi does not focus on whether bikur cholim is a biblical or rabbinic mitzvah.