Reciting Tehillim for those who are ill has become a widespread and pedigreed righteous practice shared by scholar and layperson alike. To my knowledge, there are, at least, three avenues of explanation for this practice: 1. Tehillim as Torah Study; 2. Tehillim as Prayer; 3. and Tehillim as mystical practice. Before I can explain this more fully, I will share a Talmudic passage that relates to each of these three approaches. The Talmud teaches (Talmud Bavli, Shevuot 15b):
Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi would say these verses (Psalm 91) and then go to sleep. How could he do this? Didn’t Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi teach that it is forbidden to heal oneself with words of Torah?! To protect oneself (from a future harm) is different (than using biblical verses to heal oneself from an existing illness). But when he said that it was forbidden when there was present illness did he mean that it is only forbidden and nothing more? But we have learned in a Mishnah (TB, Sanhedrin 90b): One who whispers (a biblical verse) over an illness has (not only transgressed, but also has) no share in the World to Come! Concerning that Mishnah, Rabbi Yochanan said that the rabbis taught it in the (limited) case of one who spits upon his wound (and then recites the verses), for it is not permitted to mention the name of Heaven over spittle.
First, from this passage, we can infer that learning Torah, which includes reading Biblical verses, i.e. Tehillim/Psalms, is a meritorious obligation and discipline -- meritorious in its literal sense: it helps a person accumulate merit in the “eyes” of the Almighty. Those who study Torah, practice Mitzvot, and perform acts of loving-kindness, fulfill the word and will of the Creator, embody and enact God’s very own divine attributes, develop a closer spiritual relationship with the Omnipresent, and thus, tradition teaches, enjoy a greater level of protective providence and divine solicitude.
Second, while it is forbidden to use biblical verses as magical incantations, one can certainly use them to pray to God. “Lehitpallel – to pray” is understood in a Jewish context as a multi-directional activity. We turn to God to petition healing and protection. We often share these words amidst community, i.e., a minyan, to link our destinies, combine our collective merit, and affirm as a community our essential beliefs, hopes and needs. Even when we pray alone, by using common words such as Tehillim or our Siddur liturgy, rather than only using our personal words and subjective outpourings of our heart, we are still able to join in community across time and space. Finally, Jewish prayer is reflexive. We use ancient words and communal expressions to create an inner conversation, to discover deep within ourselves what we are feeling, what we truly need, and how to transcend our fear and suffering and find support in hope and faith. Sefer Tehillim – the Book of Psalms, is particularly suited to this process of reflection and personal discovery. In his book on Psalms during times of illness, For Thou Art with Me: The Healing Power of Psalms: Renewal, Recovery, and Acceptance From the Wolrd’s Most Beloved Ancient Verses (Daybreak/Rodale: 2000), my friend and colleague from Newton, MA, Rabbi Samuel Chiel, cites Abraham Joshua Heschel’s Man in Search of God: “It is more inspiring to let the heart echo the music of the ages than to play upon the broken flutes of our own hearts.” Rabbi Jonathan Sacks makes a similar point in his short essay, “Living with the Times: the Parasha,” in Covenant and Conversation: A Weekly Reading of the Jewish Bible, Genesis: The Book of Beginnings (Orthodox Union/Maggid: 2009).
Finally, as discerned in the Talmudic text above, there is a disputed tradition regarding the recitation of biblical verses to effect healing. The Torah prohibits the practice of magic, which the rabbis relate to the whispering of a biblical verse over a wound. Using a biblical verse as an incantation belongs to a pagan worldview that ascribes healing power outside of God, or believes that by saying certain words or phrases that we can force God’s hand. Maimonides, for example, writes (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Avodat Kokhavim 11:12):
A person who whispers an incantation over a wound and then recites a verse from the Torah … is considered to be a sorcerer or one who cast spells. Furthermore, such people are included among those who deny the Torah, because they relate to the words of Torah as if they are cures for the body, when, in fact, they are cures for the soul, as [Proverbs 3:22] states: "And they shall be life for your soul." It is, however, permitted for a healthy person to read verses [from the Bible] or chapters from Psalms so that the merit of reading them will protect him and save him from difficulties and injury.
While all authorities agree that reciting Psalms as incantations is forbidden, Jewish mystical practice does posit that the Mitzvot we practice and the prayers/verses we recite do have influence on the aligning of the celestial and earthly domains, thus aiding God’s healing emanations in their flow from on high to our world. This kabbalistic tradition, often emphasized in Chassidic teachings and practice, understands the recitation of Tehillim as particularly efficacious in facilitating the manifestation of God’s healing power in our world, and in particular, for named individuals on whose behalf the Tehillim are recited.
When the ancient psalmists gazed into the heavens, they did not behold an endless abyss of cosmic nothingness; rather, they beheld a God with whom they could audaciously and personally address as “You.” All these sundry personal pronouns and anthropomorphic metaphors serve to convey something profound about the mystery of God’s Presence and closeness to the world, without which God could not be known. Martin Buber notes that in addition, anthropomorphic language reflects.
Certain psalms give expression to our deepest yearnings that God is attentive to our prayers. Jewish mystics seem to believe that the psalms act as spiritual conduits, providing the worshiper with a language of prayer since not everyone is articulate!
· Our need to preserve the concrete quality is evidenced in the encounter. . . .It is in the encounter itself that we are confronted with something compellingly anthropomorphic, something demanding reciprocity, a primary You. This is true of those moments of our daily life in which we become aware of the reality that is absolutely independent of us, whether it be as power or as glory, no less than of the hours of great revelation of which only a halting record has been handed down to us. 
When viewed from this perspective, the God we encounter in the Psalms is not the God of the philosophers who often conceived God as the Creator of the Cosmos. In the Psalms, God is also a Redeemer Who takes cognizance of human prayer and the heart that suffers. In the final analysis, to the Psalmists of old, God is a relational Being Who seeks to heal the shattered human heart (Psalm 147:2). The psalmists believe in a concept that is sometimes better described as “cosmic personalism.”
Psalm 8:5-10 really captures the beauty of this theological and spiritual concept in a way that captures the fragility and potential greatness of the human condition.
· What are humans that you are mindful of them,
mere mortals that you care for them?
Yet you have made them little less than a god,
crowned them with glory and honor.
You have given them rule over the works of your hands,
put all things at their feet:
All sheep and oxen, even the beasts of the field,
The birds of the air, the fish of the sea,
and whatever swims the paths of the seas.
O LORD, our Lord,
How awesome is your name through all the earth!
Not all Psalms are the same; the Psalter (i.e., the composer) expresses feelings of doom and gloom, sickness, homelessness, birth and rebirth, death, joy, reflections, gratitude—a cacophony of emotions that even the most common worshiper in a synagogue or church can readily identify and understand.
Jewish tradition has long encouraged Jews of all generations to see their personal narrative as something that is embedded in the words of the Psalms. The Psalmist in essence created a liturgical template for all Jews to use regardless of their spiritual circumstances.
Psalms of healing vary from community to community; Chabad is fond of saying Pss. 20, 6, 9, 13, 16, 17, 18, 22, 23, 28, 30, 31, 32, 33, 37, 38, 39, 41, 49, 55, 56, 69, 86, 88, 89, 90, 91, 102, 103, 104, 107, 116, 118, 142, 143, and 148—a total number of 36, which equals 2 x 18 (chai, “life”). Bratzlav Hassidim are fond of saying Psalms 16, 32, 41, 42, 59, 77, 90, 105, 137, 150 during their midnight prayers that mourn for the loss of the Temple.
Sephardic and many Kabbalistic Jews are accustomed to recite Psalm 119, which is an acrostic psalm that contains all the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. It is apropos to say out loud the verses letters of the verses corresponding to each of the sick person’s—or deceased person’s Hebrew name (i.e., the latter would apply on a Yahrzeit).
Lastly, you may want to read the Psalms just to familiarize yourself with these ancient prayers and personally choose the Psalms that speak directly to you and your situation.
There are many different traditions around the recitation of Psalms. One tradition is to recite Psalms all night while holding vigil with a corpse the night before burial. Certain Psalms are recited in connection with various holidays. In some traditional communities, people are encouraged to recite the Psalms every day. According to midrash, King David created the psalms to fit every occasion, every need. Many of the psalms contain messages of comfort and hope, and as such are appropriate to say at the bedside of one who is ill.
Copyright 2014 all rights reserved. Jewish Values Online
N O T I C E
THE VIEWS EXPRESSED IN ANSWERS PROVIDED HEREIN ARE THOSE OF THE INDIVIDUAL JVO PANEL MEMBERS, AND DO NOT
NECESSARILY REFLECT OR REPRESENT THE VIEWS OF THE ORTHODOX, CONSERVATIVE OR REFORM MOVEMENTS, RESPECTIVELY.