Question: Is there a Jewish prayer I can recite for my friend with cancer?
Dear Rabbi Goldwasser,
I have a Jewish friend whose cancer has spread. She has many friends of different religions who are praying for her. She has no problem with this as all prayers help. She was saying there must be equivalent prayers in our heritage. Years ago, when my husband was ill, I was given a poster from a Rabbi from Young Israel. It is the Asher Yotzar prayer. Is this a suitable prayer/poster to pass on to her in her circumstance?
Thank you for helping, Marcia
Answer: Dear Marcia,
Thank you for your letter. You ask about an appropriate Jewish prayer for the healing of your Jewish friend who is battling cancer. You also ask about a specific prayer, "Asher Yotzar."
This prayer ("Asher Yatzar" in the more common Sephardic pronunciation) traditionally is recited every day by Jews as an acknowledgement of the miracle of the human body and of our indebtedness to God for its design and function. It is not intended as a prayer for the sick. Rather, it is a prayer that anyone can say in witness of their own body's intricacies and continued existence.
Here is a modern translation of "Asher Yatzar":
"Blessed are You, Eternal our God, who formed the human body with wisdom and placed within it a miraculous combination of openings and organs. It is evident and known before Your honored throne, that if only one of them should be opened or blocked at the wrong time, it would be impossible to exist and stand before You. Blessed are You, Eternal One, the healer of all flesh and worker of wonders."
Traditionally, this prayer is recited after using the bathroom and also as part of the blessings at the beginning of morning worship.
Judaism does have a tradition of prayers for the sick. The most familiar of these is the "Mi Shebeirach" prayer that is usually recited during the service for the reading of the Torah. Here is a translation of the version used in many Reform congregations:
"May the One who blessed our ancestors, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah, bless [names] with healing. May the Holy One have mercy on them, heal, strengthen and revive them. Speedily grant them a complete healing, a healing of the soul and a healing of the body, along with all who are ill, now and swiftly. And let us say: Amen."
I would also recommend a prayer found in the Torah (Numbers 12:13). When Moses' sister, Miriam, is struck by disease, Moses offers the shortest prayer in the Hebrew Bible:
"Eil na rafa na la."
"Please, God, please heal her."
You may use this simple prayer to speak eloquently your hope and prayer for your friend. I hope it brings comfort and strength to you and your friend.
Rabbi Jeffrey W. Goldwasser