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Prayers at the Time of Death

Prayers of a Sick Person Facing Critical Illness or a Major Procedure

Classic Jewish thought views terminal illness as an important time for introspection, prayer, and repentance.  One of the clearest expressions of this belief is the recital of a vidui confession and Shema Yisrael prayer.

The goal of these prayers is to stimulate moments of spiritual reflection and elevation, including: 

  • Proclaiming faith in God and His justice
  • Repentance
  • Reconciliation and conflict resolution
  • Asking for and granting forgiveness
  • Imparting final blessings and advice about living a good life
  • Getting one’s affairs in order before death

Given these goals, it is best for a person to recite such prayers when they are clear-minded.  A person can recite them at any time of critical illness or danger, including before a major surgery or other procedure. He or she should not see this as a portent of their impending death as repentance is always beneficial. In fact, in some historical European communities, all patients suffering from a critical illness for at least three days would be told to recite the vidui confession, thereby making it a standard element of coping with severe sickness. Should a person end up dying, they will have left the world in a state of greater purity and tranquility

The vidui text also includes a prayer for recovery, making a fitting prayer to recite at any pivotal crossroads in one’s healthcare journey.

Indeed, classic rabbinic texts state that the person should be told, “Many have confessed and not died, and many did not confess and died. As a reward for your confession, may you live. All who confess have a share in the world to come.”

Ematai has prepared a sheet of classic prayers that may be recited before death to be utilized with the following recommendations:

When Death May Be Approaching:

When there is a sense that death is rapidly approaching, some patients may desire to say vidui (for the first time or again, if they’ve stated it earlier).

  • When the ill person initiates such a request, family members or caretakers can provide them with the text or recite it with them. The sick person may also recite it in their heart as it is read aloud. In some cases, this may help ease the mind of a person knowing that they’ve asked for forgiveness before death.
  • If the person does not request to recite vidui:

1) Many advise not mentioning this prayer so that the sick individual does not become frightened. 

2) Others advise that a caretaker can sensitively suggest the prayer while emphasizing its merits and making clear that death is not imminent. 

Ultimately, this is a judgment call. Caretakers must use great discretion before making this suggestion. As always, previous conversations with the patient may assist in making this decision.

If the patient is not alert:

  • Some believe that given the goals of the prayer, there is no point in reciting vidui on someone else’s behalf.
  • Others assert that vidui should be recited since a) a patient may have cognizance of the prayer being recited, b) perhaps there is merit in reciting vidui on someone else’s behalf, and c) it is appropriate for a caregiver or companion of someone dying to recite their own reflective prayers at this moment.

Prayers of those Accompanying the Sick Person

Ematai will soon be compiling prayers classically recited at the bedside. 

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