Ethnicity Online

Cultural Awareness in Healthcare

Jews: Religious Observance

prayer in hospital

Observant Jews will wish to pray three times a day, morning, noon and evening. Before prayer, running water is used to ritually wash the hands; this can either be done at a sink, or bed-bound patients can be provided with a bowl and jug of water. During this washing, patients should not be disturbed and will be unable to answer questions from staff.

For at least one of the daily prayers, men will put on their tefillin, binding one to their forehead and one to their dominant arm. These small black cubes contain scriptures and serve to remind the wearer that his thoughts and actions should be for and guided by G-d. If a patient cannot do this for himself, or his dominant arm is restricted by an intravenous drip, then discuss alternatives with him. He may wish a friend, rabbi or Jewish member of staff to assist him in his preparations, and this should be noted in his records. He will also put on his skullcap and prayer shawl for prayer.

Generally, prayers are said quietly by the individual, who stands in a reverent posture and may make bowing movements during the ceremony. Patients may request that they are allowed off the ward to go to a quiet room; if possible, try to accommodate them in a quiet place on the ward. Discuss with bed-bound patients how they would like to deal with prayer; they might request that the curtains around their bed are drawn, or they might wish to be taken to a quiet place in a wheelchair.

More Orthodox Jews may pray more frequently than the required three times a day; these additional supplications are likely to be spontaneous and do not carry the same weight of required ritual. Try to provide the same degree of peace and quiet for patients during their prayer.

observing the Sabbath

There are many rules about what can and cannot be done on the Sabbath, and each group of Jews may interpret these differently. Healthcare staff have a dispensation to break many of the rules if their work has a chance of saving life; there are similar loopholes that may apply to people who are themselves seriously ill during the Sabbath.

The Sabbath is a day of rest, taken as a celebration of G-d's creation of the world and His day of rest afterwards, and also as a time to celebrate the family and community. It begins on Friday evening as the sun sets, and lasts through Saturday until the sun has set again. During this time, most Jews will try to visit their local synagogue for community prayer and readings of the Torah as well as to catch up with friends.

Work of many kinds is restricted on the Sabbath – it is a day of no work. This includes walking, carrying items, using electricity, cooking and writing. Some Orthodox Jews may translate this into not being able to turn a light on or off, eating cold food only, not being able to draw up insulin into a syringe and may even request not to be discharged on the Sabbath as this would require travelling.

Liberal Jews may follow some of these rules when at home, but may be more relaxed when they are in hospital.

general guidelines for the Sabbath

  • Try not to arrange appointments or procedures for a Friday afternoon or any time on Saturday.
  • Try not to discharge a patient on Friday afternoon or Saturday.
  • Discuss Sabbath practices with your Jewish patient (or staff member) and work out what they are happy to do for themselves, and what they may need (or accept) help with. They may need help with turning lights on or off or writing notes, for example.
  • The Sabbath is a holy day, and requires that Jewish people attend the synagogue for prayer. If a patient or staff member is unable to do this, they may wish to have their rabbi visit them, or to attend a prayer meeting in the hospital (if the facility exists).
  • Friends and family will probably want to visit the patient, but may not be able to do so until after sunset on Saturday. It is important to make provision for this.

Jewish holidays and festivals

There are many Jewish holidays throughout the year, all based on a lunar calendar. The dates of these holidays may vary from year to year, so it is important to update your knowledge of when each one will fall. Some of the holidays carry similar restrictions to those of the Sabbath in terms of work, travel and so on, whereas others may include a period of fasting in addition to Sabbath restrictions.

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