An Exploration of the Mi Sheberach

By Miriam A.G. Baumgartner

Many of us think of a mi shebeirach as a prayer for healing. But one can say a mi shebeirach for other reasons as well. Simply put, a mi shebeirach is a Jewish prayer used to request a blessing from God. Its format — invoking God in the name of the patriarchs and matriarchs and then making a case that a specific person or group should be blessed — dates to the 10th or 11th century CE in Babylonia. At that time, it was used to bless the congregation or the people gathered for prayer.

A version of the traditional blessing begins:

מִי שֶׁבֵּרַךְ אֲבוֹתֵינוּ וְאִמּוֹתֵינוּ, אבְרָהָם, יִצְחָק וְיַעֲקֹב, שָׂרָה, רִבקָה, רַחֵל ולֵאָה הוּא יְבָרֵךְ אֶת …

Mi shebeirach avoteinu v’imoteinu, Avraham, Yitzchak v’Yaakov, Sarah, Rivkah, Rachel v’Lei-ah, hu y’vareich et…

May the one who blessed our ancestors, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah bless…

From there, it can take many forms. In addition to being a request for healing, it can be a blessing for a woman who has given birth and for the baby; for someone who has “come up” to the Torah and recited the blessings for a reading; for a marriage; or for a bar or bat mitzvah. A mi sheberach is a multipurpose blessing. What all mi sheberachs have in common is the request for God to bless a specific person or group of people for a specific reason.

The mi sheberach for healing specifically includes both the body and the spirit, recognizing that healing might be needed for more than just the physical body. It acknowledges mental illness while accepting that some physical bodies are not going to heal. We pray the spirit or soul finds peace as the body moves toward death.

Musically, many of us are familiar with Debbie Friedman’s Mi Sheberach (I suspect it’s the most well-known version), Cantor Leon Sher’s Heal Us Now and Craig Taubman’s Mi Sheberach, which I find beautifully haunting. In addition to those three, a search on YouTube for “Mi Sheberach” resulted in music by Susan Colin, Lisa Levine, Yaakov Shwekey, Gad Elbaz, Benjie Ellen Schiller, Cantor Yitzchok Meir, Shai Abramson, Zina Goldrich and Marcy Heisler, Becky Mann, Aryeh Leib Hurwitz, Elie Schwab, Elle Michaels and many others. Some of these are for healing, others for the IDF and still others for the moment clergy bless a bar or bat mitzvah. And yes, I could have included many more names of folks I’ve never heard of!

There are also mi sheberachs for specific issues. These, and many others, are found at RitualWell, an initiative of Reconstructing Judaism.

Clearly, some of those were written in recent years. I found several of them to be especially meaningful.

Those who know me, have heard me speak in the past or have read my online writings probably know I have depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Right now, they are all very well controlled. That was not always the case. This mi shebeirach could have been written for me.

May the One who blessed our ancestors bless all who live with mental illness, our caregivers, families and friends. May we walk in the footsteps of Jacob, King Saul, Miriam, Hannah and Naomi, who struggled with dark moods, hopelessness, isolation and terrors but survived and led our people. Just as our father, Jacob, spent the night wrestling with an angel and prevailed, may all who live with mental illness be granted the endurance to wrestle with pain and prevail night upon night. Grace us with the faith to know that though, like Jacob, we may be wounded, shaped and renamed by this struggle, still we will live on to continue an ever-unfolding, unpredictable path toward healing. May we not be alone on this path but accompanied by our families, friends, caregivers, ancestors and the Divine presence. Surround us with loving-kindness, grace and companionship, and spread over us a sukkat shalom, a shelter of peace and wholeness. And let us say: Amen.

The line about “unpredictable path toward healing” is so true, at least for me.

If you are waiting for a spiritual leader to tell you, write what you need to hear, and read it back to yourself, and call it blessing. Call the act of doing this a blessing. Call yourself a blessing.

I once asked a congregational rabbi how he knows just what the congregation needs. This was probably after a healing service or other program that just hit the spot. He responded by saying he knows what he needs.

From the Makor ha’Hayim – the Source of All Life – we draw forth these blessings: Blessings of refuah – healing – for all who are ill, Blessings of koakh – strength – to move through all fear and pain, disease and uncertainty, Blessings of nekhamah – comfort – from their families, friends and communities. Ken yehi ratzon – may this be your will. V’ken yehi retzoneynu – and may this be our will: May we support our healers and all who care for the ill and infirm, May we demand that our leaders and officials honor the public trust entrusted to them by prioritizing the health of our communities. May we fight for the well-being of those whom our system has left behind and commit to building a society that cares for all who dwell in our midst. Ve’nomar – and let us say, Amen.

During a recent two-evening program with the Blue Dove Foundation, we (those who participated) wrote our own mi shebeirachs for healing from addiction. It was a powerful exercise. The Blue Dove Foundation published a book in 2021 that included prayers written by others who participated in this same program.

So, other than a mi shebeirach being a Jewish prayer, how does this reflect Judaism? The Torah, in parsha Shmini, includes the rules for which animals are permitted to be eaten and those that are forbidden. No reason is given as to why these are the rules; they simply are. Some animals are kosher (fit to be eaten) and some are treif (not fit).

Historically, some illnesses have been treated as treif, or nonexistent, in the Jewish community. No surprise here; these are the illnesses considered to be of the spirit rather than the body. Prayers for healing of depression, addiction, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or any other mental illness were not said because of the belief that those were weaknesses and not true illnesses. And even if they were illnesses, people believed they didn’t exist in their Jewish community. Other activities that “didn’t exist in the Jewish community” included LGBTQ relationships, rape or sexual assault, physical or mental abuse, alcoholism, and other unacceptable behaviors that were seen in the community at large. 

We’ve come a long way! Mental illness is finally accepted for what it is: an illness. It is discussed, and those affected are supported by their community. Members of the LGBTQ community are welcome with open arms. We also recognize that not all members of the community are the law-abiding citizens we hope they are. The Jewish community is a community like any other. We are not perfect. We are a community based on the belief in one God with whom we have a brit — a covenant — that binds not only our behavior but also that of God.

Miriam Baumgartner is a (New) Jersey girl living in Lancaster, Penn. Prior to her illness, Miriam worked at AT&T for many years, was vice president of her congregation and co-chaired, with her husband, several Federation Super Sunday events. Then she got sick and was not able to function in any capacity. Ten years later, she moved to Lancaster, and nobody knew what to expect. Since then, she has chaired congregational committees, was vice president of her congregation’s Sisterhood and served as president of Jewish Family Service of Lancaster. She is currently the board president of the Jewish Community Alliance of Lancaster, a JFNA Network Community. She, along with her husband, James, is a member of Congregation Shaarai Shomayim in Lancaster.

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