What Is a “Mi Shebeirakh”?

June, 13th, 2018

The Rabbi’s Assistant answers questions that someone might be too shy to ask.

Near the end of the Torah reading part of a service, someone pulls out a “Mi Shebeirakh” list. Just what is that?

We colloquially make these words into a noun or an adjective - we say a “Mi Shebeirakh” or we have a “Mi Shebeirakh list.” The words themselves mean “[May the One] Who blessed,” referring to God. The prayer generally starts “May the One Who blessed our ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah….”

The list referenced above refers to the “Mi Shebeirakh la Holim” prayer, and it contains the names of those who are specifically in need of healing. (Actually, a “Mi Shebeirakh” is a public prayer or berakhah for an individual or a group, and may be for any purpose.) We list them by their Hebrew names, son or daughter of only their mother rather than either just the father or both the father and mother. For instance, our friend’s name is Yehudah ben Aharon veNekhah. But now that he has suffered a broken ankle and a serious headcold we want to pray for his wellbeing and we refer to him as Yehudah ben Nekhah, Nekhah being his mother of blessed memory. We do this because our mothers are presumed to be our primary nurturers.

And there are “Mi Shebeirakh” prayers for many things besides healing. There is one for a baby naming. There is one which may be said after someone receives an aliyah to the Torah, family included.
The first “Mi Shebeirakh” appeared in the 13th century, in the Mahzor Vitri, for the wellbeing of the community, especially its leaders and doers, and we still say it. (See page 176 in the Siddur Lev Shalem for the prayer, and see this column next week for information on the Mahzor Vitri.) Also, beginning with Rabbi Yom Tov Lipmann Heller in Vienna in the 17th century, “Mi Shebeirakhs” could be given for those who don’t make idle chatter during services.

And there is a colloquialism cited where the same term is used as meaning a “cussing out” or a “what for” - “my project was late to the boss, and oy, did he give me a ‘Mi Shebeirakh.’”

If you know someone who needs extra healing and positive thoughts, you could call the Rabbi’s Assistant to have that person added to the list. The best calls are when the person is well enough healed to be removed from the list.

Of course, there is the beautiful song by Debbie Friedman which combines the Hebrew and the English to convey the sense of praying for healing of body and spirit. (We have often sent a YouTube link to her singing her song.