Question: I recently visited a friend in the hospital. Noticing my difficulty in prolonged standing by his bed my friend suggested that I sit down. I hesitated to do so because I recalled once being told that this was improper. Can you tell me what is the right thing to do?
Answer: In his Tehillim, King David describes the attention that G-d pays to the sick person as "He supports him on his sick bed" (42:4).
From this our Talmudic Sages (Mesechta Shabbat 12b) concluded that the Divine Presence hovers over the bed of the sick person. We are also familiar with the way our Patriarch Yaakov showed his respect for his son Yosef after requesting that, as a powerful Egyptian potentate, he ensure that the burial of his father be in Eretz Yisrael. He bowed to him, reports the Torah (Bereishet 47:31), but he directed his bow towards the head of the bed. Rashi explains that he did so because he wished to simultaneously express his respect for the Divine Presence that hovers over the head of a sick person’s bed.
The halachic application of this is that if one visits a sick person he should not sit on a chair or bench in respect to the Divine Presence. The Rema(Yoreh De’ah 335:3) rules that this applies only to a situation in which the sick person is lying on the floor, so that if one sits on a chair he is assuming a position higher than the Divine Presence. In modern situations the sick person is lying on a bed so there is no problem with sitting on a chair near his bed.
One word of caution. Sometimes no chair is available in the hospital room and the sick person graciously invites his visitor to sit down on his bed. This invitation should be politely turned down because, even if accepting may not be technically considered sitting higher than the Divine Presence, sitting on a sick person’s bed inevitably causes discomfort to him despite his good intentions.