Friday, October 24, 2014

Is it okay to ask a deceased tzaddik to pray on my behalf?

by Tzvi Freeman


I was always under the impression that Judaism firmly believed that there are no intermediaries between man and G‑d, and to pray to the deceased is blasphemous and outlawed by the Bible. If so, why is it permissible to ask the Rebbe to intercede on one's behalf at the Ohel?


Yes, Jewish customs can be perplexing. Judaism is all about having a direct connection to G-d. An intermediary is a form of idolatry (see "Unidolatry" for more explanation of why this is forbidden.). Yet for as long as there are records, Jews have been in the habit of asking righteous men and women to have a chat with G-d on their behalf.

We see that the Jewish people asked Moses to intercede many times and he accepted their request. If he hadn't, we wouldn't be here--so G-d obviously figured it was okay. The Talmud (Baba Batra 116a) tells us that "If there is someone ill in your house, go to the wise man of the city and ask that he should pray for him." Of course, this person also needs to pray for himself, as his family should as well--and any Jew who knows that another Jew is ill should pray for him. But you need to go to that wise man as well.

The same with visiting graves: On the one hand, as you pointed out, the Torah tells us not to "beseech the dead." It's listed along with all the other "abominations" practiced by the people that lived in Canaan before we came there. And yet, we have an ancient and popular custom to visit the graves of righteous people and pray there.

Just how ancient and popular is this custom? The Torah tells us that Caleb, one of the twelve spies that Moses sent to spy out the Land of Canaan, made a personal detour to Hebron. What was his interest in Hebron? The Talmud (Sotah 34b) tells that he wished to pray at the cave where Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob and Leah are buried. He prayed there for mercy on his soul and he was saved from the fateful decision of the other spies.

The Talmud also states that it is customary to visit a cemetery on a fast day (Taanit 16a). Why? Typical of the Talmud (and anything that involves Jewish people), two opinions are provided: Some say that this is simply to remind those who are fasting of their own mortality--a graveyard can be a magically effective cold-bucket of inspiration when you're feeling smug and self-assured. But others say that this is in order to connect to ask the souls of the righteous who are buried there that they intercede on our behalf. In fact, the Zohar states that if it were not for the intercession of those souls who reside in that afterworld, our world would not endure for a moment.

So why is this not called "beseeching the dead?" And why doesn't asking any tzaddik, living or dead, to intercede on our behalf constitute making an intermediate between ourselves and G‑d?

This very question was raised by a nineteenth century foremost authority on Jewish law, Rabbi Moshe Shik (known as "the Maharam Shik"), a student of the Chatam Sofer.

He explains as follows:

A Jew is not permitted an intermediary. There must be nothing between the Jew and G‑d.
Nevertheless, as previously established, it is permissible for a Jew to ask another Jew to be an intermediary between him and G‑d.

Rabbi Shik explains this apparent anomaly in the name of his teacher, the Chatam Sofer: When one Jew approaches another and tells of the pain he is suffering, the other Jew feels it just as he does. Now they are both in need of prayer. The Jew does not feel he is praying for an "other"--he is praying for himself.

In other words, all Jews can be considered as one body. If the toe is hurting, it needs the head and the heart to help it. So too, if I am in need, I can call upon all other Jews--and especially those who are the head and the heart of our people--to pray for me as well. Because if one Jew is hurting, we are all hurting.

Rabbi Shik then extends this to the deceased, as well. According to the Talmud and the Zohar, those righteous souls who have passed on from this world are still very much in touch with their students and family and care for them and their problems. We petition them to pray on our behalf--and they do and often their prayers are more effective than our own. After all, we often don't fathom the seriousness of these problems from our limited perspective as much as they might from their much more lofty view.

Praying at a gravesite does not mean you are beseeching this dead person to rise from the grave and appear before you. That is the abomination to which the above-cited verse refers. Neither are you, G‑d forbid, praying to the dead—a practice that is most certainly forbidden. But you are able to connect with these souls, since, when it comes to the soul, all of us are truly one.

You are simply expressing your faith that the righteous never really die, truth is never truly lost and even the grave cannot prevent you from connecting to this great teacher and righteous soul. Just as this tzaddik cared and took care of others during his lifetime--not as "others" but as he cared for his own soul--so too now, nothing has changed and he still can feel your pain and pray with you.

The Zohar states this as well, when it tells us that the tzaddik is here with us after his passing even more than before. During his lifetime, the tzaddik was limited within a physical body. Now he has transcended those limitations. But he never transcends his sympathy for the plight of another soul--no matter where that soul may be found. Just as during his lifetime, he ignored the boundaries of "I and you," so now he can ignore the boundaries of life and afterlife.

This is the fundamental reasoning behind beseeching those in the grave to intercede on our behalf. And this, in fact, has been the common practice in Jewish communities around the world.



Anonymous said...

Thanks for clarifying this topic because it is usually the uninformed Jew who does not understand this custom from time immemorial. Such a simple concept for anyone to understand, as the typical Jew feels unworthy and beseeches a great Tzadik to intercede on his/her behalf and even great Tzadikim beseech those who were on a greater level then they. As you write, it was Caleb ben Yefunah who went to the the Machpelah where our Patriarchs & Matriarchs are buried to intercede for him and give him chizuk against the rest of the spies, except for Joshua, of course, to succeed.

Leah said...

".....and Mother Rachel still cries for her children..."

Anonymous said...

The Torah tells us that Caleb, one of the twelve spies that Moses sent to spy out the Land of Canaan, made a personal detour to Hebron.

The Torah says no such thing.

Mig said...

Avi, did you read Rabbi Freeman's article carefully where he states it is in Gemmora Sotah? Torah encompasses both the written and oral Torah. If one chooses to believe the written Torah but not the oral Torah, he is compared to the Tzaddokim, I.e., apikorsum.

Anonymous said...

This doesn't seem to agree with another article on which states: "Nobody thinks that Caleb was praying to Abraham, Isaac or Jacob. Rather, he requested that they add their prayers to his own supplications that Heaven grant him the inner strength to follow through on his good intentions. He prayed specifically at their burial site in order that their merit combined with the holiness of their final resting place help make his prayers more acceptable...However, we do not direct our prayers toward the dead who rest there; rather, we implore G-d to have mercy on us for their sake. (Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 128:13)

Anonymous said...

Avi: You seem to forget that the Torah is made up of both the Written and Oral Laws. There is much that is not written in the five books of Moshe and that is why practically nothing would really be understood if we did not have the Oral Law. One without the other cannot be. Torah includes both, explaining every letter, etc. in the chamishei Chumshai Torah. Therefore Caleb going to Hevron and visiting the Machpelah is in the Torah.

Anonymous said...

Shelach 13:22
כב. וַיַּעֲלוּ בַנֶּגֶב וַיָּבֹא עַד חֶבְרוֹן
"And he went to Chevron"

Who is he?

Rashi says: Caleb went there alone [hence the singular “he came”] to prostrate himself on the graves of the patriarchs [in prayer] that he not be enticed by his colleagues to be part of their counsel. Thus, it says, “I will give him [Caleb] the land on which he has walked” (Deut. 1:36), and it is written, “They gave Hebron to Caleb” (Jud. 1:20). - [Sotah 34b]

yaak said...

From Rav Ovadia's grandson:

"Nevertheless, Maran Harav Ovadia Yosef Shlit”a writes that one who visits the cemetery should not place his hope in the deceased people there as if they are the ones who will help and save him; rather, one should request mercy from Hashem in the merit of the deceased, dwellers of the dust. If one wishes, he may request from the deceased to be a good advocate on his behalf to request Hashem’s mercy."

Devorah said...

Thanks for that Yaak.

Anonymous said...

i believe there are two counter minhagim : 1] the above mentioned chassidic beleif /practice 2] praying to RBSO that He answer in the Zchut of the buried tzaddik

thus, while chassidim doubtless say the 'machnisei rachamim ' in slichot , which allows prayer to angels , some others do not.....

Mighty Garnel Ironheart said...

God is everywhere. He hears everything. He knows all our deeds. Why can't you call out to Him with a sincere heart anywhere on the planet?

Devorah said...

Ironheart: of course we can pray anywhere, and at any time. But by praying at the grave of a tzaddik, or praying with a minyan [men] or with a lot of people at the same time, or on an auspicious day, we hope that our prayers are given an added boost [so to speak].

yaak said...

Of course you can. However, there are auspicious times and places to do so. And these times and places are documented in Halacha as more effective.

To use a common example, praying with a minyan and in a shul is more auspicious than without one and at home. No one asks, "G-d is everywhere. Why can't you call out to Him BeYihidut instead of having to go to shul?"

SafeNSharp said...

So, can one pray at one's parents kever and ask them, so to speak, to intercede on high for either teshuvah or parnasah,etc, or strictly only at the kever of a recognized tzaddik?

Devorah said...

Yes you can pray at anyone's grave including your parents', in the same way.