you take people to pray at the graves of departed righteous Jews? We are
supposed to pray only to G-d and to believe that G-d is the source of
all blessings. Is it not "idol-worship" to pray to a tzadik at
Praying at "holy gravesites"
is a time-honored and widespread Jewish practice. Of course, praying to
the dead or even asking them for information, holding seances, etc. is
clearly prohibited (see Deut.18:11) and is related to avodah zarah
- idol worship. Therefore, we are obligated to assume that this
is not what Jews at gravesites are doing. Outward appearances,
and perhaps even the words of our sages in this matter, may be easy to
misconstrue. Nevertheless, we must be very, very careful about labelling
the practices of large numbers of G-d fearing Jews with the grievous sin
In discussing the verse [Num.
13:22], "They went up through the south and [he] came until Hebron...",
the Talmud [Sota 34b] interprets it to imply that Kalev, the only one
of the twelve spies besides Yehoshua who did not slander the land of Israel,
came to Hebron alone [see also Joshua 14:6-15]. Why did Kalev make this
solo side-trip? "He went to prostrate himself upon the graves of
the Patriarchs. He said:"Fathers of the world, pray for me that I
be saved [i.e. succeed in resisting -- Rashi on the verse] the evil counsel
of the other spies."
Nobody thinks that Kalev prayed
to Avraham, Yitzchak or Yaakov. 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.
The holiness of these gravesites
is derived from the lingering connection of the soul to its point of final
departure from the body after burial. Many of the previously unknown burial
sites of famous tzadikim in the vicinity of Zefat were first identified
by the Holy Ari [Rabbi Yitzchak Luria--1534-1572], who was able to sense
the presence of the specific soul hovering about each place. This presence
is especially strong on the tzadik's yahrzeit [anniversary of the
The Zohar [III:70B ff--quoted
in Tanya IV: 27 (p.292)] states that without the prayers of tzadikim,
the world would not endure for a single moment. Tzadikim shield the world,
and even more so after their death than in their earthly lives.
A striking example is the Matriarch Rachel, who, we are told [Midrash
Rabbah; Rashi and Ramban on Gen.49:7; haftorah, 2nd day Rosh HaShanah]
was buried on the highway at Beth Lehem so that her descendants in exile
after the destruction of the First Temple could pray at her grave and
she could pray for them. Also, the Midrash movingly depicts [c.f. Me'am
Lo'ez on Gen. 37:36] a distraught Yosef tearing himself away from his
captors and weeping hot tears over his mother's grave.
In our days, we too, utilize
this same principle of calling upon the merit of departed tzaddikim, their
benevolent prayers, and the holiness of their final resting places. In
fact, not only is this practice permitted, it is recommended; and in certain
situations, such as severe droughts, it is actually legislated [Taanit
Moreover, the model of Kalev
praying at the burial site of the Patriarchs is extended not only to the
resting places of tzadikim but also to one's personal forebearers. One
of the classic halachic commentators, the Bach [Rabbi Joel Sirkes 1561-1640,
in Yorah Deah end of 217], strongly approved the practice of praying at
one's ancestors' graves in times of difficulty, since their merit can
intervene to help avert an unpleasant decree. Indeed, it is an almost
universal Jewish custom to visit the graves of close relatives on the
anniversary of their passing and to pray there.
This practice is cited in Jewish
Law in connection with the High Holidays.
After prayers on the morning
preceding Rosh Hashanah, it is customary to go to the cemetery and there
to pray and give charity to the poor. Since a cemetery is the place where
the righteous rest, prayers are more readily acceptable there. Circle
the grave and give charity before saying the supplications.
Shulchan Aruch I, 581:4 with Mishna Brurah 27]
And when you do this, remember!
Supplications are made to
exhort the tzaddikim there to intercede for us on the day of judgement.
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
May our prayers find favor
in G-d's eyes. May we all be inscribed for a good and sweet year.