Sunday 28 June 2020


For a CAD -Tour of the Second Temple by Rabbi Boruch Clinton, see here.


A common thread in many of the articles on KotzkBlog is the multiplicity of rabbinical views on ideas which are today often presented from one side only. 

In this article, drawn from the research of Professor David Stern[1] of Harvard University, we will examine two early rabbinical texts which portray two very different perspectives of G-d.

Professor Stern translated two texts from Eicha Rabba, which is a Midrashic commentary on Eicha (Lamentations) originating around the Talmudic or Amoraic period (somewhere between 400-700 CE). 

This book is one of the oldest Midrashic works and although it is sometimes ascribed to Rav Kahana, Stern is not certain about the authorship and simply refers to an ‘anonymous’ writer.
This Midrashic work was apparently part of a Petichta or Introduction to the synagogue service on the Ninth of Av, the fast day commemorating the destruction of both First and Second Temples.


Sunday 21 June 2020


A traditional wooden sailing boat used in the protected waters of the Mediterranean. 


The Torah centres of Babylonia had been home to early rabbinic Judaism for about a thousand years after the destruction of the second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE. Its roots went back even earlier to the time of the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE.

However, around the year 1000 CE, the Babylonian seat of rabbinic power began to disintegrate and made way for a geographical shift to the West.

This was a difficult period historically as besides unseating the geographical location and home of Torah authority and erudition in Babylonia where the Babylonian Talmud was formulated - it was also a time when, in 1038, we transitioned from the rabbinic period of the Gaonim to that of the Rishonim.

All these events culminating together made that period very unsettling.

There are various accounts, and possibly some myths describing just which country in the West came to represent the new seat of western authorized rabbinical authority. Was it North Africa, Spain, Italy, Northern France, Southern France or Germany?

In this article, I have drawn from the research of Professor Avraham Grossman[1] (b. 1936) who specializes in Jewish History and has done manuscript research at the Bodleian Library.


Around 1161, Rabbi Avraham ibn Daud[2] wrote an account of four rabbis who travelled to Europe on a fundraising mission from the declining Babylonian Torah centre of Sura.
These four great rabbis were seized by pirates off the Italian coast and variously sold for ransom to the Jews of Egypt, (Kairouan) Tunisia, Spain and Germany thus establishing venerable Torah centres in each of those locations.

This event became known as the Four Captives and was described as an act of Divine Providence to show how the shift in rabbinic authority - from East to West - was sanctioned from On High, and that henceforth people should obey the rabbis in those counties and no longer look to Babylonia for rabbinic guidance as they had done in the past.

[For more background, the Reader is urged to read an earlier article on The ‘Four Captives’- When Evidence Confronts History.]


Until the 11th-century, there was no question that Babylonia (or Bavel) was the final seat of determination and arbitration of Jewish law. However, after the passing of the last of the Babylonian Gaonic rabbis, Rav Hai Gaon in 1038, it became necessary to establish a correspondingly replacement authoritative seat among the western countries.

This difficulty was intensified, because, as Grossman writes:

“Rivalry between Spain and Ashkenaz [Germany][3] was especially fierce at this time, with each centre striving to outdo the other.”

But it wasn’t just Spain and Ashkenaz that competed for the position of highest rabbinic authority. Fascinating, we shall see how various communities each independently developed accounts of history that placed them at the forefront of the battle for authority.


The rabbis of Spain claimed that the decline of the Babylonian academies were not by accident but by Divine decree that Spain should emerge as the primary home of rabbinic Judaism. Spain was to be the designated successor to Bavel.

They even found a biblical verse from Ovadia to substantiate that claim:

“And that exiled force of Israelites [shall possess] what belongs to the Phoenicians as far as Tzarfat, while the Jerusalemite exile community of Sefarad shall possess the towns of the Negeb.”[4]

The biblical reference to Sefarad was immediately associated with Spain. The Aramaic translation of this verse identified Sefarad as Aspamia (Aramaic for the Latin Hispania). Even Rashi (1040-1105) who lived and died in France, was forced to ‘concede’ the pre-eminence of Spanish authority. He mentions that some of the early First Temple exiles did indeed reach Tzarfat (France) but the more ‘elite’ tribe of Judah reached as far as Sefarad (Spain).

The claim was that Spain had been chosen by G-d because Jewish inhabitants of Jerusalem had reached Spanish shores as early as First Temple times. This meant that the Jews of Spain were the descendants of the elite Jerusalem exiles, while those in other parts of Europe and North Africa came from other towns and villages in the Holy land.

In fact - by the Spanish claim that they were the descendants of the elite group of Jerusalem exiles after the destruction of the First Temple - they were showing their pre-eminence even over the Babylonians themselves!


In keeping with this theme, we find statements like that of the Spanish rabbi Shmuel haNagid (993-1056):

“Sefarad has been a place of Torah study from the time of the First Temple and the exile of Jerusalem to this day.”[5]

Significantly, R. Shmuel haNagid was a student of R. Moshe ben Chanoch, one of the Four Captives mentioned above, who was ransomed in Spain.

On the historicity of the claim which placed their ancestors as the elite exiles from Jerusalem, Grossman writes that although it:

“...sought to present Spain as a divinely chosen place from time immemorial, and as one that needed neither Babylonia nor Italy...the historical truth is that the Jewish intellectual centre in Spain underwent rapid growth in the time of R. Hisdai Ibn Shaprut, in the mid-tenth century.”

R. Shmuel haNagid also tied to show a direct line of communication between Babylonia and Spain. He wrote about Rav Natronai Gaon (d. 878) of Babylonia:
 “It was he who wrote down the Talmud for the scholars of Spain without consulting a book.”[6]

The Talmud in Spain, accordingly, was handed over directly to the Spanish rabbis from Babylonia, inferring an official transferral of the mantle of leadership to Spain.


Another similar teaching was promoted by R. Yehuda al-Barceloni[7] (11th to 12th-centuries):

“A well-known tradition in Spain, handed down by their fathers, is that R. Natronai Gaon...came to them from Babylonia by ’shortening the way’ [kefitsat haderekh]. He taught them Torah and then he returned [magically to Babylonia][8]; he came not by convoy nor was he seen along the way.”[9]

By bringing in the miraculous component of kefitsat hadereckh, again we see the how Divine Providence was said to have endorsed the pre-eminence of Spain over the other centres.

The Spanish Jews thus had three precedents to their claim of representing the most accurate tradition, the verse from Ovadia, the story of the Four Captives and the direct transferral of Torah literature from Babylonia to Spain.


The sages of Italy also claimed they were descendant from Jerusalem exiles. According to the Scroll of Achima’atz, also known as Megillat Yuchasin, written by Achima’atz ben Paltiel  (1017-1060), his family descended from the captives taken by Titus to Rome after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. [For more on Achima’atz see A Window into Pre-Zoharic Mystical Literature.]

Achima’atz writes that these elite exiles were “Torah scholars...wise and learned” and they were mystics who composed many of the prayers found in our prayer books to this day.


The Tosafists of Northern France and Germany (who were influenced by Chasidei Ashkenaz [See Mystical Forays of the Tosafists.]) were also known to have respected the rabbis of Italy.

The French Tosafist, Rabbeinu Tam (1100-1171) even adapted the verse “The Torah will go out from Zion, and the word of G-d from Jerusalem [10] to read “The Torah will go out from Bari[11], and the word of G-d from Otranto.

The Tosafists had great admiration for Rabbeinu Chananel (990-1053) of North Africa because he was trained by Italian rabbis.


The German mystical movement known as Chasidei Ashkenaz or German Pietists of the 12th and 13th-centuries also had much respect for the Italian rabbis. They spoke about the transmission of ‘secrets’ within the prayer liturgy. One of the leaders of Chasidei Ashkenaz, R. Eleazar of Worms claimed that the early founder of the mystical movement, Abu Aharon[12] (from the earlier Gaonic Period) transmitted his secret knowledge in Lucca[13]

Abu Aharon is said to have established a Yeshiva in Italy, called the Sanhedrin Yeshiva from where his teachings spread throughout Italy.

R. Eleazer of Worms wrote that Abu Aharon had met with his (R. Eleazar’s) ancestor Moshe haPaytan (R. Moshe ben Kalonymus, the ‘poet’) who was “the first [Jew] to emigrate to from Italy” to Mainz in Germany. This move to Germany was allegedly arranged by Charlemagne (or Charles the Great 742-814).

It is significant that Abu Aharon is said to have entrusted his Babylonian mystical tradition to the Rabbis of Italy before any of the other centres in North Africa and Europe. And, importantly, the connection between Italy and Germany was quickly established through Abu Aharon and Moshe haPaytan.


The Chasidei Ashkenaz and the German Jews bolstered their claim to the authenticity of being the rightful heirs to the Babylonian tradition by suggesting that the famed Rabbeinu Gershom (known as the Meor haGolah or Light of the Exile) who lived in Mainz, had been taught by the last of the Babylonian Gaonim, Rav Hai Gaon.[14]

However, as Grossman points out:

“There is no hint of this claim in any of R. Gershom’s own writings; [whose][15] teacher and mentor, he clearly states, was R. Leontine.”[16]

Another claim was that Rabbeinu Gershom had married the sister of Rav Hai Gaon.[17]


There is a further claim that after the Islamic conquest of Persia (Babylonia) there was a mass immigration of Jews to Germany, thereby effectively becoming the new Babylonia on German soil - but as Grossman confirms, this event lacks historical truth.


In yet another tradition, R. Meshulam of Ashkenaz (Germany) visited Babylonia and met the head of the Babylonian academy. At the meeting, it soon transpired that R. Meshulam was far more learned and erudite than his Babylonian counterpart who offered his daughter’s hand to him in marriage. R. Meshulam declined the offer and returned to Germany to head the Ashkenaz community.[18]


Northern France and Germany are together regarded as Ashkenaz. The Jews of northern France also developed their own traditions which showed them as the natural successors to Babylonian rabbinic authority.

One tradition tells of R. Eliyahu ben Menachem of Le Mans[19] being chosen by G-d as the natural successor to Rav Hai Gaon of Babylonia. Interestingly, this tradition was written by R. Eliyahu himself and he explained that every generation needs a special leader. Historically, R. Eliyahu did indeed visit Rav Hai Gaon in Babylonia who gave R. Eliyahu the title aluf (leader).

Another tradition has R. Eliyahu also marrying the sister of Rav Hai Gaon.

For some reason, the northern French literature of succession from Babylonia is not as elaborate as that of the other counties. And Rashi, as mentioned, seems to have conceded that Spain (and not his home country France) was the ‘chosen’ successor.


The Jews of Provence[20] in southern France also claimed that their connection to Babylonia went back as far as the times of Charlemagne. During his reign, Charlemagne managed to unite most of western and central Europe. According to their tradition, Charlemagne asked the king of Babylonia “to send a Jew from among the Jews in his land of royal blood, of the House of David” to head the Jewish community of Provence. 

The person who met the requirements was a certain R. Machir and his descendants continued to lead that community for generations. In fact, they did not just lead Provence but were regarded as “lawmakers and judges all over the [Jewish][21] world, just like exilarchs.

Grossman says that it is “difficult to find even a slim historical basis” for this event[22] but he shows that there were prominent families in Provence with the title “Nasi”. He also points out, interestingly, that the Jews of Provence - unlike all the other communities - chose rather to claim authorization from the Exilarchs and not from the Gaonim of Babylonia.

This was because the Exilarch claimed decadency from Jewish Kings and the royal Davidic line. Thus the Babylonian roots of Provence Jewry were depicted as more prestigious than those of the other countries.

In Babylonia, the Reish Galuta or Exilarch operated in a form of partnership with the Gaon, where the Exilarch was in charge of political affairs while the Gaon had had jurisdiction over religious matters. [For more on this, see Rambam’s ‘Anti-Establishment' Writings on the ‘Gedolim’ of his Day.]

R. Menachem haMeiri (d. 1316) lent some credence to the claim of Provence Jewry when he wrote:

“Pre-eminence passed from one generation to the next ... this tradition is upheld by the greatest of our princes in Narbonne.”


A similar story to that of Provence is told of the pre-eminence of the Jews of Egypt. According to the Divrei Yosef [23] the Egyptian queen encouraged the king to:

“send forth messengers to the land of Babylon with the message: ‘I have heard that in your kingdom there are Jews from the house of David ... send me one of them.’ They sent him a wise man, a descendant of the princes in that land; the king appointed him over Egypt; henceforth he was the negidut [leadership] established in Egypt.”[24]

The similarities between the stories of how Jews came to Provence and Egypt show how they often shared the same themes.

On a similar note, the Jews of Provence tell a story of a Jew who once saved the life of Charlemagne – and the German Jews tell of how one of their Jews once saved the life of Emperor Otto II.[25]


The very overt similarities between all these foundational accounts from the various centres in Europe and North Africa are either coincidental or the result of a desperate attempt at re-establishing rabbinic authority after Babylonia lost its hold on the Torah world. The correctness of the line of authority is crucial to Judaism and is known as the Mesora. The Mesora is presented to us today as a very simple traceable line without any dispute. -But why, then, are there so many different accounts of this line of Mesora?

The problem is compounded by the fact that our study only concerned the period of around the 11th and 12th –centuries. Back then, they had no idea that almost a thousand years later we would have a very different Judaism with new movements unheard of at that time. 

These include Chassidism and its different branches which would arrive on the scene in the 1700s, Religious Zionism, Modern Orthodox and the ultra-Orthodox movement which was established in 1885 (a year before Coca Cola was established). [See Reforms of the ultra-Orthodox] -All of these new groups also claimed to have the correct Mesora.

This insistence on having the authorized version of the Mesora is important for obvious reasons and, as we have seen, always has been.

However, a point is reached when insistence that one version of the Mesora can exclude another becomes disingenuous.

When some of the lost Meiri texts were discovered in the 1800s, much the ultra-Orthodox world would have nothing to do with the texts, although the Meiri (1249-1306) was an important Rishon. And the reason was simple: The Meiri had not been part of the accepted Mesora for so many centuries so he can never rejoin it. [See The Meiri Texts – Lost or Ignored?]

A better example is the Chazon Ish (1878-1953), an anti-Zionist leader who shaped the contemporary Chareidi theological and institutional landscape of modern Israel. He said that if we were to find a Sefer Torah written by Moshe Rabbeinu himself, and if it differs from the version we use today, we need to correct Moshe’s Torah to match ours, otherwise, we need to bury it within thirty days:

“The old sefer Torah, even if were written by the greatest authority (Moshe), must be considered pasul (invalid) as long as it does not conform to ours. 

In order for it to become kasher, it must be amended and adjusted to comply with the text of contemporary sefarim, according to the most recent halacha.”

Much of the phenomena in this world operate on the basis of the Inverted-U curve. Malcolm Gladwell writes:

“Inverted-U curves are about limits. They illustrate that ‘more’ is not always better; there comes a point, in fact, when the extra resources that the powerful think of as their greatest advantage only serves to make things worse[26]... there comes a point where the best-intentioned application of power and authority begins to backfire[27].”

He explains that no police, for example, is bad. A reasonable amount of police is good to maintain law and order, but too much police creates police states. Similarly, too little children in a class is not good, there is a magic number where the dynamic is just right and then there is a point where too many children are detrimental to everyone in the class.

Perhaps one can say the same with the Mesora. Of course, we need a Mesora if we want to live according to the Law of Moshe. That Mesora must of necessity function within the guidelines of Halacha

But a point is reached when a fanaticism, obsession and desperation with Mesora has the opposite effect and creates a false or invented Mesora which by definition is a misnomer. 

This is why we have numerous conflicting accounts in the 11th-century as to who represents the Mesora from Bavel – and, why in the 20th-century, we are prepared to bury the Torah written by Moshe’s hand.

[1] Avraham Grossman, Medieval Jewish Legends on the Decline of the Babylonian Centre and the Primacy of Other Geographical Centres.
[2] Avraham Ibn Daud (sometimes known as Rabad) is not to be confused with Raavad (1125-1198) although they both have the same names and lived at the same time. Ibn Daud lived in Spain while Raavad lived in France. Ibn Daud is mentioned in Avodah Zara 38 and appears to have been one of the Baalei haTosefot.
[3] Parenthesis mine.
[4] Ovadia 1:20. According to Judges 1:21, Jerusalem fell within the territory of Benjamin, while according to Joshua 15:63, Jerusalem fell within the territory of Judah. 
[5] Quoted by R. Yehudah ben Barzilai of Barcelona in his Sefer haItim 267
[6] Sefer Hilchot haNagid (Margaliot), 2. The second part of this statement is not relevant to our discussion but would have implications regarding when the Talmud was finally written down. See Everyone Knows when the Talmud was Written Down.
[7]Yehuda al-Barceloni is the Hebrew version of the Arabic Yehuda al-Bargeloni. He is also referred to as haNasi (the prince).
[8] Parenthesis mine. Rav Hai Gaon rejected this legend out of hand, and he wrote, "Perhaps an imposter happened to come to them and claimed that he was Natronai. If Natronai had been known for performing miracles we would not deny it, but he was not known for such acts at all." [Otzar HaGeonim, Chagiga, pages 16-20].
[9] Commentary on Sefer Yetzirah, 150.
[10] Isaiah 2:3.
[11] One wonders if this is also a veiled reference to the Four Captives who set sail from the southern Italian port of Bari?

[12] Also known as Ibn Aharon. See History and Folklore in a Medieval Jewish Chronicle: The Family Chronicle of Achima’az ben Paltiel, by Robert Bonfil, p. 57.

[13] Lucca is a town in the Tuscany region of Italy.  Lucca is pronounced ‘Lukka’.
[14] See She’elot uTeshuvot Maharshal, no. 29.
[15] Parenthesis mine.
[16] See The Early Sages of Ashkenaz (Heb.), 113-16.
[17] Zimmer, ‘R. Azriel Trabot’s Sefer haposekim’(Heb.), 245.
[18] Zfatman, The Jewish Tale in the Middle Ages (Heb.), 97- 111.
[19] Pronounced ‘Le Moh
[20] Pronounced ‘Provance’.
[21] Parenthesis mine.
[22] According to Jewish Encyclopaedia: Abraham ibn Daud says, in his "Sefer ha-Ḳabbalah," that the calif Harun al-Rashid, at the request of Charlemagne, sent to Narbonne Machir, a learned Jew of Babylon, to whom the emperor gave numerous prerogatives and whom he appointed head of the community. This is evidently a legend; but there is no doubt that Machir settled at Narbonne, where he soon acquired great influence over his coreligionists. 
[23] By R. Yosef ben Yitzchak Sambari.
[24] Sambari, Divrei Yosef, 139-40.
[25] Grossman, The Early Sages of Ashkenaz (Heb,), 36-8.
[26] Malcolm Gladwell, David and Goliath, p. 238.
[27] Ibid, p. 257.

Sunday 14 June 2020


Ma'aneh Lashon - "Supplications to be said at cemeteries, and many prayers to be said for eradication of evil decrees..." Horodna 1804.


Visiting graves of great rabbis, besides enjoying more and more popularity, has also become something of a spiritual art form today to the extent that in some circles it is a means of attaining social status.

In this article, which I have based on the research of Professor Elliot Horowitz (1953-2017) we will look at the development and evolution of the notion of visiting graves both for intercession and sometimes even for prayer.[1]  Professor Horowitz studied at Yeshivat Kerem beYavneh and later at Yale and Princeton Universities. He taught Jewish History at Bar Ilan University and served as co-editor of the Jewish Quarterly Review.


Horowitz is quick to point out that the Jewish custom of visiting graves has had a chequered history:

“[A]n examination of the custom's earlier history reveals a range of complex attitudes and even considerable controversy.”

People were tempted to visit graves to ask the dead to intercede on their behalf. A grave, as Horowitz aptly puts it,  was a natural place of call because of the:

 “relative proximity of the dead and the absolute distance of the Deity.”


The Talmud[2] suggests two very different reasons for visiting a cemetery specifically during times of drought. One, a rather rational explanation to show that "(because of the drought) we are as the dead before You," and the other, a mystical reason,  "that the dead should intercede for mercy on our behalf."

 In another tractate[3] the Talmud mentions that Caleb, one of the twelve spies of the biblical story who go to spy out the Land of Israel, separated from his colleagues and went to pray at the graves of the forefathers in Chevron, so as to be spared the evil council of the other spies.[4]
The Talmud records:

“[Caleb] went to prostrate himself on the graves of the forefathers. He said to them: ‘My fathers, request mercy for me that I be spared the [evil] council of the [other] spies.’


The story of Caleb was used in post-Talmudic literature by two opposing schools of thought. One used it show that intercessory[5] prayers to the dead had good precedent - while the opponents insisted that Caleb did not actually pray to the dead but merely visited the graves.



During the 10th-century we start to see opposition to what was apparently becoming a common practice of intercessory prayers to the dead. Ironically, it was a Jerusalem Karaite Jew, Sahl ben Matzlich haCohen (910-990) who provides an early opposition view to the dominating mainstream view condoning praying to, visiting, or communicating with the dead.

He wrote a letter in response to R. Yaakov ben Shmuel who criticised the ascetic Karaites, and in turn offered some criticism of the Rabbanite practices, particularly their teaching Torah in return for payment (grain). Another major criticism was the practice of venerating graves, particularly that of the Tannaic (Mishnaic) sage R. Yossi haGellili in Dalata just north of Safed.

Sahl ben Matzlich haCohen wrote:

“How can I remain silent when some Jews follow the customs of idolators. They 'sit among the graves and lodge in the vaults' (Isaiah 65: 4) and 'inquire of the dead' (ve-dorshim el ha-metim [cf Deut. 18: 11]), saying, 'Oh Rabbi Yose the Galilean, grant me a cure!' or 'Vouchsafe me a child.' They light lamps at the graves of the righteous and 'burn incense on tiles' (Isaiah 65: 3) ... They perform pilgrimage rites over the graves of the deceased righteous (ha-zaddikim ha-metim) and make vows to them and appeal and pray to them to grant their requests."[6]

Sahl also criticized the custom of the Jews of Babylonia who had venerated the graves of Ezekiel and of Barukh ben Neriyah[7] for centuries.


You will recall the Talmudic practice we quoted earlier of visiting graves during a drought, and the two very different reasons for so doing: 1) "(because of the drought) we are as the dead before You," and 2) "that the dead should intercede for mercy on our behalf."  Over the next centuries, it is fascinating to see how different rabbis and movements chose one of these two Talmudic reasons over the other, to suite their worldview on the matter of grave visitation.


During the 12th-century, R. Yosef Kimchi wrote in opposition to the second (i.e., mystical) Talmudic interpretation that the dead can intercede on our behalves:

“Moreover, you believe other things unvindicated by reason even though Scripture rejects them, such as the belief that the dead perform miracles ...

 See that Scripture held liable those who consult the dead on behalf of the living ...

Scripture says further, 'The dead do not praise God, nor do any who go down in silence' (Ps. 115: 17).”[8]


True to form and right on cue, in his Mishneh Torah[9] the rationalist Maimonides also chose to ignore the second and more mystical explanation. Instead, he only made mention of the first reason that without rain we are “as the dead”.

In fact, Rambam discouraged the visiting of graves in general.[10]

Rambam’s typically stark rationalist views were often difficult for other rabbis to accept without some form of ‘reinterpretation’. Here are two examples of how Rambam was ‘reworked’ by later commentators:


R. Yitzchak ben Sheshet Perfet (1326-1408), also known as Rivash, suggested that Rambam’s statement not to visit graved be read in conjunction with a previous statement concerning graves of the righteous which should not be marked with a form of monument. Hence, the Rivas explains, that Rambam simply meant that we should not be distracted by the elaborate graves of the righteous but simply remember the dead for their deeds.[11]

Horowitz points out that ironically, the Rivash’s own tomb in Algiers became a major pilgrimage site to which, as one traveller noted “the sick and the unfortunate of every faith came to pray."[12]


Another reinterpretation of Rambam was by R. David ibn Zimra (1479-1573), also known as Radbaz. He suggested Rambam was not referring to visiting graves but to the heathen practice of opening graves in order to commune directly with the dead. Thus visiting the graves was in his interpretation of Rambam, was permissible and he reminds us that “Jews everywhere have been accustomed to visit their dead and to prostrate themselves upon their graves.”[13]


R. Eliezer of Metz expressed the controversial view that the prohibition of ‘inquiring of the dead’ applied only when initiated after death, but it was permissible to put a living person under oath to return after his death and answer any questions he might be asked.[14]



 In 13th-century Germany, the mystical work Sefer Chasidim written by the Chasidei Ashkenaz or German pietists, followed the second (and mystical) Talmudic interpretation that intercessory prayers to the dead were permissible and effective.

The Sefer Chasidim comments on the words of Barzillai, just before he died, to King David:

"’Pray let your servant return that I may die in my own town, near the graves of my father and mother.’[15] - because the dead derive benefit when their loved ones visit their graves and pray on behalf of their souls, improving their lot in the next world. And also, when they are asked, they pray on behalf of the living, as when Caleb ben Yefuneh prostrated himself upon the graves of the Patriarchs."[16]

In keeping with this sentiment, when the leader of Chasidei Ashkenaz, R. Yehudah heChasid passed away, his gravesite became a point of pilgrimage for Jews for centuries thereafter.


In the late 13th-century, Rabbi Chaim Paltiel of Magdeburg (a student of R. Meir of Rothenberg) followed the first (and rationalist) Talmudic interpretation that intercessory prayers are not sanctioned by Judaism. Apparently, pilgrimages to graves were common practice in his time and he tied to dissuade at least ‘women and uneducated men’ from participating in them because he feared they would pray to the dead, something tantamount to idolatry.

R. Chaim Paltiel’s teshuva or responsum - regarding someone who had taken an oath to visit cemeteries - on this matter is an early example of a rift in approach to the popular practice of visiting graves, and he fervently opposed such practices and found ways to absolve people from such vows. He suggested people donate to charity the same amount of money as they would have spent on travel to the pilgrimage site.

R. Chaim Paltiel’s position is significant because, as Horowitz put it:

“It was to be used as a critique of intercessionary prayer by later authorities as well, suggesting the emergence during the Middle Ages, beyond Karaite circles alone, of a counter-tradition to the dominant Talmudic view that prayer to the dead was not biblically prohibited.”

Amazingly, R. Paltiel was apparently reticent to rather suggest that the person who had taken the vow simply request his or her needs to G-d directly because he knew how ingrained the belief of intercessory prayers to the dead were amongst the ordinary religious masses.


On the other hand, it should come as no surprise that the foundation work of Jewish mysticism, the Zohar, chose to elaborate upon the second (and mystical) Talmudic reason that the dead can “intercede for mercy on our behalf.”

According to the account in the Zohar,[17] two Tannaic sages R. Chizkiah and R. Yeisa were travelling in the Galilee when they heard a voice of one of the dead in a cemetery near where they had stopped. R. Yeisa was prompted to ask why it was that we had the custom of visiting a cemetery when experiencing a drought – because the Torah tells us not to “inquire of the dead”? R. Chizkiah responded that the verse referred only to idolaters who are considered dead, but the dead of Israel are considered to be living even after death.
R. Chizkiah continued:

"When the other peoples visit their dead, they do so with sorcery in order to arouse evil spirits with their help. But when Israel visit their dead they come in repentance before God, they come with a broken heart and fasting into His presence, and all so that the holy souls might plead for mercy for them before God.”

This is how Horowitz interprets the conclusion of this Zohar:

“It would appear, therefore, that the Spanish author[18] of the Zohar [who lived in a Christian environment][19] felt the need to find an explanation, possibly in response to Jewish rationalist criticism, for why Christian prayer to saints at their shrines was idolatrous but Jewish prayer at the graves of the righteous was not.”



During the 14th-century, R. Yehudah ben Asher of Toledo mentioned intercessory prayers at gravesites quite glibly as it was clearly considered a common Jewish practice.

Horowitz writes:

“It is worth noting that in the prayer which R. Judah b. Asher composed for his own recitation when visiting such graves he was careful to avoid speaking directly to the deceased even though he was clearly interested in the latter's intercession on his behalf.”

He solved this dilemma by using the following carefully worded formula:
''And may God in His mercy raise up for us the righteous one buried in this grave. May my prayer be heard here, and may he [= the deceased] too pray on our behalf, blessing us continually and at all hours."



R. Moshe Minz, just like R. Chaim Paltiel earlier, also ruled in a responsum that those who participated in the popular practice of taking vows to visit graves could easily be absolved because:

“[T]here are great authorities who have condemned such practices as 'inquiring of the dead,' for most women and the unlearned make them intercessors between themselves and their Master."[20]


Similarly, in a responsum of R. Yaakov Moelin, known as the Maharil, he cautioned those who had planned to visit a grave in Regensburg (probably the grave of R. Yehudah heChasid) not to direct their prayers to the dead.[21]

Yet, surprisingly, he also seems to have been interested in magical techniques to administer oaths to the dead in order to prevent them from coming back to harm the living. This magical procedure involved direct communication with the dead.[22]



In the 17th-century special prayer books, such as Ma’aneh Lashon, were produced to be used at gravesite visitations and pilgrimages. The Prague publication was so popular it was later printed in Yiddish.

An outstanding feature of this book was the prayers which were directly addressed to the departed.

These prayers were referenced by R. Yoel Sirkes (1561-1640) also known as the Bach,[23] who explained we can ignore opposition views to cemetery prayers by the likes of R. Chaim Paltiel (although he agreed with him) because they had become so acceptable over time. The Bach wrote that “no teacher should attempt to prevent or abolish this custom.”[24]

Interestingly Chabad published an edition of Ma'aneh Lashon in English with "prayers to be said at the graveside of the righteouswhich it says is "universal in acceptance and appeal."



While cemetery visitations were becoming even more popular with the rise of the Chassidic movement, opponents to the movement like the Vilna Gaon (1720-1797) voiced their objections to such practices.

After the Vilna Gaon visited his mother’s grave on the first anniversary of her passing, he mentioned to his brother that he was not happy visiting a cemetery and never again returned.[25]

Later Lithuanian rabbis like R. Haim Volozhin (d. 1821) and R. Haim Soloveitchik (d. 1918) adopted similar positions.



It is well known how popular pilgrimages to graves of Chassidic leaders, across the spectrum, have become in recent times. Some of these gatherings have sometimes even taken on a cult-like and often almost carnival atmosphere with huge numbers of participants from all walks of life attending. It is considered a great merit to be included in such gatherings and many are encouraged and even sponsored to join in.


North African Jews, particularly those of Morocco, developed what Horowits calls “a virtual cult of venerated saints whose graves were treated as sacred spaces of the highest order. 

The Moroccan Jews were highly influenced by local Arab and Berber marabout not just in grave veneration but in other matters as well.

Horowitz writes:

“As in other areas of religious life, Jews in Muslim lands were more easily influenced by the practices of their neighbours than were the Jews of Christian Europe, who tended more
strongly (until modern times) to avoid overt imitation of rituals associated with the dominant religion.”

Very often Jews and Muslims shared their veneration of each other’s saints. Sometimes, when the Muslims adopted a Jewish saint, entire villages would convert to Islam, just so as maintain contact with their departed righteous leaders.

According to a study, the Moroccan Jews had no less than 652 saints (both male and female). 126 of them were shared and equally venerated by both Jews and Muslims. Sometimes Jews even venerated Muslim saints.[26] 

Interestingly, even amongst Moroccan Jewry’s own ranks, R. Yosef Mashash (1892-1974) criticised the excessive pilgrimages to and veneration of these tombs.


What emerges from this overview is that sometimes even rabbis - who were not all that enthusiastic about certain ideas that were widely accepted by the masses - did not want to go against the grain of the populace.

This is not without precedent as there is the notion of ‘going out into the streets and observing what the people are doing’ and the belief in a mass form of ruach ha’kodesh or prophecy of the Jewish People as a whole.

On the other hand, there have always been other rabbis who cautioned that sometimes we dance to close to the fire and flirt dangerously with concepts and practices that are not entirely compatible with pure monotheism.

We see this with the reactions of Rambam, for example, to a range of principles held dear by what he calls the ‘ignorant masses’. However, it is not only the masses but also the leadership that espouses such notions.

These include the firmly established concept of sacrifices which Rambam (and reflected in Rav Kook) says was only meant to be a temporary dispensation for the Jews who left Egypt and couldn’t imagine religion without sacrifice – but it was not meant to be considered an ideal to perpetuate into the future. [See How Rashi and Rambam Part Ways on the Deepest of Issues].

We see this with the belief in angels [See Angels in Rabbinic Literature], the belief in praying to angels [See Praying to Angels], the belief in demons [See A Babylonian Context to the Babylonian Talmud] and evil spirits [See Netilat Yadayim – A means of Expelling Evil Spirits or a Simple Ablution?] which occupy a centre stage position in much of the literature. 

We even see it in relatively recent times with many groups courting ideas of Sabbateanism [See Rabbinic Forays into the Matrix of Sabbatean Kabbalah].

The irony is that we are so particular in Halachic observance yet we often let down our guard (no pun intended) when it comes to some basic and primary concepts of monotheism.

[1] Elliott Horowitz, Speaking to the Dead: Cemetery Prayer in Medieval and Early Modern Jewry.
[2] Ta’anit 16a.
[3] Sotah 34b.
[4] The Gemara continues to state that Joshua did not need to go with Caleb as Moshe had already prayed for mercy for him.  Caleb, however, had vacillated on this matter.
[5] Sometimes the term intercessionary is used instead of intercessory but the meaning is the same: the deceased is asked or expected to intercede on behalf of the petitioner.
[6] S. Pinsker, Lickute Kadmoniot: Appendix, 32.
[7] The 6th-century BCE scribe and friend of the prophet Jeremiah.
[8] Joseph Kimhi, The Book of the Covenant, ed. and trans. Frank Talmage (Toronto: 1972) 66.
[9] Ta’aniot 4:17.
[10] Mishneh Torah, Laws of Mourning 4: 4 (ve-lo yifneh adam levaker kevarot).
[11] R. Isaac b. Sheshet, Responsa, 2 vols., ed. D. Metzger (Jerusalem: 1993)
no. 421.
[12] See N. Slouschz, Travels in North Africa (Philadelphia: 1927) 320, and
Hershman, Rabbi Isaac ben Sheshet Perfet, 61.
[13] See his commentary on Mishneh Torah, Laws of Mourning 4:4.
[14] SeferYereim (Vilna: 1891-1902) 374, no. 335.
[15] II Samuel 19:37.
[16] Sefer Chasidim no. 450.
[17] Zohar III, 71a and b.
[18] Horowitz’s allusion to the Spanish author or the Zohar would refer to R. Moshe de León at around 1280 who is said to have pseudepigraphically authored the Zohar.  Gershom Scholem famously referred to the Zohar as a ‘Kabbalistic novel’. This view is in sharp contradistinction to that of many traditionalists who believe the Zohar was written a thousand years earlier by the Mishnaic Tanna, R. Shimon bar Yochai. See Mysteries behind the origins of the Zohar.
[19] Parenthesis mine.
[20] Resonsa, ed. Domb (Jerusalem: 1991) no. 79.
[21] Responsa," no. 118, Sefer Maharil, ed. Spitzer, 270.
[22] Horowitz cites Yisrael Yuval on this matter, see Yuval, Scholars, 89 (letter to Maharil from R. Isaac Erweiler).
[23] An abbreviation for his magnum opus Bayit Chadash.
[24]Bayit Chadash on Yoreh De’ah, no. 217.
[25] Aliyyot Eliyahu (Vilna: 1874) 66. See also Ma'aseh Rav (Jerusalem: 1987).
[26] Ben-Ami, Saint Veneration, 167,233-589.