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.

1 comment:

  1. The Kotzker Rebbe refused to go to cemetaries saying, "There is no one there." He defended himself by saying, "I am not a graveyard Jew."