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Grave Visitations and Prayers

Grave Visitations and Prayers

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The traditional attitude of Judaism was not to encourage excessive grave visitation. The rabbis were apprehensive that frequent visiting to the cemetery might become a pattern of living thus preventing the bereaved from placing their dead in proper perspective. They wanted to prevent making the grave a sort of totem, at which the mourner would pray to the dead rather than to God, and thereby be violating one of the cardinal principles of Judaism: that God is One and that there are no intermediaries between a man and his God.

Proper Times for Visiting

Various customs have arisen regarding the proper times for visiting the graves of dear ones:

  1. Propitious times to visit the grave are on days of calamity or of decisive moments in life: on the concluding day of shiva and sheloshim, and on yahrzeit; on fast days, such as Tisha B'Av, or before the High Holy Days; on erev Rosh Chodesh, the day prior to the first days of the months of Nissan and Elul. One or another of these days seems proper for families to visit their beloved dead. There is no rule of thumb as to the annual frequency of such visitation, excepting that people should avoid the extremes of constant visitation on the one hand, and of complete disregard on the other.

  2. Visitation should not be made on chol ha'moed--the middle days of Passover and Succot--nor on Purim, as these are holy days of joy.

  3. There is dispute regarding the propriety of visiting at certain other times, such as Rosh Chodesh, Hanukkah and erev Purim, Lag B'omer, the days in Nissan which precede Passover, and other days on which tachanun is not recited. Consequently, these days should be avoided for visitation and unveiling if at all possible. If for some reason, whether it is because members of the family must leave town, or will be visiting from out-of-town at certain other times, or because a mate wishes to be remarried following the unveiling and insists upon waiting until that time, or some other cogent reason (and not mere arbitrariness), the visitation may be held at those times. If held on these days the rabbi will avoid provoking unnecessary tears and, therefore, will not recite the malei memorial prayer. He should temper his eulogy so as not to bewail, but rather to praise the dead. These days are days of national joy and the spirit of total tragedy should not prevail. However, the psalms and Kaddish may be recited.

Personal Prayers and Devotions

  1. If one has not visited a cemetery in 30 days he should recite the following blessing addressed to the deceased:

    Baruch ata adonai Elo-kenu melech ha-olam asher yatzar etchem badin, v'dan v'chilkail etchem badin, v'hemit etchem badin, v'yode-ah mispar koolchem badin, v'atid l'ha-chazir ul-ha-chayot etchem badin. Baruch ate adonai-m'chayeh hemetim.

    "Praised be the Eternal, our God, the Ruler of the Universe who created you in judgment, who maintained and sustained you in judgment, and brought death upon you in judgment; who knows the deeds of everyone of you in judgment, and who will hereafter restore you to life in judgment. Praised be the Eternal who will restore life to the dead."

  2. It is entirely proper for learned Jews to study the mishnah for several minutes at graveside.

  3. Several chapters from the Book of Psalms are usually recited. Also Psalm 119, whose verses are grouped according to the alphabet, may be read, selecting those portions which begin with the letters of the name of the deceased. These Psalms may be recited as close to the grave as desired. Some people customarily place their hand on the tombstone during the recitation.

  4. Much care must be taken to direct one's personal prayers at graveside to God. To pray to the deceased, or to speak directly to him in the form of prayer, borders on blasphemy. It is sheer necromancy, outlawed by the Bible (Deut. 18, 11) along with sorcerers, soothsayers and enchanters. Not all the good intentions in the world can justify praying to the dead as intermediaries. That is an abomination to a people that has based its faith on the unity of God, and has abhorred spiritualizing via ghosts and wizards. Better no visitation to the cemetery at all than one which induces "inquiring of the dead."

Memorial Prayer

The Kel Maleh Rachamim, is a memorial prayer of undetermined origin that has been taken to heart by all Jews. Its ubiquitous appeal and profound emotional effect has caused it to be chanted at funerals and unveilings, at every visitation to the cemetery, and in the synagogue on Sabbaths before yahrzeits, and at yizkor services. This prayer may be recited in English without any loss of religious significance.

The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning by Rabbi Maurice Lamm. To purchase the book click here.
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Discussion (4)
October 9, 2013
Tallis and Tefillin?
We generally do not wear tallit and tefillin in the cemetery. In fact, it is customary to tuck in the fringes of the tallit katan (small tallit worn under the shirt), since it would be poor taste to ostentatiously flaunt our mitzvahs in the presence of the deceased who no longer have the opportunity to do them.
Menachem Posner
Montreal
September 15, 2013
Tallis and Tefillin?
May one wear tallis and tefillin when saying blessings/reading Psalms at graveside?
Anonymous
August 1, 2013
In Israel a lot of head stones are actually laid flat or flat and raised.
My Dad's is one of these ones.
Moshe
Beit Shemesh, Israel
January 7, 2013
Is one allowed to be buried in a Jewish cemetery where the headstones lie flat on the ground instead of upright?
Miriam Neustein
New York

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