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

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

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Question:

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?

Answer:

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.

Click here for a profound and thorough guide to visiting the grave of a tzaddik. Perhaps you will make a visit yourself.


Sources
Rabbi Tzvi Freeman, a senior editor at Chabad.org, also heads our Ask The Rabbi team. He is the author of Bringing Heaven Down to Earth. To subscribe to regular updates of Rabbi Freeman's writing, visit Freeman Files subscription.
All names of persons and locations or other identifying features referenced in these questions have been omitted or changed to preserve the anonymity of the questioners.
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Discussion (31)
March 24, 2014
Beeseching the dead
Is G_d not Strong enough to work His miracles without outside help? Is He not just enough to be able to judge me justly without need for intercession of any righteous person? And if we were to ask a righteous for his prayers on our behalf, what does it imply? Am I now better in the Eyes of G_d because I have asked a dead for prayer on my behalf? And if we were to ask a deceased for intercession, why shouldn't we ask to Abraham directly? Is there any one more holy than him?

Noahide
Anonymous
London
March 15, 2013
Re: What about the Rebbe
Fanny, we are all praying every day that the dead will be resurrected after the coming of the moshiach. That's a basic tenet of Jewish faith.

It is prohibited is to ask the dead to come visit us from their place in the other world. But to ask them to come back to life…
Tzvi Freeman
March 15, 2013
It is something Jews have always done
I think that this is probably the greatest open door to sin
We Jews are in exile because of things we have always done
The Torah forbids us to speak to the dead or pray to them for help
Are we Roman Catholics? We have allowed what we have done
to be the measure of right and wrong. Well I for one say God isn't pleased with this.
Anonymous
March 15, 2013
What about the Rebbe
I am delighted to have become closer to Judaism through Chabad houses everywhere. It's truly inspiring. But this article says it's ok to talk to the dead to pray to G-d on our behalf. As long as we don't ask them to come back from the dead and appear before us. But what about the Rebbe. When we say prayers for us and our family to merit the coming of Moshiach now, are we not praying that the Rebbe come back to life and help us out?
Fanny
Houston
November 13, 2012
Re: Can I talk to my mom?
Aliza, you are not asking your mother to return from the dead and appear before you. You're just asking her to help you out. There's nothing wrong with that. It's something Jews have always done, and should continue to do. (I know, it's also a Jewish tradition to feel guilty about everything we do…)
Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
November 11, 2012
Can I talk to my mom
I find myself wanting and well caught myself talking to my dear sweet mother OBM-that unexpectedly passed away in Feb. of this year. I know that the Torah tells not to bother the dead but then on the other hand tradition tells us that it is OK(in some situations-as you described) because so and so did it-I am so confused. I understand what you are saying and I know that there are things beyond my knowledge-but my mom-OBM taught me that just because everyone is doing it that does not make it right. Why would G-d tell us not to do something so much so that he put it in the Torah? Are you saying that it is OK to talk to my mom-OBM and my other relatives-OBM and ask them to intercede on my behalf? I do not mean any disrespect at all-sometimes things are too confusing that I just want to thank you!
Aliza
glendale
May 31, 2012
Common sense
Rabbi Freeman, thank you for explaining this.
I am going to Rebbe's Ohel by the way this Gimmel Tamuz (the Rebbe's yahrtzeit). I am just a bit conflicted what instructions to give to my 7 year old daughter. But this helped. THANK YOU!
Daniil Rapoport
West Bloomfield, Michigan
May 31, 2012
Re: Common Sense
Left to common sense, I would think that a person would take the book provided in English and Hebrew and many other languages, called the Maaneh Lashon—the standard, traditional prayer book to be recited at the gravesite of holy people, and read from that. After all, that is the Chabad custom, there are hundreds of them there everywhere you turn, and visitors are usually handed one.

Reading from that book, I can't see how anyone could imagine that he is there to pray to a tzadik. Everything is spelled out as clear as could be, including the address of our prayers.

If a person has no common sense, then that person has a problem. The Torah says, "Let us make man"--in plural form. Moses was concerned about the implication of those words. G-d told him, "Write them, and the one who wishes to err will err." Because, after all, immediately afterwards, the singular form is used.
Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
Thornhill, Ontario
May 30, 2012
Re: Then what is NOT permissible?
Unfortunately, our comments are falling out of order. But I hope you will get them in the right order.

What is not permitted is to call up the dead to speak with them, especially to ask them about the future, etc.. That is exactly what the verse is talking about. In English, it's called necromancy.

But beseeching the souls of good people to plead on your behalf is a long standing tradition.
Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
Thornhill, Ontario
May 30, 2012
Common sense
Rabbi Freeman, left to common sense, an uneducated person at the Ohel may think that it's ok to daven to a Tzadik as the source of all blessings, or in other words - as God (G-d forbid)

It appears inconsistent when jews are careful not to pray next to a tree so that it does not even appear to a passerby that he prays to a tree. And at the same time, we are left to our subjective "common sense" at the Ohel when some people may think it's ok to pray to a tzadik as the source of all blessings?
Daniil Rapoport
West Bloomfield, MI
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