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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 (39)
July 15, 2014
anonymous
Although there are definitely sources that forbid this, the words used by Calev as is quoted by Chazal is אבותי בקשו עלי רחמים. He was clearly asking them to act on his behalf.
Anonymous
NJ
July 8, 2014
Rabbi Freeman:
In reading all the responses it amazes me how much tradition plays in the lives of our people. It seems that Tanaxh has been placed on the dust shelves and Talmud has so taken its place that it doesn't matter what Tanach states plainly our tradition that spans from the first exile in Babylon (certainly not a people of Torah chachams) yet we learned things like reincarnation in our sojourn there, yes and let us not forget the Persians and the Greeks. We need to get back to our sources not the debates.
When in Yeshivah I was too young to realize any difference but I am now 78
I would like response from you Rabbi Freeman
Anonymous
Georgia
July 3, 2014
I believe as long as Jews pray to the deceased to intercede with God on our behalf it becomes idolatrous no matter what any Rabbi says. We are in exile for things like this. Fundamentlst Christians believe Yoshka is their mediator between God and man.
Catholics pray to their "saints" to intercede" for them with God. Cut or slice it any way or rationalize it stating: "We are not asking them to appear before us" won't change it.
Anonymous
Georgia
July 3, 2014
RE: Shulchan Aruch
First, I am the wife of a rav, but not a rabbi myself so it is nonsense for me to engage in a debate with any Jewish man who presumably is endeavoring to fulfill his mitzvah of learning Torah. I don't have that mitzvah, just support my husband's learning. So, having said that - I think pulling out the citations would eventually lead to debate beyond my abilities. I can take the time to pull it, if you really like, but I'm afraid that beyond that - any argument anyone is likely to give I wouldn't be able to argue against. Humbly decline to check (altho i do know where, hint Rama) I'll leave it to you men to arm-wrestle this one.

It's rather below a Torah scholar such as yourself to pilpul halachah with a woman, even a rabbanit, so I'll respectfully decline to say more. Kol tuv.
Nechama Dina
Tiberia
July 1, 2014
Re: Not quite the halacha
Please cite the chapter and halacha in Shulchan Aruch.

I cited my source as Responsum Maharam Shik, Orach Chaim, 293. I also provided a link so you can read it yourself.
Tzvi Freeman
July 1, 2014
Not quite the halacha
The Shulchan Aruch states that we make not pray to or beseech the dead, or their neshamah, however, we may only say, "Hashem, PLEASE! in the zechut of this tzadik 'Menachem Mendel ben Chana' for example, please send me (or whomever) a refuah, children, shidduch, etc...." It is not that we are speaking to the tzadik, we are asking that in their merit, which is clearly greater than our own, that Hashem should find a way to have rachmanus (mercy) on us and answer our prayer in the positive.
Nechama Dina
Tiberia, Israel
April 28, 2014
Re: Sources
" Did some sources feel that, in fact, it would be forbidden on a Torah-level to engage in prayers to the dead?"

Yes, everyone agrees that it is forbidden to engage in prayers to the dead.

There is a classic set of prayers called the Maaneh Lashon which is generally read at the gravesite of a tzadik. Read it through and you will see that all the prayers are directed only towards the one G‑d. When the tzadik is addressed at one point, it is only to ask that he intercede on our behalf.
Tzvi Freeman
April 9, 2014
sources
Dear Rabbi,

It is true that the common custom is to ask the dead to appear before Hashem and pray on our behalf. Since you sited sources which you felt dealt with this issue, I thought I might comment on them.

The Jews asked Moses to intercede on their behalf while he was still alive, not after he died. The source from Bava Basra also deals with people who are still alive and not dead. The source that says you should go to the graves on a fast-day does not tell us to speak to the dead while we are there. Caleb prayed AT the graves, but it does not seem that he prayed to the dead. These are nice sources but they don't back up your theses at all.

It is good that the Maharam Shik addresses your point. He was one of hundreds of great Jewish Rabbis. Were you able to find anyone who disagreed? If so, what is their opinion? Did some sources feel that, in fact, it would be forbidden on a Torah-level to engage in prayers to the dead?
Thank you!
Alex
NYC
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
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