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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. FaceBook @RabbiTzviFreeman Periscope @Tzvi_Freeman .
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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Charles Honolulu November 6, 2017

So how can a Tzaddik help? You think the L-rd is going to focus on the Tzaddik and not see your Jewish soul bent down behind him?

No, the benefit of inviting the Tzaddik may not be what you think. It will be more like “Who’s that with the Tzaddik? Show yourself!”

The L-rd will certainly see you and call you to the front of that prayerful interaction. So beware, the brighter the Tzaddik shines, the greater the contrast, the louder the Holy confrontation, and the more L-rd will demand of you. Reply

Konstantin Barbe Grafschaft October 25, 2017

Okay. Could someone explain the following Bible verses:

1. <<For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing, and they have no more reward, for the memory of them is forgotten. Their love and their hate and their envy have already perished, and forever they have no more share in all that is done under the sun>> (Ecclesiastes 9:5-6)

2. <<Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might, for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going.>> (Ecclesiastes 9:10)

3. <<When his breath departs, he returns to the earth; on that very day his plans perish.>> (Psalms 146:4)

4. <<The dead do not praise the Lord, nor do any who go down into silence.>> (Psalms 115:17)

Thank you. Reply

Yehuda Shurpin for Chabad.org November 5, 2017
in response to Konstantin Barbe:

The verses in Ecclesiastes are making the point that once a person dies he no longer has a chance for repentance and it is too late for the person's actions to have any bearing on their own reward and punishment "for [only] whoever toils on the eve of the Sabbath will eat on the Sabbath." To see how each of the specific verses are explained, please see our online scripture with the commentary of Rashi (Rabbi Sholomo Yitzchaki) Ecclesiastes - Chapter 9, http://www.chabad.org/library/bible_cdo/aid/16470#showrashi=true

As for the verses in Psalms, you need to read it in context. It is referring to the idolaters and the wicked, but "But we [e.g. the righteous] shall bless God from now until everlasting, Hallelujah! Reply

Konstantin Barbe Grafschaft November 7, 2017
in response to Yehuda Shurpin for Chabad.org:

Thank you. So that Midrash claims that Ecclesiastes speaks about wiked people. But Ecclesiastes speaks not about wicked people. It speaks about the humand beeing in general. In Ecclesiastes, the living and the dead are contrasted, not good and bad people. Moreover, Ecclesiastes would contradict other Midrashim whitch cointains a notion of Gehenna (hell) for wicked people. The Kabbalistic doctrine of reincarnation is also in contradiction to Ecclesiastes. Reply

Yehuda Shurpin for Chabad.org February 28, 2017

Re: Anonymous Indeed, if people were praying to other people or graven images, it would be a violation of what it says in the Torah, but that isn't what is being done. As for the citing written Torah, the article itself starts off with examples from the bible of the Jewish people many times asking Moses to intercede on their request. We also find in Genesis (32:27) of Jacob asking the angel to bless him. The Talmud and Zohar are brought as an explanation for the practice, not the source. (Of course, this is without getting into the fact that the Oral Torah is also from G-d, but that is a separate discussion). Reply

Anonymous February 22, 2017

I can't believe the words I am reading the Torah explains it over and over again you shall not have any image or given stones. And you are referring to the Zohar and the Talmud not the Torah which never states to refer to the oral word/Talmud which rabbis made Reply

Tzvi Freeman July 12, 2016

Re: Hineni (Marsha) Yes, certainly G-d hears our prayers from wherever we are. But there are holy places. When you stand in one of those places, you are uplifted and connected. The burial site of a tzadik is one such holy place. Reply

Marsha July 11, 2016

Hineni Why is there a need to go "the grave" to pray? Can't we reach out from wherever we are - with our hearts and soul? Reply

Ted Baltimore November 29, 2015

Holy Chaps Praying on our behalf The instance of Caleb praying at Hebron by Abraham's tomb is cited by the Talmud. The verses in the Torah/Tanach are silent on this topic. Whenever an instance in Hebrew supports
an ancient custom, is derived from Rabbinic tradition. Yet, the written source is either quiet or may not even be discussing the custom in question. Reply

Anonymous Jersey City, NJ July 8, 2015

Very informative article. The zohar says Yatir Me'be'Chayoi-hi - the tzadik is with ( accessible to ) us now, after death, more than when he was alive. Reply

Anonymous May 26, 2015

Very well put article and response to comments, Rabbi Freeman! Thanks for posting! Reply

Charles Honolulu May 4, 2015

There is no human being alive or dead to whom I would say, "Here's a message from me to G-d. Would you give it to Him? I'm sure G-d will listen to you more than me." I wouldn't ask Moses. I wouldn't ask the High Priest. I wouldn't ask Maimonides.
If my father Abraham was sitting right next to me and personally offered to pray on my behalf - I would have to refuse such help. I can pray with him. But, under no circumstances can I allow him to intercede between G-d and me - even if such an intercession would benefit me.
You see, I jealousy guard my personal intimacy with the Almighty - even if the result should prove detrimental. Ironically, a Tzaddik is my most feared rival as he's the most handsome man in town so to speak. I could not bear that the L-rd would find his words more pleasing than my own. Reply

Fr. Jim Loiacono, OMI Sarita, TX March 11, 2015

Asking a deceased tzaddik for prayers I agree. It's forbidden to speak to or call forth the deceased. But, asking a deceased Tzaddik for prayers is certainly appropriate. The deceased who are among the just are no less concerned for our welfare when they stand before the divine Glory than when they were among us. They have a heightened awareness of our needs and an even deeper compassion. G-d alone is the focus of our worship and adoration, but the just are to be recognized and honored. The bonds of love and caring among the righteous are not broken in death, but are sustained by one G-d who is the God of life and wishes us all goodness and desires our eternal presence with Him and all his beloved - each person created in the divine image, and that is all of us. But, I suspect the tzaddik will pray to G-d in a heartbeat that, whatever we ask, it will ultimately lead us to become true tzaddikiim - righteous, caring, just, loving, peaceable. In a word, real menschen who glow as the image of G-d, baruch Hu. Reply

Tzvi Freeman January 25, 2015

Response to Alex You write: "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. "

The article explicitly states that we do not beseech or pray to the dead.

As far as those who disagree with Maharam Shik, I have yet to find an authority of equal stature who deals with the issue in such depth. Reply

Alex NYC January 21, 2015

response to your response On April 9, 2014, I commented on this article. Here is a follow-up:

Many of the examples you cite are not relevant to your topic. You did not respond to my readings of the sources. (Anonymous from July 15, 2014 responded to one of my points- thanks.)

The topic of discussion involves a very serious "Torah level" question and should be dealt with by citing more sources and by developing both sides of the argument, which this article does not do.

I encourage you to respond to my points from April 9, 2014 (which you have not yet done) and to cite other Torah authorities in this article. Reply

Anonymous NJ 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. Reply

Anonymous Georgia 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 Reply

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. Reply

Nechama Dina Tiberia 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. Reply

Tzvi Freeman 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. Reply

Nechama Dina Tiberia, Israel 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. Reply

Tzvi Freeman 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. Reply

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