What is the Ohel?

The Ohel is the resting place of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, and his father-in-law, the sixth Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, of righteous memory.

Located in the Old Montefiore cemetery in Queens, N.Y., the open-roofed mausoleum is a place where people go to pray to G‑d, request blessings, and connect with the deep spiritual energy of the Rebbe.

There is a nearby visitors’ center that includes quiet places for study, prayer, contemplation and letter-writing; guest rooms; dining facilities; bathrooms; and a staff ready and willing to help you with whatever you need to prepare for your visit.

Who can come?

(Photo: Adam Ben Cohen/Chabad.org)
(Photo: Adam Ben Cohen/Chabad.org)

The Ohel is open to all people, regardless of level of observance, ethnicity and creed. During his lifetime, the Rebbe welcomed all people, and this tradition continues after his passing.

Why do people go?

(Photo: Adam Ben Cohen/Chabad.org)
(Photo: Adam Ben Cohen/Chabad.org)

Visiting the resting place of a tzaddik (righteous person) is an ancient Jewish tradition. Several reasons are given for the custom:

1. At any gravesite, you become more aware of your limited time on earth. Your heart is more open to prayer to G‑d, and so your prayers are accepted on high.

2. The burial place of a tzaddik is a holy place, just like the Western Wall in Jerusalem. It’s like a portal to the heavens.

3. A tzaddik’s presence can be felt at his gravesite just as it was felt during his lifetime. This itself can inspire you and carry you to an entirely different state.

4. At the resting place, it is easier to connect to the tzaddik’s soul above and to request his blessings, just as you would before his passing.

It is important to remember that we are not praying to the tzaddik. Rather, we are asking that he pray along with us and plead on our behalf. See this response for more on that subject.

When to go?

(Photo: Itzik Roytman)
(Photo: Itzik Roytman)

The Ohel is open 7 days a week, 24 hours a day. (Since driving is forbidden on Shabbat and Jewish holidays, for a Jew a visit to the Ohel would be logistically difficult on those days. Any other day or night is fine.)

There are special days when many people visit the Ohel. If you choose to go then, note that there may be long lines, and your time inside may be limited to a few minutes in order to accommodate the many thousands of people waiting. On these days special attendants oversee the flow of the crowd, a canopy is raised over the walkway for shade, and water is provided if the weather is hot.

These are high-traffic times when you can expect lines:

  • Before Rosh Hashanah
  • 10 Shevat, the anniversary of the Previous Rebbe’s passing, and the day the Rebbe accepted the leadership of Chabad
  • 11 Nissan, the anniversary of the Rebbe’s birth
  • 3 Tammuz, the anniversary of the Rebbe’s passing

Groups or individuals sometimes choose to stay at the Ohel visitors’ center for an entire Shabbat or even a Jewish holiday. There is no charge for the food or accommodations, but the staff do ask that you notify them of your plans, so that they can plan accordingly. They will be able to advise you regarding sleeping accommodations, prayer schedules, etc.

How do I dress?

(Photo: Bentzi Sasson)
(Photo: Bentzi Sasson)

Men: Wear a kippah or hat on your head. You can come in business attire, but casual attire is acceptable as well. You’ll note that chassidic men will wear their black hats and jackets, as well as a special cord called a gartel tied around their waists.

Ladies: Wear a dress or skirt that covers at least your knees, and a modest top that covers your arms until the elbows. Married women should also cover their hair. The visitors’ center has shawls if you need.

It is customary for both men and women not to wear leather footwear inside the Ohel. You can bring your own slippers, or pick up a pair at the visitors’ center.

Is there anything I should do in advance?

Women writing their notes before entering the Ohel (Photo: Bassie Vorovitch).
Women writing their notes before entering the Ohel (Photo: Bassie Vorovitch).

It is customary to place a handwritten note—pidyon nefesh, abbreviated as pan (pronounced “pahn”)—at the Ohel. You can write it in advance, or you can use the pens and papers supplied at the visitors’ center.

Like every important experience, what you get out of your Ohel visit depends largely on what you put into it. You can prepare by studying some chassidic teachings, taking stock of your spiritual state of affairs, and resolving to do better in an area in your life that can use improvement.

There is also a custom for men to immerse in a mikvah before visiting the Ohel. There are two men’s mikvahs within walking distance of the welcome center.

The chassidic custom is not to eat anything prior to visiting the Ohel, although drinking is encouraged.

At the visitors’ center

(Photo: Bentzi Sasson)
(Photo: Bentzi Sasson)

Arriving at the visitors’ center, you’ll enter a complex made up of several houses, with a large tent-like structure out back. As you enter, you may see a large screen playing videos of the Rebbe’s talks. There are English subtitles, so you can pause there for as long as you would like.

You’ll find lots of bookshelves with chassidic books, many of them adaptations of the Rebbe’s works. As mentioned, studying chassidic teachings is a great preparation for entering the Ohel.

There is also an information booth, which is usually staffed by a friendly rabbinic student ready to answer your questions (and help any men wrap tefillin).

There are plenty of tables and chairs, so grab a seat and start writing your pan. You can write in any language you wish.

How to write to the Rebbe

(Photo: Chaim Perl)
(Photo: Chaim Perl)

It is customary to begin the pan with the words:

אנא לעורר רחמים רבים בעבור [שם שלך] בן/בת [שם של אמך]

“Please arouse abundant mercy for [your Hebrew name] son/daughter of [your mother’s Hebrew name].”

You can list the names of your family and others who are in need of prayer. Then you can write whatever you would tell the Rebbe in a face-to-face meeting—the challenges you face, the blessings you seek, the decisions you are unsure about. The Rebbe would periodically chide the “bad-news chassidim,” who came to him only in time of need. So make sure to report on the good things as well, both what you have been doing and what you hope to accomplish.

When mentioning a Jewish individual, it is customary to use his or her Hebrew name and the Hebrew name of his or her mother.

Before entering the Ohel

(Photo: Chaim Perl)
(Photo: Chaim Perl)

Once your note is written, you are ready to make your way to the Ohel.

At this point, if you are wearing leather shoes, you should change into slippers or the Crocs provided in the hall. Pick up a small candle to light when you arrive at the Ohel.

On the way, you may notice some charity boxes. It is appropriate to give charity at this point. The amount you give is secondary to the fact that you are giving.

Turn off your cell phone ringer. As with any cemetery, conversation is permitted only when absolutely necessary.

(Important note: If you are a male kohen, you must take care not to come in contact with any of the graves. The walkway to the Ohel as well as the Ohel itself are constructed to be kohen-friendly, but make sure not to veer off into the cemetery.)

At the Ohel itself

The Ohel has a small anteroom. Here you can pick up a Psalms or a Maaneh Lashon, a booklet (available in multiple languages) containing special prayers and selections of Psalms and Zohar to be recited at the resting places of the righteous.

Here you will also find racks of flickering candles. You can light yours now. (If you will be using the Maaneh Lashon, light your candle at the spot indicated in the text.)

Once your candle is lit, you are ready to enter the Ohel itself. There are two doors; the first is for men, and the second (which brings you closer to the headstones) is for women. To show respect, the chassidic custom is to knock lightly on the door before entering.

Find a place to stand, stop for a moment, and visualize yourself in the presence of the Rebbe and his father-in-law, who are buried here side by side. Imagine how you would feel in a private audience with these two great souls.

(Photo: Bassie Vorovitch)
(Photo: Bassie Vorovitch)

You can read Psalms (appropriate selections would be the ones corresponding to your age and the age of the Rebbe), read the Maaneh Lashon, or just reflect.

When you are ready (or when you get to the spot indicated in the Maaneh Lashon), read your pan quietly, tear it up, and scatter the pieces onto the pile of letters that covers the graves.

When you are done, it is customary to walk backwards, so that you do not show your back to the resting place of the Rebbes.

(Once out, some visit the grave of the Rebbetzin—the wife of the Rebbe. You can find her grave, flanked by her mother-in-law, mother, grandmother and other Chabad women, just across the narrow path that leads to the Ohel.)

(Photo: Bentzi Sasson)
(Photo: Bentzi Sasson)

Once you are back at the visitors’ center, wash your hands using the washing cups at the sinks (which is customary after a funeral or a visit to the cemetery). Pour water on each hand three times, starting with the right hand and then alternating.

Feel free to partake in the refreshments set out (especially if you’ve been fasting until now!).

What now?

Many people come to the Ohel with requests for guidance and advice. Some are at a crossroads in life; others have major decisions to make. Some simply await assurance that their prayers are heard in heaven and will be answered.

Chassidim often tell these people that “the Rebbe will find a way to answer you.” And he does.

But it is no surprise that the guidance does come. As the Zohar teaches us, “A tzaddik who passes on is present even more than in his lifetime.”

Great souls such as these are not affected by the death of their body. After all, even in their lifetime, they were principally spiritual beings. Now, freed of the constrictions of a physical body, the tzaddik has even greater power to assist, guide and provide blessings to all those who connect to him and his teachings.

Did you find this informative? This is part of a series of “What to Expect” articles that offer visitors a basic understanding of Jewish rituals and traditions.