Nestled behind the Supreme Court in Jerusalem is a little-known cemetery that nevertheless contains a secret site that is rapidly becoming ever more talked about and visited.
Buried in this plot is an admor, or grand rabbi, of the Zvhil hassidic dynasty named Rebbe Gedalya Moshe of Zvhil, and coming to visit his grave are hundreds of people every month to pray for anything that might be troubling them.
The Zvhil hassidic dynasty originated in the 19th century in what is now Ukraine.
In 1926, the grand rabbi at the time, Rabbi Shlomo Goldman, left what was then the Soviet Union and came to live in Mandate Palestine. He was joined in 1937 by his son, Rabbi Gedalya Moshe, after he was released from incarceration by the Communist regime.
On any given Monday or Thursday, dozens of people, including haredim, hassidim, members of the national-religious community, nonreligious people, Ashkenazim and Sephardim, men and women, all come to the rabbi’s resting place to voice their requests and needs.
Praying at the graves of the righteous is an ancient Jewish tradition but one that is also controversial within the boundaries of Jewish law. The Torah forbids praying directly to the dead for help, but praying that a righteous departed soul intercede in Heaven on behalf of the supplicant is less problematic.
This tradition is particularly prominent in the hassidic world, which places greater emphasis and importance on the spiritual and mystical aspects of Jewish law and custom.
At the grave of Rabbi Gedalya Moshe, who died in 1949, the story is told that a righteous man from the community once fell ill. One night, the departed rabbi appeared to him in a dream and said that if he came to his grave and prayed, and provided some support for the institutions of the Zvhil hassidim as well, then he would be healed.
The man did as he was instructed in the dream and was indeed healed, so it is related, from which point on the grave has been a place of pilgrimage and prayer.
During a tour of the site, one man, a hassid, interrupted his prayers and told this reporter that he and his wife had waited many years to have a child.
After being recommended by a friend to come to the rebbe’s grave and pray, the man came and prayed three times, on a Monday, Thursday and the following Monday.
“We had a baby boy just now and I came to give thanks at this holy site,” says the man earnestly.
Numerous such stories abound. Another young man, of Sephardi heritage, arrived at the site to also give thanks for a successful intercession.
He related that his new wife had prayed at the grave for a husband and the two got married just two days prior to his current visit.
He said that he and his wife returned to acknowledge the power of her prayer through which they had found each other, ostensibly through the intervention of the Grand Rabbi of Zvhil.
People who come to pray at the site generally give a donation to the Zvhil hassidic institutions and, if their prayers are answered, provide food and drink at the entrance to the cemetery for fellow pilgrims and supplicants.
Also present at the cemetery is a member of the Zvhil hassidic community who reads from a long list of people who were unable to reach the grave but who have requested that prayers be said there in their name.
Prof. Menachem Friedman, an expert on haredi society, says that the custom of praying at the graves of the righteous is a deeply rooted Jewish tradition, but notes that many renowned arbiters of Jewish law have urged caution toward it out of fear that it could be akin to pagan practice.
According to the professor, an increasing trend in visits and prayers at the graves of hassidic masters, as well as other prominent spiritual leaders, is discernible in Israeli society, and he attributes it to what he calls a hassidic revival.
“People are looking for an anchor within the chaos of modern reality,” he says.
“Many people feel alone and even abandoned, and are easily attracted to someone who says they have a connection to God.”
Friedman is clearly skeptical about the intercessory powers accessible at the graves of the righteous in general, and says that such prayers work for those who believe they will work.
But for many the influence of their prayers at this site, and others, is readily apparent.
Upon leaving the grave, another hassidic man approached and told of how he had come to the site to pray that his daughter in law become pregnant.
His prayers, too, have recently been answered, he said, and his son and daughter- in-law are now expecting a child in some five months.