Ask the Rabbi: A grave matter

When we pray at cemeteries, to whom do we pray?

February 12, 2010 17:57
4 minute read.
A woman prays at a grave. [illustrative]

praying at graves 311. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)


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The phenomenon of Jews praying in cemeteries has existed since antiquity, and while its propriety was the subject of historical debate, today one finds it commonplace in most communities. Nonetheless, the contrasting justifications for this ritual gave it various meanings and limitations.

The Torah definitively discourages Jews from attempting to contact the next world. It forbids “seeking out the dead,” prohibiting sorcery and other “abominable” attempts to access other-worldly spirits (Deuteronomy 18:11). The sages, however, narrowly interpreted this proscription to a form of necromancy or divination, in which one starves himself, enters a cemetery to undergo an “impure spirit” and attempts to gain some form of knowledge (Sanhedrin 56b).

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Tellingly, the Torah records that the burial place of Moses remains unknown, a verse unfortunately ignored by some unscrupulous tour guides (Deut. 34:6). Many midrashim asserted that God did not want his burial spot to become, for Jews and non-Jews, a place of worship (Midrash Lekah Tov).

Along these lines, Rabban Shimon bar Gamliel deemed tombstones at the grave sites of scholars as unnecessary, contending instead, “Their teachings serve as their remembrance” (Yerushalmi Shekalim 2:5). Maimonides codified this opinion into law, further adding, “One should not visit graves” (Avelut 4:4).

In modern times, this sentiment was supported by the Vilna Gaon (Ma’aseh Rav), Rabbi Azriel Hildesheimer and Rabbi Haim Soloveitchik (Nefesh Harav, p. 254). They opposed graveside visits, even on memorial days (yahrzeit), since it might lead to inappropriate worship and more fundamentally, because cemeteries engender and signify impurity (Ish Hahalacha 36-40). Others, like Rabbi David Hoffman, expressed concern that tombstones and memorials will waste money better spent elsewhere, including charity in the memory of the beloved (Melamed Leho’il 2:139). Indeed, many communities historically felt that to prevent inappropriate behavior, simple stone markers sufficiently delineated burial spots (Shut Radbaz 4:243).

As Dr. Yehezkel Lichtenstein has documented, a more dominating strand in law and Jewish thought permitted, and at times thoroughly encouraged, prayers in cemeteries. The Talmud tells several stories of ad hoc prayers by various sages at grave sites, and further asserted that Caleb (Numbers 13) prayed at the Tomb of the Patriarchs to aid him from falling under evil counsel (Sota 34b).

In talmudic times, the most prevalent scenario for communal cemetery visits came in times of distress, such as droughts (Ta’anit 16a). The rabbis debated the purpose of these communal gatherings, which initially developed as folk customs with no earlier textual support (Ritva). One sage suggested that it symbolically represented to God, “We are as the dead before You,” and as such did not preclude its performance at non-Jewish cemeteries. Others understood this more radically as a request for the deceased to intercede for mercy on their behalf. These sentiments echo other talmudic sources which speak of the deceased maintaining a living presence in the world, to the point that ritual behavior was typically forbidden cemeteries as it insulted the deceased (lo’eg larash) who could not perform mitzvot (Brachot 18a).

This latter interpretation raised controversial questions of intercessory prayer in which the deceased or angels are requested to beseech God. Maimonides deemed such prayer heretical in the fifth of his 13 dogmas of Judaism, and not surprisingly adopted the first explanation of the ritual (Ta’anit 4:17), a position which was codified in the Shulhan Aruch (OC 579:3) Nonetheless, these rituals remained exclusively at Jewish grave sites (Magen Avraham 579:11), with various understandings of cemetery prayers proposed. Some promoted cemeteries as places with greater spiritual presence (Drashot Haran No. 8), while others innocuously stressed the importance of cemetery visits to recall the merits of the righteous and one’s beloved (Ktav Sofer YD 178).

Many, however, advocated this ritual as an opportunity for intercessory prayer, with some further noting that the living reciprocated the favor by praying for the elevation of the departed’s soul (Sefer Hassidim 710). The Zohar extolled Jews who come to cemeteries in remorse and repentance, thereby making their request worthy of additional support. Indeed, cemetery visits became particularly prominent on fast days, times of mourning, and during the Days of Awe.

Despite the widespread allowance for cemetery visits (Bach YD 170), many were worried by its excesses. In one extreme 16th-century case, Rabbi David ibn Zimra chastised worshipers who opened graves (!) so that they could communicate directly with the dead (Radbaz Ta’anit 4:4). In the 19th century, Rabbi Abraham Danzig warned people against praying to the dead and leaving God out entirely (Hochmat Adam 89:7).

Given the excesses of cemetery supplications and the theological concerns raised by intercessory prayers, I strongly recommend shunning prayers directed toward the deceased. Instead, use the occasion to think about the mortality of life, the heritage of the deceased and to pray to God that He help us create our own righteous legacy.

The writer, on-line editor of Tradition and its blog, Text & Texture (, teaches at Yeshivat Hakotel.
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