Praying to the Dead


Moshe Ben-Chaim



“For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing, and there is not left any reward for their memory is forgotten”. (Ecclesiastes 9:5)


Rashi comments on this verse:


 “Would it be that the wicked would place on their hearts the day of death, and they would repent from their ways. But after they die, they know nothing and there is no longer reward for actions they could do from death and onward. But in truth, one who prepares for Sabbath eats on Sabbath”. (ibid)


Rashi understands King Solomon literally: the dead know nothing. And since they are now dead, they can also do no more to earn reward. Therefore, they are wise to repent from their ways: “Just as only the one who prepares for Sabbath will eat on Sabbath”, the wicked that prepare (repent) for afterlife will enjoy it.

I mention all this, since the issue of praying to the dead came up in last week’s Parsha, and also since there exists a popular activity that Jews visit graves of the righteous in Israel and other cities. The visiting per se is not a concern, and is even a good custom as it reminds us of our mortality. It moves us to repent, as Rashi suggested. But the problem arises when Jews “pray” to the dead. Despite its popularity, does God allow this, or prohibit this?

Deuteronomy 18:11 prohibits consulting the dead. This prohibition makes sense, since “the dead know nothing”. Of what use is it to ask anything of someone who is not listening? And why not ask God directly? Additionally, King Saul was in violation when he sought to speak to the dead Samuel. So everything tells us that seeking out the dead is wrong.

Our powerful question is this: How did Calev have any right to travel to Hebron and pray to the patriarchs to be saved from the counsel of the spies? And we do not see any word in the Talmud condemning Calev! Yet, he apparently prayed to the dead patriarchs. Talmud Sotah (34b) cites this verse: “They ascended in the south and he came to Hebron”. (Num. 13:22) The Talmud says:


“It should have said ‘they’ came to Hebron, and not ‘he’ came. Rava said this teaches that Calev separated himself from the counsel of the spies, and he traveled [alone to Hebron] and stretched himself out on the graves of the forefathers. He said to them, ‘My fathers, seek out mercy for me that I am saved from the counsel of the spies’.” 


So we are faced with a question on Calev’s behavior. Again, in the Talmud (and the sources I researched) no condemnation is mentioned about Calev’s action. In fact, God praises him for having followed “his other spirit”…meaning his intelligence, and did not succumb to the counsel of the spies. I would like to suggest the following answer.

 The fact that Calev alone traveled to Hebron is a “derivation”, as Rava learns this out from an apparently incorrect pronoun, “he” came to Hebron, and not “they” came. Rava did not have any historical transmission about Calev’s travels and activities. If he did, no derivation would be necessary. So no one transmitted to Rava what Calev did…it is all Rava’s own derivation from a single word. How then can Rava say what exactly Calev was doing at the patriarch’s graves?

This is explained as a “drash”, a homiletic lesson not to be taken literally. Rava was stating that Calev must have traveled to Hebron, and no other place, for good cause. And he knew it was Calev who went there, since the other spies were of evil intent. Rava knew the patriarchs and matriarchs are buried there. His question was why Calev went there at this time. Rava realized Calev’s predicament: he sought defense from the powerfully persuasive counsel of the spies. Out of their own fears, the spies sought pretense not to wage war in the land. Calev knew God’s promise to the patriarchs that Israel was to be theirs, and he was confident in God’s ability to win the war. However, Calev was honest with his emotions, and wished to bolster his emotions to shield him from succumbing to the spies. By visiting the patriarch’s graves, his emotions would become more attached to what his mind already told him was true.

Rava wasn’t there, but homiletically phrased as a prayer what Calev was only thinking. Rava wouldn’t dare ascribe praying to the dead, to a man like Calev, who God loved. So in fact, Calev did not pray to the dead patriarchs, as this is a corrupt activity, and all prayers should be to God alone. Rava merely spoke in homily, as he believed would be understood. Rava and all Talmudic sages would always seek to prod our thought, by only hinting to a matter or suggesting impossibilities. Such an approach disguises truths from those not ready, and discloses them to sharpen the minds of those who are ready. Homilies and metaphors also preserve truths for succeeding generations, as startling stories always capture the imagination, and are easily retained in memory. And the very fact that this Talmudic portion does not even mention the prohibition to consult the dead in connection with Calev is support for the fact that Rava’s homily is in fact not literal.

Tosfos is of the opinion that Calev did in fact pray, but he prayed “to God”, and God related his prayer to the dead patriarchs. But no opinion suggests that Calev prayed to the dead: an outright Torah prohibition.

We too must not pray to any being aside from God, regardless of the popularity of this practice of praying to the dead. This prohibition forms one of the 613 commands. Man – whether alive, and certainly when dead – is not as powerful as God. When alive, we have only our brute strength and technology. And when dead, “we know nothing”. So there exists no reason for a man to pray to another man. This is the exact ways of Christianity, where man becomes the object of prayer, and we are commanded not to follow the other religions.

Other Talmudic cases that appear to suggest that living man interacted with the dead, must also be taken metaphorically.