The Dead Asking Mercy for the Living
Question: The gemara in Taanis, 16a, states two opinions as to why people visit cemeteries. One opinion is to remind one of his own mortality. The second opinion is so the dead request mercy for us. The gemara states that the difference between these two opinions is that the first applies to even gentile cemeteries, and the latter applies only to Jewish cemeteries.
The question is how we are to understand this last statement.
Mesora: Rashi states on this point that “if a place (a gentile cemetery) doesn’t have Jewish dead to request mercy on themselves, certainly they cannot request mercy on us.” The Ran adds that this question about the custom if visiting the dead was cited in the gemara because there is no Mishna or Braissa establishing a halacha to this effect, and being such, the gemara desired to understand why people were following this custom.
To strengthen the question as to how this is, that the dead can request mercy for the living, Rashi states (Gen. 48:7) that our matriarch Rachel was buried where she was by the word of G-d, in order that when the Jews in the future will be exiled by Nevuzadran, and they would pass by this area, and Rachel will exit her grave and request mercy for us. Additionally, we see that Calev, (Num., Rashi, 13:22) during the rebellion of the spies, had visited the graves of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs.
I believe Rashi in both cases points to the interpretation. The concept of “requesting mercy” via one who is dead must be understood. It means that by visiting the dead, it represents an appreciation by the visitor for this dead person’s values. This act of visiting the dead underlines the visitor’s true virtues, as he identifies with the lifestyle of the specific dead person visited. This is the reason for mercy being shown to the visitor. He reinforces his commitment to the true life of Torah, lived by this dead person. As he does this, he reunites with the correct philosophy, and is shown grace by G-d.
The quote from Rashi, “if a place (a gentile cemetery) doesn’t have Jewish dead to request mercy on themselves, certainly they cannot request mercy on us” means as follows: If the dead person is not a Jew, there will be no identification by the visitor. The first part of Rashi, “If this dead person is not one who can request mercy on himself” means that this dead person is not one who will be remembered as a Jewish role model - via which, we euphemistically say “he gains mercy”. If he was a role model, and people visited him, then this is a merit to his lifestyle, and as if he gained mercy. It doesn’t change him now, but it is an endorsement of his life. That is what is meant by “request mercy on himself”. The dead person is not actually requesting mercy, it is a form of speech which carries an idea. Similarly, Rachel does not exit her grave, but rather, her lifestyle acts as a reminder to the exiled Jews as they pass, and this can cause them to repent, as if “she actually exited her grave and prayed for them.” Calev also visited the dead, but I believe it was because his specific circumstance was one where he had to reinforce his concept of G-d’s promise of the land. So Calev went to the graves of those with whom G-d had initiated the specific promise of the inheritance of Israel.
With this interpretation, we do not have to come upon a difficult literal explanation.
A reader suggested the following support: “A proof against the people praying to the dead can be found in mesachet Sotah 14a in Hagaha Habach. R. Chama bar Chaninah said the reason why G-d hid the burial place of Moshe was maybe people would feel that when Moshe was alive, G-d listened to his prayers, so they will go to Moshe’s grave and violate idolatry.”
Correction: A friend contacted me today suggesting that this Bach is not a refutation of praying to the dead. I had trusted the reader who sent this support above, and did not review the Bach myself. I did so today and agree with my friend’s point. The Bach did not say people will pray TO Moshe, but they will pray THAT Moshe seeks help from G-d, not deifying Moshe. According to the Bach, although the Jews would not pray TO Moshe, they still violated Torah ideals by seeking assistance in any form from the dead, even from Moshe.