Consulting the Dead


Moshe Ben-Chaim



Reader: I just wanted to ask a question regarding your response to one of this month’s letters which can be located here: You wrote: “Seeking the deceased Ari plead our case before God, is a severe Torah violation.” According to you, would not Calev also be considered an “idolater” who was in “severe violation of Torah”!? Everyone knows the famous story brought down by Rashi to (Numbers 13:22) who references Sotah 34b:


The verse (Numbers 13:22) states: “And they ascended in the south, and he arrived at Hebron.” It should have said, “and THEY arrived at Hebron”? Rava said: This teaches us that Calev disassociated himself from the designs of the spies, and went alone to Hebron and prostrated himself at the graves of the Patriarchs. He said to them: “My fathers, ask for mercy upon me that I may be saved from the designs of the spies.”


However, from your quote above it appears that Calev asked the Patriarchs to plead for mercy upon him before God, and would therefore (according to you) be in severe violation of Torah. We also find other instances of “Hishtatchut” (prostrating at the graves of Tzaddikim) elsewhere in Talmud. References shall be provided upon request.


Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim: “The dead know nothing”. (Ecclesiastes, 9:5)  In light of this verse, Tosfos is troubled by this case of Calev “praying to the dead”. For if the dead are ignorant of this world, Calev’s prayer would be futile, and foolish: something unbefitting a tribal prince as he. Tosfos suggests that Calev did not pray to the patriarchs. Thus, according to at least Tosfos, the words of the Talmud spoken by Calev, “My fathers, ask for mercy upon me” are not to be understood literally. Tosfos held that Calev prayed, not to the patriarchs: but to God, and God informed the dead patriarchs. Why God did so, I do not know: was it so the dead patriarchs would pray to God? If so; why was Calev’s prayer insufficient, and why would God desire the dead to pray to Him? Regardless, Tosfos denies that Calev prayed to the dead.

When Moses or the Jews needed anything, they rightfully prayed to God, and to no one else, or anything besides God. After Abraham died, his son Isaac did not pray to him, but to God alone for all his needs. And after Isaac died, his son Jacob did not pray to him, but again to God alone. The Torah teaches us that every one of the patriarchs and matriarchs prayed to God alone. And when they erred, as in the case when Rachel asked her husband Jacob to pray for her to bear a child, Jacob became angry, saying, “Am I in God’s place?” Jacob was disturbed that anyone should look to a man, as did Rachel, when in need. Certainly after one is dead, and man knows nothing of this world, it is a far worse crime to pray to the deceased.

A Rabbi once taught that if we know something to be true, we do not abandon that truth, regardless of what appears to be a contradiction. Therefore, once we know the Torah says “the dead know nothing”, we must reinterpret what we find elsewhere in Torah heritage, which on the surface appears to be a contradiction.

Taken literally, Calev is viewed as having requested something from the dead. But this might also be – in my eyes – a Torah violation of inquiring of the dead” (Deut. 18:11) But even if praying to the dead does not violate “inquiring of the dead” (explained by Ibn Ezra and Minchas Chinuch as seeking future knowledge) there is another issue.

As Rava was the only author of this quote of Calev traveling to Hebron to “pray” to the patriarchs, we can be quite sure that Rava meant to convey some deeper idea. Had Calev’s prayer been a historic truth, why was Rava the only one who knew this? How could such a “true” story reach Rava alone, and not one other Rabbi of the Talmud, or anyone prior to Rava? My close friend Matthew suggested that one, unopposed Rabbinic view could possibly represent the collective view of the Rabbis, which would dispute my theory, if taken literally. I agreed, but another possibility exists: Rava’s view is his own allegory. Rava’s suggestion of this event, together with the verse that “the dead know nothing” suggests this story of Calev actually praying at the patriarch’s graves, is not literal. What then is Rava’s underlying idea?

Additionally, Tosfos on this very Talmudic portion states as follows: “Talmud Brachos says ‘the dead know nothing, not even the forefathers [know anything]’.” Tosfos concludes, “perhaps through the prayer that this one (Calev) prayed, it was made known to the forefathers what Calev requested.” Tosfos cites in support, a Talmudic portion in Taanis: “Why do people go to the graves? One view is because we are considered before You as dead (for our sins) and the latter view was so that the dead should ask mercy for us.” We must distinguish between the “living asking the dead for something”, which is prohibited; and between praying to God, and then He might convey one’s prayers – to God – to the souls of the deceased. This latter understanding is not a violation, and poses no problem, as the deceased’s souls are very much alive. God can quite easily convey to them what He wishes, since as Tosfos says, “the dead know nothing” (of this world’s occurrences) unless God tells them. Hence, Calev would have been foolish to consult with the deceased patriarch’s bodies.

 The latter view understands the custom of visiting cemeteries as a means of our obtaining mercy…“as if” the dead requested it. But this Talmudic portion is clear: we do not ask the dead for anything. Somehow, their existence causes mercy to be shown to us. But how do they, if as we said already, “the dead know nothing”? I will answer by example: Rashi states (Gen. 48:7) “Our matriarch Rachel was buried where she was by the word of God, in order that when the Jews in the future will be exiled by Nevuzadran, and they would pass by this area, Rachel will exit her grave and request mercy for us.” However, 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: not that Rachel knew the Jews passed her grave (“the dead know nothing”) but that the visitor reinforces his commitment to the true life of Torah, lived by this dead, righteous person. Thus, the visitor view the deceased’s burial plot, reunites with their correct philosophy, and is shown mercy by God.

This may be how we understand the idea of the “dead requesting mercy for the living”. Since God prohibited us to consult the dead, and also, “the dead know nothing” as King Solomon taught, we must interpret the Rabbis when their words appear to contradict known, Torah verses. Suggesting the dead request mercy for us, means that our act of visiting their gravesites is “our” act of repentance, and is known by God, (He does not need the dead to teach Him this) and thereby, God responds to us. True mercy is due to us only when we make a change in ourselves, not because someone asks God on our behalf. For if I am still corrupt, why should God lift my punishments? Punishments are granted to redirect us towards the good. And if we do not correct ourselves, the punishments should justifiably remain in place. We are forced by reason as well, to explain that the Rabbis did not mean Calev actually prayed to the dead, violating Torah, but “as if” the dead caused Calev to be shown mercy. This makes sense, since their gravesites “did” in fact help Calev: he saw their burial plots, and contemplated their perfections, finding fortification in his own values to deflect the spies’ conspiracy.

Calev went to their graves, for a profound reason: he understood the evil spies sought to cowardly deny God’s promise of our inheritance of Israel. To reaffirm in his mind the truth of God’s oath of Israel, Calev traveled to Hebron to simply view the graves of the patriarchs…those individuals with whom God initiated His covenant. This fortified Calev’s current position, “as if” asking for their help, for Calev was indeed successful. He shielded himself from any emotional appeal made by the spies. When Calev arrived at Hebron, the patriarchs and their gravesites were real to his vision, so too, God’s oath to these patriarchs became a clear reality to Calev. Of course he knew this before. However, Calev was honest: he used his knowledge of psychology and his own psyche to bolster his emotions to “remain” steadfast in his belief in God’s word. Calev knew the spies were shrewd, and that any man – even he – could fall prey to strong opposition. To strengthen his emotions, he knew that by viewing reality (the patriarch’s graves) he would have all that is necessary to combat the spies’ lies. 

In conclusion, Rava did not have a monopoly on historical facts. He stated a riddle, and as with all Talmudic portions, we must think into the Rabbis’ words. When the Rabbis seemingly oppose Torah, we can know for a surety they do not; the Rabbis also knew our questions. We know the Rabbis do not oppose what is blatantly written in numerous areas. Thus, they are teaching through a riddle, “The proverbs of Solomon son of David...” “…[to understand] the word’s of the wise and their riddles.” (Proverbs, 1:1, 1:6) Combining these two realities, we conclude that the Rabbis’ words that appear as contradicting Torah, in fact do not. We are the one’s at fault, and we are the one’s who need to delve deeper, arriving at the Rabbis’ true meaning…if we are so fortunate.

We must respect that the Rabbis didn’t simply record history in the Talmud. All of the Talmud’s words require analysis, and I believe our analysis has provided an understanding, which retains intact, the Torah prohibition to inquire of the dead.

Finally, it is essential that we understand the flaw in consulting the dead: they are dead, and unaware of our words, as King Solomon taught and quoted above. The Torah prohibits us from futile acts (Ibn Ezra, Lev. 19:31). But most important, is that we understand God as the only Being capable of responding to our requests, and therefore, we must pray to Him alone.

I will end with a quote from the Iyyun Tefila from the book Otsar Tefilos’ (see the weekday morning Shmoneh Essray on “Oseh Shalom Bimromav):


“For we have a great fundamental; it is not fitting to pray to any creation in the world and to request any assistance from it, except from God alone.”