Letters Dec. 2008 III

Grave-site Prayers

Reader: Wishing you and Klal Yisroel a wonderful year, filled with Ha'Shems blessings.

Having the opportunity to download your weekly edition for the past few years I have come to the realization that many of the “customs” I grew up may in fact be UNTRUE Torah lessons.

My need at this point in my life is for clarification so that I can teach my children and grandchildren the truth before my clock runs out of time.

You have taught that the dead do not hear and can't speak. If one fails to grasp this idea and practices this custom they are practicing idol worship.

Please explain the “custom“ of visiting the cemetery prior to the High Holydays as well as visiting the “Ohel” of departed Chasidic Rabbis before one of Life's great Jewish moments, i.e., engagements, weddings, job interviews etc.

I was brought up in an orthodox home, am yeshiva educated as are my children and grandchildren and yet because of my families “Chasidic” (not Chabad) roots I was taught to visit the cemetery and not only say tehillim but also to SPEAK to the deceased. Examples such as inviting my departed relatives to attend my Bar Mitzvah, etc. My family was not alone in practicing such minhaging. The beliefs of wearing red bendles and attaching a red ribbon to a babies clothing or to a bat Mitzvah girl or beautiful woman's underwear is still practiced among some of my ultra orthodox friends and family. G-d forbid a yurzteit candle went out before ALL the wax was burnt or at least 25 hours meant dire consequences.

Please explain to all of us, your weekly readers, how and why these customs became prevalent among our educated parents and grandparents going back hundreds of years. What is the TRUE purpose of visiting the cemetery during Elul and what should one do at the grave site of a dearly beloved relative or a true Tzadik.

Thank you.

Your Talmid, Aron Yitzchok

Mesora: Aron, thank you for your wishes. 

First and foremost, we must appreciate why Maimonides taught that any instance of “angel“ met with in the Torah, must indicate a vision. (Guide, book II, chap. xlii) Why does Maimonides say this? 

The answer is that on Earth, there is nothing other than man that possesses intelligence, which might control any phenomena. Man alone possesses intelligence, and man alone intentionally manipulates worldly events. When the Torah depicts angels talking to prophets, this is all in a vision, and not on Earth. With this knowledge, we dismiss red bendels, omens (quick-burning yahrtzeit candles), spirits, ghosts, or inviting the dead to Earthly events. For this reason, in the Torah (Deuteronomy 18:11) consulting the dead is grouped together with other idolatrous practices. We violate Torah and truth by acting as if there are other forces on Earth. Assuming this, we cannot view God as the "only" force in the universe. This is why such practices are considered idolatrous.

The Torah, Talmud and halacha teach us that it is prohibited to talk to the dead. When discussing the custom to visit graves on Rosh Hashannah, Mishneh Brurah clearly writes, “But one must NOT direct his thoughts towards the dead: rather, he must seek God – may He be blessed that God should show him mercy in light of the merit of the righteous.“  (Orach Chaim 581:4, Misneh Brurah 27 “Hakvaros”, Beer Haytave “Hakvaros” 581:17)  

What is mean by "God should show him mercy in light of the merit of the righteous"? This means that by our identification with the righteous who have passed on, we thereby perform an act of Teshuva. For through this, God recognizes our inner desire to emulate those Tzaddikim. This is a praiseworthy custom. But we must not cross the line and talk to them. This is prohibited, and a Rabbi in the Talmud goes so far as to say that the dead do not know what we say, and it is akin to talking to a stone. (Brachos 19a)

In the Talmud we find that Calev visited the graves of the patriarchs and matriarchs (Maaras Hamachpelah). 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’.”  

We find that God praises Calev for having followed “his other spirit”…meaning, his intelligence. He did not succumb to the counsel of the spies. 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 exactly what 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 a pretense not to wage war in the land, as they should have according to God's promise of their foretold victory. 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 himself 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: all prayers must be to God alone. Calev never really said “My fathers, seek out mercy for me.... Rava merely spoke in homily, as he believed would be understood as homily. Rava's meaning was that it is "as if" Calev prayed to the patriarchs. Calev sought emotional strength to defend God's promise of the land. He therefore traveled to their graves to solidify this conviction. In truth, Calev found the mercy of his fathers, but only through pondering God's promise at their graves. He did not pray to them.

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 intellectually prepared, and sharpens the minds of those who are prepared. Homilies and metaphors also preserve truths for succeeding generations, as startling stories capture the imagination and are easily retained in memory. And the very fact that this Talmudic portion does not 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.

Additionally, Talmud Sotah 14a says that G-d hid the burial place of Moses to prevent the Jews from relating to him, in place of God. God does not wish man to pray to the dead, to speak to them, or to seek the dead as intermediaries to God. Sefer Otzar Tefilos says this as well. 

In the end, we find that Torah sources demand us to pray to God alone “for He alone performs wonders", recited each morning. Praying to the dead, placing notes in their graves, and all similar acts, violate what we have cited. This is a recurring problem, and even the ancient Jews created the Golden Calf due to their inability to live without the "man Moses", after they thought Moses died. They created a physical relationship to God, for which they were severely punished.

I continually stress this point: we must follow the Torah—not what is popular...even what is popular among religious Jews. 

Kabbala & Polytheism

Dear JewishTimes, 

Although I am not a proponent of kabbalah, I feel compelled to write.  The Me'ili writes, "They have said that one should pray in the day to one created divinity and at night to another divinity...and on Holy Days to yet another.  During the Ten Days of Repentance they have increased perplexity and backsliding by praying to another created divinity, and to other created divinities below the former during the rest of the year.  They have made many distinctions in prayer." 

I have not attempted to learn about kabbalah in at least ten years.  However, I do recall the idea of "sefirot" which is described as "emanations," and I recall for example, some were "netzach" (eternity), "hod" (glory), and one was "melech" (king).  (Actually, I just looked it up and it is called "keter"/crown).   

It is my opinion that these can be related to in a similar manner to the way we describe Hashem "having" attributes.  If Hashem is One, then He has no attributes.  And yet He is described as "rachum" (merciful), "erech apayim" (slow-to-anger), "keyl"?-? (power), "shakai" (sufficient).  These refer to how humans experience the actions of Hashem.  When Hashem punishes, we call it "anger" or "din"/judgement.  When Hashem gives more time, we call it "mercy."  However, Hashem is One and is not sometimes angry and sometimes merciful.  His actions appear this way to us, and this is how we describe it, even though ideally all Jews should be aware that these are anthropomorphic descriptions and not our actual conception of Hashem's nature. 

I trust the Me'ili if he says that the kabbalists of his day were praying to the emanations, which would be similar to the mistake made in Dor Enosh (as described in Rambam, Hil. Avoda Zara chapter 1), when the people ultimately began to worship something other than Hashem. 

However, I do not think that today's Jews worship the sefirot.  It is my understanding that they regard Hashem as "ein-sof" (infinite and unknowable), and that the sefirot can be understood similar to the attributes.  Yes, there are distortions about yichud Hashem, the Unity of God.  There is confusion and people may think that eternity and glory and kingship are "aspects" of Hashem.  However, these same distortions occur in all of mainstream Orthodox Judaism. 

The Sforno (Bamidbar 13:47) says about the Jewish people: "the existence of the Creator and His Oneness is known by a small amount and accepted by the entire nation." 

The Jewish people recite daily, "Shema Yisroel Hashem Elokeinu Hashem Echad."  Hear O Israel, Hashem is our God, Hashem is One.  It is true that not all Jews understand the ramifications of Hashem's Oneness, and we must do our best to educate.   

However, I do not think that today's kabbalists (or at least, I can only speak for the people I have met and spoken to who study kabbala) make the mistake of worshipping (i.e. praying to) created divinities.

 Jessie Fischbein

Chabad & Messianism

Reader: Dear Mesora, Rabbi Elchanan ben Eliezer and Rabbi Saul Zucker, I would like to thank you for your brave pieces on Chabad and Rabbi Cunin in your magazine. It was a great inspiration to see that more people dare to speak up when seeing such wrongdoings against Judaism.

My name is Michael Kohn and I am 23 years old, studying in Manchester. I was born and raised in Oslo, Norway.

I have a special interest in Chabad and messianism after seeing Chabad´s behavior impact Scandinavia. I wish to take an active stand against some of their theology and many of Chabad´s activities. After a few years of learning about the subject, I would like to take an initiative to improve the knowledge of Chabad within Scandinavian Jewry.

Scandinavian Jews have no interest in spending time to find sources and this will be an easy way to acquire and disseminate knowledge. Some of the information will also be in Norwegian, which I think will appeal to Scandinavians. Our youth will be especially intrigued that I am behind the website since many of the youngsters in Scandinavia know me.

In order to make it easier for people (especially Scandinavians) to find sources and information, I have created a website where I will gather articles, movies, sound clips, book reviews, etc. I do not want to write my own opinions on matters, because I do not feel competent enough, but I will direct people to sources so they might find honest information.

I would like to ask your permission to reprint your articles on my website in order to show an important publication's plea to Chabad, and important information about the problems with Messianism and deism.

Thank you.

If you have any questions, please feel free to ask. The address to the website is: www.infochabad.com

Best regards,

Michael Kohn

Mesora: Michael, we applaud your efforts to reach more Jews with true Torah ideals, and to educate others on the heresy promoted within Chabad. This is the gravest of all sins. Feel free to use our materials.

To date, we have not received any retraction or contact from Rabbi Shlomo Cunin. We are thereby led to the conclusion that his beliefs stated in that video that the "Rebbe runs the world" and is Moshiach, are representative of at least his Chabad organization, and perhaps others. To the credit of two other Chabad Rabbis, they did denounce Rabbi Cunin's statements as false. However, in our conversations with Chabad members since that article, certain Chabad Rabbis continued to defend the Rebbe as Moshiach, supporting this belief with an incorrect reading of a Talmudic source. 

I must mention that the method of Torah study is not to first accept a belief (the Rebbe is Moshiach) and then to seek support. Torah demands objectivity, where we leave behind previously accepted beliefs, and follow Torah truths. We are to live by those truths, even if that means abandoning cherished beliefs, and opposing others. With no Torah source, one must not imagine that the dead are candidates for the role of Moshiach. And one cannot excuse Rabbi Cunin for saying the "Rebbe runs the world until he comes to take us out of exile". Perhaps the reason no Chabad Rabbis and very few others have openly rejected Rabbi Cunin's words, is their fear of being ostracized. But one errs greatly when allowing his fear of man, to surpass his fear of God.  

The command of Torah study is the greatest of all commands, and interestingly, is formulated as a command to "teach". From the fact that we must teach, we derive the command to first learn. Therefore, the 'objective' of Torah study is not for individuals, but for the nation. Therefore, we must teach others, and correct others, as our primary command in life. We must not allow our social fears to prevent us from following God's words. It is therefore praiseworthy that you have taken on this mission, and we will assist you in any manner possible.

We again appeal to all Chabad Rabbis: Teach truths, and reject heretical and false beliefs so together, we can eradicate dangerous notions from Jews.  Chabad, you have much reach, and you must use this reach to spread truth, and counter heretical beliefs within your organization. We are willing to work with you to reach this objective, to unify Jews of all customs so we may all follow one Torah. Just as inactivity against intermarriage can destroy our nation, so does the passivity in speaking out against dangerous ideas. We will reprint your letters to foster Torah education, and hope we can work together continuously on this path.


Moshiach: Not from the Dead

The burden of proof is not on those who say that moshiach won't come from the dead — the burden of proof is on those who say he can come from the dead. The reason for that is twofold — moshiach, certainly according to the Rambam, whom Chabad accepts as to the halakhos of moshiach, says that the person will reach a level of nevuah and kingship naturally, then will be revealed to be moshiach. "Naturally" means just that — not from among the dead. Now if one wants to claim that "naturally" includes from the among the dead, the burden of proof is on him. Further, if moshiach can come from among the dead, why would it not be the greatest king we ever had or could have — Moshe Rabbeinu — especially because we know for sure that Moshe will be resurrected, as the gemara states " 'Az yavdil Moshe...' mi-kan letechiyas hameisim min haTorah.", "From here we learn Resurrection is in the Torah".

Rabbi Saul Zucker

Jewish Neshamas Stick Together

Reader: “Tears of Joy: Tears of sadness are Bitter, while tears of joy are Sweet!”  [Me Am   Lo’ez, page 458, Rabbi Yaakov Culi.]

Vayigash 1 GENESIS  45:14: Joseph fell on his brother Benjamin’s neck and wept. Benjamin also wept on Joseph’s neck.

Vayigash 1 GENESIS  45:15: Joseph kissed all his brothers and wept on their necks.

Every year, when I reach this portion of our Holy Torah, I can not escape the choked-up feelings of happiness and joy for Joseph and his brothers. Yes, as tough and hardened and thick skinned I imagine to be, this visualization of Joseph revealing to his brothers who he really is, somehow, cuts right to my heart, and triggers… tears of joy.

Is it possible that this tear-jerking account has far more significance than it appears? I think so! I don’t think that Hashem included the story of Joseph because it would make a great screenplay.  Then why did he give it to us? Maybe He gave it to us to use as a tool!

When we encounter neophytes, who want “truths” of Torah, we have this account of Joseph and his brothers to use as an excellent example of being in touch with our Jewish Souls. “How do I know I have a Jewish Soul?” they often ask. Let them read this story, and when they come to sentence 45:14, and 45:15, ask them to describe their immediate feelings, their immediate emotions.  Now ask them if they ever got the same reaction seeing strangers being reunited at the airport? That’s right! They didn’t feel the same way. Why not? Because their eyes didn’t connect their Jewish Neshumas to these strangers. So far, I haven’t encountered anyone who hasn’t gotten choked-up, or hasn’t shed a few tears for Joseph’s happiness. Jewish Neshumas stick together!

We feel this way because G-d included this happy ending for our benefit, to put us in touch with our Jewish Souls, to show us that he made us to have feelings and compassion for our brother Jews.

The Monsey Maggid 

Mesora: Yes, there is certainly a greater connection with our Jewish brothers and sisters, than with others: those equally entrusted with Torah. This is based on our identification with other Jews as fellow Torah followers. Pirkei Avos also states that greater was the love of David and Jonathan, than that of Amnon for Tamar. The latter felt tremendous love for his half sister Tamar, but this was conditional, romantic love. The greater love is between two like David and Jonathan who shared a love of Torah. This unconditional love of Torah was expressed towards each other, for they equally valued God's word. When we perceive in others an attachment to truth, nothing else can bond us with greater strength. For we understand that this attachment to truth in others is generated from that which differentiates man from all creations: our intellects. Make no mistake: this does not mean the Jews have a soul superior than any other human being. We all descend from Adam, so we all possess identical souls and identical potential, gentile and Jew alike. (In fact, David was the descendant of Ruth the convert.) And if we meet gentiles who share our love of Torah as I have, then we share this same bond as Joseph had for his brothers. And as Rashi points out, Benjamin and Joseph wept over the future Temple's destruction. This homily means to say that their love was based not on a simplistic brotherly love, but for their shared attachment to Torah values.