Lubavitcher Rebbe's Yahrtzeit: Praying to God or to Man?

Moshe Ben-Chaim

Due to the Lubavitcher Rebbe's Yahrtzeit this weekend, sent a mass email urging the public to submit letters to the dead Rebbe. The email included this statement: 

"…it is also customary to send written notes to the Rebbe's resting place for intercession On High for blessings."

One person shared her concern, questioning whether this was a valid Torah practice. To answer this and any question, one must adhere to reason and intelligence. Despite the masses and even Rabbis who might follow a given practice, what is "true", and what is "Torah", is determined by reality and authentic sources respectively. We have no concern for what many people might do, if a practice violates reason and Torah. Reputations are equally irrelevant. Therefore, we do not say, "Since a Rabbi did such and such, it must be correct."

King Solomon wrote, "the dead know nothing (Koheles 9:5)".  Applied here, Rava's principle of "Ain mikra yotzai miday pshuto" ("A verse cannot be explained against its plain reading [Yevamos 24a]") plainly teaches that the dead are not aware of the world of the living; "the dead know nothing."  Sforno comments that the dead have no natural forces. This includes hearing. Thus, praying to the dead is useless. 

But even before King Solomon wrote his prophetic words, God clearly prohibited consulting the dead: 

"A Chover, one who asks of the Ove and the Yedoni, and one who inquires of the dead…for an abomination to God is one who does all these…(Deut. 18:11,12)."

These practices are "abominations", as they assume powers to exist, or capabilities within the deceased, that are not evidenced. Whereas God wishes man to use the senses He gifted us, to deny our God-given senses, means to deny God's will. This is an abomination to God. We essentially reject God when we ignore the precious tools He granted us and mandated we employ to determine both; what is true, and what is bereft of proof.

We are then struck by two Talmudic sources that appear to validate praying to the dead:

Taanis 15a cites the custom to visit the cemeteries on Tisha B'Av, "so the dead might request mercy for us." 

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'.”

In light of God's prohibition and King Solomon's words, these quotes are indeed perplexing. But we must understand that Talmud is not a history book. Such quotes intend to unveil ideas and values and many times are not literal.

Rabbeinu Nissim (Taanis, Rif 5b, 2 lines from the bottom) says that when visiting a cemetery, Jews would cry. Evidently, accepting death as a reality in this fashion moves people to greater repentance so as to avoid punishment, when they die. Rabbeinu Nissim ads, "But they would not take the podium and the Torah there to pray (certainly not to gentile cemeteries) God forbid."  He states, they did not pray at cemeteries. Therefore, the Talmud's words, "so the dead might request mercy for us" must be interpreted. This means that visiting the dead benefits us, just like prayer does. But the benefit is through our own perfection, not any act of the dead, who in fact can do nothing and hear nothing. In truth, the dead are not "there" in the cemeteries. When we see graves, our mortality is no longer deniable. We face our limited lifespans, and ponder our sins for which we all must answer to God in the end. This moves us to repentance. This is the benefit of visiting the dead…"as if" the dead did something for us. 

Calev too visited the dead, but only specific dead personalities: the Patriarchs and Matriarchs. As he felt the pull of the Spies' evil council, he wisely sought to bolster his conviction in God's promise of the Land. That promise was made to the Patriarchs and Matriarchs. Calev assessed himself well, and knew he would find emotional strength to withstand the Spies, if he visited the graves of those Patriarchs and Matriarchs. This would give his ideals greater reality, and grant him courage when speaking out to defend God's word, "We are surely able" to conquer Israel. But Calev did not pray to the dead. The Talmudic quote “My fathers, ask for mercy upon me…" is Rava's manner of delivering an idea. Rava certainly did not suggest Calev violated God's Torah prohibition of praying to the dead. His meaning here is identical with the explanation we have given for Taanis. Calev benefitted by visiting their graves…"as if" the dead benefitted him somehow. To say the dead benefitted Calev, Rava coined the phrase “My fathers, ask for mercy upon me…". 

It would be proper that Chabad leaders who view prayers and notes to the dead as a Torah violation, would finally denounce this practice. Silence on this matter is quite misleading.

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.”