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Praying to the Dead: Moed Katan 25b

Judaism is a monotheistic religion. As Devarim 4:35 tells us, Hashem is God, and there is none beside Him. We shouldn’t mentally invest other entities in Heaven, real or imagined, with power and agency separate from Hashem, and certainly shouldn’t worship or pray to them. This includes angels and deceased ancestors and tzaddikim. Despite this, Chazal were not necessarily monolithic in their theological understanding. Furthermore, some aggada appear to presuppose agency on high to angels or the dead, or describe living humans relating to them in ways which seem at odds with the above. It is important to appreciate genre and not draw overarching conclusions from an aspect of one story, such as Calev separating from the scouts and prostrating himself on the graves of the Avot, asking them to pray on his behalf (Sotah 34b).

Naturally, given competing ambiguous sources, halachic decisors differ as to what is prohibited, allowed or encouraged. The continuum of possible positions1 includes not visiting gravesites at all; praying to Hashem at gravesites because of the symbolism/reminder of their merits; praying to Hashem and the deceased hear and, of their own volition, may intercede; addressing the deceased to intercede and request from Hashem; and addressing requests to the deceased, assuming they have some power. I have my own strong opinions, but consult your local Orthodox rabbi.

The theological dispute may be reflected in Taanit 16a between Rabbi Levi b. Lachma and Rabbi Chama b. Chanina2 about why the community went to the cemetery on a drought-based fast day. One turns it into a symbolic prayer, thereby saying to Hashem (and indeed reflecting to ourselves) “we are like the dead before You.” The other explains that the dead will plead for mercy. The practical difference is if going to a gentile cemetery also suffices3. See Tur Orach Chaim 579 and Shulchan Aruch, which reflect the symbolic approach; Magen Avraham, who reinstates the other approach as a consideration. Another source highlighting the theological dispute is Tosafot on Sotah 34b, who contrast various assumptions about the dead (namely Brachot 18a that the dead cannot sense anything) and harmonize. However, perhaps the sources are in disagreement.

In our sugya, Moed Katan 25a, Rav Huna (second-generation Amora) dies and they wish to honor him as they typically honored Torah scholars, by placing a sefer Torah on his bier. His student/colleague Rav Chisda objects to this, given that Rav Huna was opposed to the practice while alive. Rav Chisda objects to two other burial practices, given Rav Huna’s own contrary position. The way to honor the deceased is by following his halachic positions, at least when it comes to the person himself.

That thought often runs through my head when I read (in recurring articles) how some well-meaning, righteous and learned people pray at the Chofetz Chaim’s kever. His position (Mishna Berura 581:27) is that kivrei tzaddikim are places where prayer is more readily accepted, but one shouldn’t directly address the deceased. Rather, one addresses Hashem and requests mercy in the tzaddikim’s merit. Indeed, I’ve read how several rabbanim do precisely this. But what if someone travels to the Chofetz Chaim’s kever, after a regular seder in Mishnah Berurah, and declares that since they have been learning his Torah, the Chofetz Chaim should bless klal Yisrael with yeshuos and refuos? Or, at a less-extreme point on the continuum, people address the Chofetz Chaim with direct requests to pray to Hashem to relieve klal Yisrael’s suffering. Rav Chisda would object on the Chofetz Chaim’s behalf.

Our sugya continues describing Rav Huna’s burial. He was brought to Israel, and since he widely disseminated Torah, they thought fit to bury him next to Rabbi Chiyya who had done likewise. Rabbi Chiyya was of the transitional generation between the Tannaim and Amoraim. He was Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi’s student and Rav’s uncle and teacher. He authored a Tosefta, a collection of braytot, just as Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi authored Mishnayot. Our sugya describes how the spirits of Rabbi Chiyya’s sons, Yehuda and Chizkiya, reacted to bringing Rav Huna in for burial, as witnessed by Rabbi Chagga, who narrowly averted being struck by a pillar of fire.

A related incident with Rabbi Chiyya is the purported theological precedent for another practice, where a Sefer Gibborim, a book containing names of those who’ve committed to studying Mishnah Berurah, is placed by the Chofetz Chaim’s kever, in order to induce yeshuot. In Bava Metzia 85b, as related by Rav Chaviva, Eliyahu HaNavi allows an unnamed late Amora to witness the ascending and descending of various deceased Sages as they ascend to and descend from the heavenly academy. He’s warned not to gaze at Rabbi Chiyya’s chariot. He nonetheless does so and is struck by two flames, blinding him. The Amora prostrates himself on Rabbi Chiyya’s cave and says מתנייתא דמר מתנינא, I study Master’s braytot. His eyes are healed, though remain slightly scorched. I don’t know if we can extrapolate from this incident to anyone who studies another’s Torah. The Amora is asking forgiveness specifically for impugning Rabbi Chiyya’s honor and might therefore address him as an injured party rather than a celestial influential force. Regardless, I’m unsure if the Chofetz Chaim would be pleased with a Sefer Gibborim.


Rabbi Dr. Joshua Waxman teaches computer science at Stern College for Women, and his research includes programmatically finding scholars and scholastic relationships in the Babylonian Talmud.


1 See Vilna Gaon; Tur; Tosafot; Pri Megadim and Kaf Hachaim.

2 According to Rif’s girsa; third-generation Israeli Amoraim.

3 The parallel Yerushalmi Taanit 2:1 has Rabbi Levi (b. Lachma?) stating the former position, and Rabbi Tanchuma with a related elaboration having to do with the symbolism.

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