Prayer – at Tombs

Never has davening at kivrei tzaddikim been as prevalent as in our time. With the fall of the Soviet Union, the advent of speedy travel, fast communications, and efficient tzedokoh organizations, kevorim that were once days distant are now only a plane flight or phone call away. When did all this start?

Early Sources

The earliest mention of davening at kivrei tzaddikim is Koleiv’s detour to daven at the kivrei avos in Chevron where he begged the Avos to intercede on his behalf, saying, “My fathers, beg mercy for me to be saved from the counsel of the spies” (Sotah 34b). In a similar vein, the Bach cites a version of the Gemara where Rabi Chama bar Chanina said, “Why was Moshe’s grave hidden from mortal eyes? Because the Holy One knew that the Bais Hamikdosh was to be destroyed in the future and Yisroel would be exiled from their land. [He was concerned] they might come to Moshe’s grave at that time and stand in tears and supplicate to Moshe and say to him, ‘Moshe Rabbeinu! Stand in prayer for us!’ And Moshe would stand and annul the decree because the righteous are more beloved in their deaths than during their lifetimes” (Hagohas Habach, Sotah 14a).

The Gemara (Taanis 16a) also mentions going out to graveyards on fast days, citing two opinions for this practice. Going there is like saying to Hashem, “We are considered before You like the dead.” Alternatively, we go to kevorim so that the dead should beg mercy for us on their behalf.

In yet another instance, when Rabi Mani son of Rabi Yonah, was harassed by the servants of the nosi of Eretz Yisroel, he prayed for help at the grave of his illustrious father (Ta’anis 23b).

Reish Lakish used to mark the graves of talmidei chachomim (Bava Metzia 85b). According to Rav Yaakov Emden this was so that people should know where the kevorim were in order to pray by them (Hagahos ha-Yaavatz, ibid). But Rashi gives a different reason, saying that he marked the graves to prevent kohanim from becoming defiled by walking over them.

Chazal also mention going to kevorim for purposes other than prayer. The Gemara (Sanhedrin 47b) records that people used to take dust from the grave of Rabi Abba bar Ibo for healing purposes. This sort of minhag persisted until recently. Not so long ago, women were still collecting ash remaining from the Lag Ba’omer bonfires in Meiron for similar purposes.

Another case of healing is mentioned in Bava Metzia (85b) where a talmid chochom was blinded after gazing at Rabi Chiya’s spiritual chariot.

“The next day,” he reported, “I went and prostrated myself at thecaveofRabbi Chiya[in Teveriah] and said, ‘My teacher! I learn your teachings!’ and I was healed.”

Surprisingly, since the sealing of the Gemara, little or nothing was mentioned about davening at kevorim until the 10th century CE when we find the Karaite, Sahal ben Matzliach of Yerushalayim complaining of the minhag some Jews have of visiting kevorim, praying, and lighting candles. He also mentions a custom still practiced at Yonasan ben Uziel’s kever in Amuka and Choni Hame’agel’s kever in Tzefas, of tying rags to trees. Nowadays, people tie plastic bags instead of rags.

How Were Kevorim Remembered?

By the High Middle Ages, reports of people visiting kivrei tzaddikim proliferated as travelers recorded their itineraries. One of the earliest and most famous of these was Rav Binyomin of Tudela who visited Eretz Yisroel in about 1170 during the Crusades. He was followed ten years later by Rav Pesachya of Regensburg, who mentions that in Bavel people knew the traditional burial places of five hundred prophets and amora’im. A talmid of the Ramban wrote another list of kevorim in about 1272.

In 1481, Rav Meshulam b”R Menachem of Voltura, Italy, addressed the issue of how the locations of kevorim were preserved throughout the generations.

“There are caves containing the graves of many, numberless Chassidim and tzaddikim,” he wrote. “However, we do not know who they are excepting those who are recorded and of whom we have a tradition in our hands from mouth to ear from early times with no doubt of their truth. In addition, the Arabs honor all these places and have a tradition regarding them as we do. They say to Jews, ‘Why don’t you go to the grave of the tzaddik so and so, or to the grave of the prophet of this name?’ On a number of occasions, the Arabs wanted to seal these graves and maintain them in sanctity under their control, but Hashem foiled their plans.”

During the relative security of Ottoman rule from 1516, even more people traversed the length and breadth of Eretz Yisroel. One of them, Rav Menachem ben Peretz of Chevron, writes that the identification of kevorim was thanks to the continual presence of Jews in Eretz Yisroel. After listing a number of kevorim he writes: “So I received from the people of Eretz Yisroel as I have written… When someone reads this record of the tzaddikim mentioned above by name, they should not suspect and say that I wrote this to find favor in their eyes… for He who spoke and created the world knows that I received this from the people of Eretz Yisroel. If you ask, ‘How do the people of Eretz Yisroel know of the righteous people who are already buried there for three thousand years?’ I reply that… those who live today in Eretz Yisroel were never exiled from there, for when Titus destroyed the second temple, he exiled some of them and left some of them, and their descendants still living in Eretz Yisroel received son from father since the churbon habayis, and know the whole matter.”

The Arizal

The rise of kabbola during the 16th century led to a new impetus in davening at kivrei tzaddikim. Mekubolim of Tzefas often left home on exiles they called gerushim or banishments, and traveled the land davening at kivrei tzaddikim. Rav Shlomo Alkabetz, the composer of Lechoh Dodi, composed special tefillos to say at the kevorim during such journeys. The Arizal, who lived in Tzefas from 1560 to 1573, not only davened at kevorim and taught new insights into the significance of davening at graves, but he also identified new sites.

“I have already told you that he used to perceive and look at the souls of tzaddikim at every place and time, and even more so when he was present at their graves where their souls stand, as is known,” his talmid, Rav Chaim Vital writes. “Even from afar, his eyes perceived the soul of a tzaddik standing at his grave, and through this he knew the grave of every tzaddik. He spoke to them and learnt many secrets of Torah from them. I made many trials and thorough investigations and found his words [of the graves’ locations] were true and correct.”

Through his ruach hakodesh, the Arizal identified the kevorim of Benayahu ben Yehoyoda, Yehoyoda Hakohen, Adino Ha’atzni, and the navi, Yoel ben Pesuel, in addition to pointing out the burial locations of sages of the Mishnah, Gemara, and Zohar, including Pinchas ben Yair and Rabi Yehoshua ben Chananya. Most were in the vicinity of Tzefas and Teveriah. Sometimes he would affirm the identity of known kevorim and sometimes he said that their identity was mistaken. He said, for example, that the kever of Hoshe’a ben Be’eri in Tzefas was actually that of Rabi Yehoshua the tanna, and that the grave of Nachum Ish Gamzu was actually that of Nechemiah Ho’amsuni.

The sefer Yedei Moshe writes that the graves identified by the Arizal were recorded in a guidebook:

“In Tzefas there is a shamash who has a sefer from the holy Rav Yitzchak Luria who rose and revealed the graves of the kedoshim and the graves of the Tanna’im and Amora’im in all the villages and towns and marked them, for before him, everything was visible. He also added for each Tanna or Amora what to learn on his grave… All this, Rav Yitzchak Luria wrote in a sefer and he gave it to his shamash named Rav Yitzchak Goyazu who is of a family of nezirim… He commanded the shamash to do so to his son, and to his grandson, until the end of all generations until the coming of our moshi’ach…

“Therefore, someone who wants to tour Eretz Yisroel and go to all the graves of the kedoshim, should first go to Tzefas to the shamash, and take this shamash and his book along with him. He should prepare the shamash a donkey to ride on, food and drink, and pay taxes for him, for at every grave the Arabs demand a tax. However, they do not ask for much, ten parah at the most, which is six gerush in our currency… In some villages there is a tax collector appointed by the ruler in whose place the village is found… and when one arrives at the village, the tax collector demands tax according to the number of graves of that village regardless of whether one visits all the graves or not. The best time to tour Eretz Yisroel is after Shavuos when many ships come to Eretz Yisroel with wealthy people who come to pray at the graves of kedoshim… A few poor people join the group as servants to the wealthy people. One boils coffee, another is a cook, another looks after the tobacco and smoking implements, burning fire in the smoking implement [hookah] of each one. Another is a scribe whose duty is to describe the graves of the tzaddikim, but briefly. At one time I joined a group as a boiler of coffee.

“The tax collectors are ordered to look after the graves, clean them, and keep their candles lit as I will explain later regarding the candles. If a grave or building is in danger of collapse or if something is broken, the rulers have to fix it. They greatly honor that graves of the kedoshim, and even Moslems and Arabs pray at them with their prayers, and make vows of olive oil.”

This guidebook seems to have disappeared; most of the Arizal’s newly identified graves are forgotten.

One of the best known guidebooks of the 16th and 17th centuries was the Yichus Hatzaddikim printed in 1561, which not only described their locations but also printed teachings of the interred tzaddikim “so that the person at his grave should remember to say a devar halachah in his name. For Rabbi Yochanan said in the name of Rabi Shimon bar Yochai, ‘Every time the statement of a talmid chochom is repeated in this world, his lips murmur in the grave.'” This popular sefer was translated into Arabic and Ladino.

Since then, guidebooks to kevorim and those who use them have proliferated to an unprecedented extent. Posters and notices advertising trips to kivrei tzaddikim are a permanent fixture on the lampposts and bus stops of Eretz Yisroel’s kehillos.

(Main source: Dr. Ze’ev Vilnai, Matzavos Kodesh Be’eretz Yisroel, Mossad Harav Kook, Yerushalayim, 1963.)

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