There is a rather common practice today for people to pray at the graves of deceased individuals — especially tzadikim. But is this a permissible, or advisable, practice? We turn first to Rambam:
He [God], may He be blessed, is the One whom it is proper to serve, to praise, to make known His grandeur, and to fulfill His commandments. This should not be done to any entity that is subservient to Him, be it the angels, the stars, the planets, or the elements or their compounds. For their activity is programmed. They have no control, and no choice but to perform His will. Thus it is improper to serve them as intermediaries in order to come close to God. Rather, one should direct his thoughts toward the Almighty alone and abandon anything other than Him. This is the fifth Principle, warning us against idolatry, as affirmed throughout the Torah.
It is clear from Rambam that ascribing any power, ability, or importance to the deceased itself would be considered avodah zarah. Nothing has any real control or power except for God Himself. This is a fundamental of Jewish faith. Thus, to pray to the deceased, under the pretense that the deceased possesses any sort of power, would not only be inadvisable, but it would be violating one of the principles of faith1, and violating one of the three sins one is supposed to give up his or her life for.
Asking For Intercession
The fact of the matter is, however, that most people that visit graves so as to pray there do not actually believe that the deceased possesses any real power independent of God. Rather, many instead simply ask the deceased to interceded before God on their behalf. Is this proper?
While according to Rambam, based on the above, it would seem that this practice would actually be permissible (if not still inadvisable considering just how close it is to an actual act of idolatry), Ramban will have nothing of it. Ramban2 speaks out vehemently against the practice of even using an intermediary in prayer. Asking the deceased to bring your prayer before God — even without any assumptions that the deceased has any real power — is seen as pseudo-idolatrous by Ramban, and is thus not allowed. To Ramban, ascribing any level of free will to angels is seen as deeply problematic. (Ramban even goes so far as to say that one should refrain from reciting the popular Machnisai Rachamim prayer of the High Holidays as it evokes angels as intermediaries.)
Ramban’s position on the matter notwithstanding, there are many great authorities that do permit such a thing, and it has become a popular minhag of klal Yisrael to pray to the deceased as intermediaries (and to say Machnisai Rachamim). The act of asking a dead person, or angel, to bring one’s prayers before God is seen as akin to asking a tzadik to pray on one’s behalf. Thus, as Ramban is not the final word on halacha, it is difficult to say that such a thing is truly prohibited.
Nevertheless, if one prays directly to the deceased, as discussed above, there is no question at all that this is halachicly considered avodah zarah. Further, there are many that refrain from even asking intermediaries to bring prayers before God as, like Ramban, there is a serious safeik of avodah zarah. Thus, there are indeed many that do not even say Machnisai Rachamim. (The Vilna Gaon advised against even saying the “Barchuni” clause of Shalom Aleichem on Friday night as it asks an angel for a blessing.)
What of praying at the graves of tzadikim? Is there any merit in this?
Ran3 explains that we are not meant to engage the dead when praying at a grave. We do not pray to them directly, of course, but we do not even ask them to intercede on our behalf. Instead, Ran explains, the purpose of praying at a great person’s grave is that by the mere fact that he or she was so holy, even his or her bones are infused with holiness. Thus, their very grave acts as a conduit, of sorts, to bring Godliness and kavod shamayim into this world. Similar to the staff of Moshe being used to facilitate miracles, Ran explains, the grave of a holy person facilitates and enhances our own prayers. In short, the grave of a tzadik is simply a more effective place to pray — in the same manor that you normally would — as more kavod shamayim is there brought into the world.
According to Ran there is no concept of praying to a dead person in any manner whatsoever. The positive aspect of kivrei tzadikim has nothing to do with that.
Why At The Gravesite?
Presuming that one does ask the deceased to intercede on his or her behalf, what is the benefit of doing so at the gravesite specifically? Why not do it from the comfort of one’s own home?
Certainly, there seems to be Biblical and Talmudic support for visiting the actual gravesite based on Caleiv4, in addition to the fact that the Zohar mentions such a concept in a few places, specifically in regards to the fact that the souls of parents rejoice when their grave is visited by their children. Other than this, and the opinion of Ran (who of course has an entirely different conception of what praying at a grave means, and thus cannot really be employed here), it is unclear exactly what purpose the physical location serves. Still, a Gemara and the Zohar are ample reason for at least a basic level of significance to be ascribed.
Is It Theologically Sound?
The simple question that thus faces us is whether or not praying to the deceased as simply an intermediary to God is theologically sound.
It seems quite clear from Rambam, Ramban, and Ran that it is safer not to engage in such a practice. Indeed, as there is very likely a safeik avodah zarah, one must wonder why one would engage in such a thing. Nevertheless, while it is certainly wise to be chosheish for a possible issur avodah zarah it is not strictly speaking necessary, and cannot be imposed on others if they instead choose to follow the more popular practice of praying to the deceased as intermediaries. As so many members of klal Yisrael today engage in the activity, and it has become somethings of a minhag — and there are solid opinions to rely on — it is at the technical level theologically sound.
That all being said, there is something perhaps even more fundamental at play here: The greatest tzadikim of our people — the very ones to whom many feel the need to pray — did not build their connection to, and relationship with, God by asking others to intercede, or pray, on their behalf. One must put in the hard work and effort him or herself. This, together with all the above, leads this author to be of the opinion that praying to the deceased — in any capacity — is not the best idea.
1. A discussion as to just how binding Rambam’s principles of faith are is important, but is really neither here nor there. Regardless, Rambam, and, as we shall see, many others, treat praying to a dead person, under the pretense that the deceased possess any sort of real power, as idolatrous.↩
2. See Ramban’s commentary to Exodus 20:2↩
3. See Drashos HaRan No. 8.↩
4. See Shemos 13:22 and Sotah 34b.↩