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Visiting the Dead
How traditional Judaism looks at visiting kevarim
Given how popular it is to visit cemeteries and how much of a role the practice plays in modern halachic literature, I figured it would be worth it to (if you’ll forgive the expression) dig a bit deeper.
I should first note that I’ll avoid discussing the many perfectly legitimate emotional reasons that drive us to visit the graves of lost relatives. Instead, I plan to explore some of the more technical sources in Chazal and within traditional halachic sources.
Should we visit the dead?
I’ll begin with the Rambam (אבל ד:ד), who I had once assumed was an extreme outlier.
And tzadikim: do not build for them a נפש on their graves, because their words are their memory.
Presumably, a “nefesh” is roughly equivalent to our gravestones, or perhaps a larger mausoleum. In addition, it was also common to create a ציון as a marker warning people of the presence of tumah. (Although it’s possible that ציון is an alternate way of describing a nefesh - see Tosafos to Eruvin 53a who quotes Aruch.)
To our ears this is curious, because we commonly erect the largest gravestones for people we consider tzadikim. But it’s the Rambam’s next words that feel the most shocking:
And a man should not turn to visit the graves.
The Kesef Mishna explains that this is really an extension of Rambam’s previous comments on tzadikim: since they don’t need any special efforts to enhance their memory, there’s no point visiting tzadikim after their death. This also implies that being remembered is the primary (only?) this-worldly need for those no longer here.
Regarding the Rambam’s phrase “turn” (יפנה), see Teshuvas Rivash 421.
As I said, I once assumed that this was a position peculiar to the Rambam. In fact, as the Kesef Mishna observes, all this is plainly derived from the Yerushalmi in Shekalim (2:5)!
While the Kesef Mishna understands the Rambam as discouraging visiting cemeteries altogether, the Radvaz feels that the Rambam was only talking about visits that include digging up a bodies to make sure they’re actually dead. That, beyond the first three days after burial, is forbidden because of darchei Emori. But the Radvaz maintained that the Rambam had no problem with non-invasive visits: “And this is the practice of all Israel to visit their dead and to throw themselves on their graves.”
Quite the difference of opinion.
Don’t get me wrong, I know what comes next: within minutes of publishing this article I’ll start receiving emails from sharp readers with sources in Chazal that seem to recommend cemetery visits. Well I’m excited to see what you come up with.
What should we do when visiting?
First, what should we not do? Rambam (אבל יד:יג) rules:
A person should not go within four amos of a grave with tefilin on his hand or a sefer Torah in his arm, and he should not pray there. From a distance of greater than four amos, it is permitted.
That’s based on the Gemara (Berachos 18a) which applies the words in Mishlei (17:5) “One who insults a poor man (לועג לרש) is disgracing his Creator” to performing mitzvos before the dead - who no longer have the opportunity. The Rambam’s position is actually shared by both the Tur and Shulchan Aruch (Yore Deah 367:2)
The Kesef Mishna observes that the problem isn’t walking past a grave with “a sefer Torah in his arm”, but walking past while learning that (or any other) sefer. Otherwise, since there’s no mitzva to carry a sefer, where’s the implied insult (לועג לרש)?
I suppose you could argue that, since no activity is forbidden from a distance beyond four amos, why not just hang back? But then, from that far away, have you actually been there?
I’m sure the fact that one may certainly not request favors or worldly intervention from the dead will come as no surprise to anyone reading this. That’s idolatry. And, according to the Rambam, at least, asking the dead to interceded with God on our behalf is a direct transgression of the fifth of his 13 principles.
With all that in mind, what’s the purpose of a visit? It’s certainly important to confirm that the graves are in good shape. They shouldn’t, for instance, be threatened by water and the markers should, as much as possible, be legible.
But is that all? It would seem that reciting Tehilim is out of the question. After all, what is Tehilim if not Torah? And even if, by some strange logic, you feel that reciting Tehilim is somehow the equivalent of prayer, the Rambam forbade that, too.
Some people feel obligated to place a stone on the grave. The earliest Jewish source for that I’ve found is the Eliya Rabba (Orech Chaim 224) who does briefly describe the custom. But how ancient and mainstream are the custom’s origins? All I know is that the Eliya Rabba was a student of the Magen Avraham - who was famous for incorporating countless kabbalistic practices originating from the Ari into the general framework of the Shulchan Aruch.
Is there any evidence that the dead can hear us? As far as I know, even the kabbalists only talk about a dead person hearing what’s going on around him for a few days or weeks after burial. Beyond that, presumably, there’s no physical connection between a person’s neshama and his dead body.
Is there anything I’ve missed or misrepresented here? Do let me know.
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