For the past few weeks I have been describing my trip through Poland to different graves of Polish tzaddikim of the past. I visited over 30 sites, from the earliest-known graves in Lublin and Krakow, to the final resting place of those that were murdered by the Germans in the Holocaust. I even had the sad zechut, in Warsaw, to partake in the mitzvah of accompanying a person on his last journey.
It is a minhag (custom) to pray at these holy sites. This is often misconstrued as praying to the tzaddik himself and there has been a debate throughout the ages whether or not this is proper.
The idea of praying at the grave of a tzaddik is traced back to the Torah. When Moshe sent the spies to the land of Canaan he added a Heh to Yehoshua’s nameto remind him that he is constantly in the presence of Hashem and should always do the right thing. Kalev Ben Yefunah, who did not receive this extra protection, went to pray at the Ma’arat HaMachpelah in Hebron.
Although everyone agrees one should or could go to a cemetery, there is a debate about the motive for our going. Some say that we go to pray at the grave to Hashem in order to get chizuk or encouragement from the holy person interred there. Others say that by visiting a cemetery we see the end of all flesh and are encouraged to repent. The most common belief is that the deceased will intercede on behalf of the petitioner.
The Breslover Chassidim, for example, travel to Uman every year for Rosh Hashanah, in the hope that Rabbi Nachman will save them from the depths of Gehenom, if they pray at his grave. A similar concept is held for many other chassidic groups, as evidenced by the mass pilgrimages to many of the tzaddikim, such as Rabbi Elimelech of (Lejask) Lizhensk, also known by the title of his sefer, the No’am Elimelech (one of theprincipal works on Chassidus).
The cemetery in Warsaw contains thousands of Jewish graves. The famous tzaddikim with ohalim are interspersed with both elaborate and simple grave markers of Jews whose names are not familiar to us.
The concept of going to a grave in order to realize the end of all flesh has brought to question whether a person has to go to the grave of a tzaddik or will any grave serve the same purpose?
As to praying to a pious person at his grave to intercede on one’s behalf is discouraged by many leading rabbis of old. The Bach, Yoel Sirkus of Krakow was against the concept and stated that when Calev Ben Yefunah went to Hebron he went to a holy place, made so by the graves, a place that made his prayers more readily accepted.
It is also mentioned by some rabbis that often when we pray to Hashem we invoke the names of our forefathers and other tzaddikim, as in Shemoneh Esrei and many Yom Kippur prayers. These often are reminders to Hashem of the greatness of our forefathers, who came before us, and we ask Hashem to forgive us for their sake if not for ours.
Another idea for the visiting the graves of tzaddikim is that it is a mitzvah to honor your parents. Teachers and rebbes are considered like parents, so visiting their kevarim is a form of honor. There is also a custom to study the teachings of the rabbis, whose graves one visits.
If one is going to visit a cemetery to honor the past there are many people that deserve to be visited. We can honor all Jews that contributed to Jewish life. In the Warsaw cemetery one can find the grave of Esther Kaminska near the graves of many great rabbis. The rabbi’s graves are covered with small buildings, called Ohalim, while Kaminska’s grave has an elaborate tombstone.
In the end we are all part of an “Am Kadosh,” a Holy Nation, and therefore all Jewish gravesites are holy and we as a people fight to preserve graves of all Jews. If cemeteries are not visited they will be left in ruins and, ultimately, destroyed.