By Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried
Hi Rabbi Fried,
Have you ever answered a question on the differences between the Christian concept of praying to saints and our concept of praying at the graves of our righteous tzaddikim?
As a matter of fact, no, I have not, but it’s a great question!
The concept of “Intercession of Saints” is a doctrine held by the Roman Catholic Church and numerous other Christian denominations. It is also a lightning rod of consternation from other denominations who strongly attack this doctrine as anti-Christian, basing their arguments upon verses from the “New Testament.” They maintain that one should only pray directly to God, or, some maintain, the only intermediary allowed between them and God is to pray through Jesus. But to pray through saints constitutes idolatry. The Catholics issue their rebuttals utilizing other verses and proofs from Christian theology that this practice has always had a place in Christianity, dating back to early Christians.
It is not our place here to enter deeply into Christian theology, but there are two paths among them in their practice of the Intercession of Saints: there are those who pray to the saints and those who request their intervention to approach God. Many of the objections of Protestants are limited to the practice of praying to the saints, calling that a form of idolatry, but have no objection to praying in their merit or using them as an intermediary. Others object to the latter practice as well, as mentioned above.
As we have mentioned before in these pages, many practices and doctrines of Christianity have been copied or otherwise taken from Judaism, as many of the early Christians were Jews who were seeking to create a religion which would replace Judaism. The rule of thumb is that most such practices or doctrines have been greatly changed and no longer resemble their true sources, although a loose connection can sometimes still be observed. Hence the concept, or myth (as I would prefer to call it), of a Judeo-Christian theology, as the two theologies have nearly nothing in common.
One area of commonality of sorts is that of the above question. It has been Jewish practice for millennia for the living to pray at the graves of the deceased. The most common practice is to pray at the graves of the righteous. For time immemorial Jews have prayed at Maaras Hamachpeila (the graves of our patriarchs and matriarchs in Hebron), the tomb of Rachel and similar such locations. We certainly do not pray TO these holy people or to their souls, and to do so would certainly constitute idolatry.
Our thoughts are, or can be, twofold. One primary thought, which is often reflected in prayers recited in these places, is that the Al-mighty should answer our prayers in the merit of these holy individuals who brought so much good into the world. We ask that their merits should rise before the Heavenly Throne to bring favor upon their descendants, the Jewish people, especially in times of danger.
A second type of prayer which is sometimes recited is to request the matriarch or patriarch to intercede on behalf of the individual or the Jewish people as a whole. This comes from our belief that such people’s holy souls remain connected to the Jews and continue to pray for them on high. This lesson, to cite one of many examples, is taught by the classical commentator Rashi, that Rachel was buried at the border of Israel so that when the Jews would be taken into exile and pass her grave, she would go out and pray for her children’s safety and eventual return to Israel.
This practice, however, is not limited only to those known as especially righteous, as many Jews approach the graves of their parents or ancestors and ask them to pray for a sick or otherwise challenged person in their families. This is because we believe the souls of all Jews are holy and connected in some way to their families and can be approached in such a way.
All this is only in addition to our main prayers, through which we approach the Al-mighty directly, calling on our special, unique relationship to Him as part of His beloved people.
Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried, noted scholar and author of numerous works on Jewish law, philosophy and Talmud, is founder and dean of DATA, the Dallas Kollel. Questions can be sent to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.