One of my congregants recently confided in me:
” Rabbi, every time I visit the cemetery, I find myself speaking to my father, but I feel very guilty about it. I think maybe I am going mad. What do you think about this rabbi? What does Judaism say about speaking to the dead? Is it acceptable?”
I must confess that I was caught a bit off guard with this question. It was a fully loaded one. On the one hand, from my past experience, I know that one of the greatest satisfactions of a mourner is to reconnect with their loved ones if even just for one brief moment, and what better way than speaking to their loved ones at the cemetery.
But on the other hand, I know from my rabbinic studies that it is absolutely forbidden to summon the dead or to pray to them. Necromancy or séances are absolutely forbidden in the Jewish religion! Attributing autonomous powers to the soul is considered a form of idolatry. So how do we reconnect to our loved ones in any meaningful way, if we can’t really speak to them?
Judaism, of course, gives us many other alternative ways to reconnect to our loved ones. While we outlaw summoning the dead, we are encouraged to reach out to these departed souls in the afterlife and help them on their journey. This is accomplished primarily through the performance of good deeds in their memory and through kadish recital for them down here on earth.
But what about the cemetery connection? We know that our tradition urges us to visit the departed and honour them at their burial place in the cemetery, especially before the high holidays and other special occasions.
So we are told to go visit the cemetery, but yet we are told in the same breath that we can’t speak to the dead. If we are not allowed to communicate with them, what are we meant to do there?
In Jewish law there is a great debate on this subject . Many opinions hold that visiting the cemetery is limited to praying to G-d in the merit of the spirits, whose physical remains are buried there. Their holy burial place as well serve as a unique portal to heaven for our prayers. According to these opinions, it is forbidden to address the dead directly and we must limit ourselves at the cemetery to prayers and conversations with G-d alone.
Other authorities are of the opinion that while we can’t “pray” to the dead, we are allowed to implore and enlist the spirits to act as advocates on our behalf in the heavenly courts. According to this opinion speaking to the spirits without attributing any autonomous powers to them, just treating them as effective advocates known in Yiddish as ” Gutte betters” is perfectly OK.
We find this more liberal approach corroborated by the Midrash which relates the story of Caleb, one of the original Jewish spies sent to scout out the land of Israel, who went to the grave of the patriarchs in Hebron to beseech them to protect him from the nefarious plot of his colleagues to turn against Moses. In this story as recorded in the Midrash, we clearly see Caleb calling out to the deceased patriarchs and addressing them directly.
This approach in fact, has been adopted as the prevalent Jewish custom as well. Most Jews will go visit the graves of tzadikim (righteous people) regularly, especially in Israel at the graves of the Jewish patriarchs and matriarchs and address them directly, beseeching them to advocate on our behalf. The Lubavitcher Rebbe, of blessed memory, would spend endless hours at the graveside of his father in law the previous Rebbe, communicating with him on behalf of the Jewish people. On any given day you can find today hundreds of Jews visting the Rebbe’s own burial place asking him to intercede up high on their behalf!
This is not only common practice at the burial place of the righteous. It is also customary for children as well to visit their parents, who have accumulated many merits in their lifetime, to ask them to serve as agents for their progeny. Their love for their children surely continues eternally and beyond the grave. Our parents and grandparents who carried us and raised us while they were alive, will surely accept the honour of advocating for us in their death as well!
So that resolves the complicated issue of presenting posthumous requests for our needs to the deceased, but what about something much simpler. What about just giving some good news to the deceased about their family back here on earth? Is that allowed? Or is it considered a desecration to talk to the deceased about simple matters that they probably know about on their own?
It would seem from the language of the scriptures and the Halacha that what is forbidden is strictly attributing divine powers to the spirits or summoning them, but telling them about their family and how their children are doing and continuing in their noble ways would be perfectly fine.
Furthermore, a simple “Nachas visit” can have a dual benefit. Firstly, it can bring an elevation to the souls of the departed, by making mention at their grave of the compounded dividends realized through the good deeds of their children, that is to their credit.
The “Nachas visit” can further serve as a powerful inspiration for the living guest, as well. When the younger generation reaches out to their parents in heaven and share with them how they are committed to continuing down the same path as their parents by performing the Mitzvot and acts of loving-kindness, this is a powerful experience that will impact their lives forever!
So in response to my congregant: “No, you are not going mad, my dear friend! Your urge to communicate with your beloved father is a natural, instinctive expression of the soul. Don’t suppress it. Go for it! There are many meaningful conversations that are sanctioned by our thoughtful Jewish religion, for you to share with him. Your father is waiting to hear from you soon!
Based on my recently released book “Seven Conversations with Jerry: A book about the human soul, bereavement and the afterlife.”