Graves Of The Righteous
A trip to the burial sites of some of Israel’s holiest sages can be an uplifting excursion. Bear in mind these stories and legends, handed down over hundreds of years
One day in the year 1570, Rabbi Haim Vital walked from Safed to the cave where Abbaye and Rava — Babylonian sages — were buried. Stopping along the way to practice the meditative prayer he wanted to deliver at the gravesite, Rabbi Vital suddenly began shaking and words like “Torah” and “wisdom” poured involuntarily from his mouth.
When he returned to Safed, he was greeted by famous mystic and teacher Rabbi Yitzak Luria (Ha’ari) with great honor. “Why do you speak to me with such respect?” asked Rabbi Vital humbly.
“I am not addressing you, but the Righteous One, Benaiah ben Yehoyada. His spirit has entered your soul,” replied Ha’ari.
Three months later, the two rabbis were strolling together along the road to the Abbaye and Rava cave when the Ha’ari stopped abruptly and pointed. “This is where Benaiah ben Yehoyada lies buried!” he declared. “You have indicated the exact spot where I sat to practice my prayer!” breathed Rabbi Vital.
Worship at a holy site is implied in the Scriptures. Caleb ben Yefune, one of the 12 spies sent by Moses to check out the Promised Land, returned with an attitude entirely different than that of the other spies. While the rest were filled with doubts, Caleb “silenced the people . . . and said, ‘we should go up and take possession of the land, for we can certainly do it.’” Numbers 13:30. According to rabbinical interpretations of the passages in Numbers, his change of heart occurred after he stopped in Hebron to pray at the graves of the patriarchs and matriarchs.
The story of Caleb ben Yefune is the earliest indication we have that prayer at a holy graveside is part of Jewish tradition. Talmudic sages instructed Jews to visit a grave when faced with a national calamity — especially a drought or plague.
It didn’t matter to whom the grave belonged, for stopping there would cause the worshiper to dwell on death and contemplate repentance. A 16th century mystic wrote that Jews who failed to repent would soon find themselves in the grave.
Generally, however, people make their pilgrimages to the graveside of a saintly Jew, a Righteous One. Such visits are immensely popular probably because it may be easier to pour out fears, despair, hopes, and gratitude next to a tombstone than to pray more abstractly to God.