Yesterday, I found myself near the main cemetery in Sanhedria in Jerusalem. Sadly – many are not aware of the nature of this cemetery and the people who are buried there. For the most part, almost every person buried there is a Tzadik – a righteous individual! The cemetery came to prominence in about the year 1948 – that year when a serious war was taking place which would lead to the proclaiming of a country where the Jewish people would feel safe in – a country of their own… but that idea was already in the making more than three thousand years before!
As we read from Parshat Lech Lecha – and onwards, the very flow of the stories contained in the Chumash deal with the coming into being of the Jewish people – beginning with Avraham – the first Jew, continuing onwards to his son Yitzchak, his son Yaakov, his twelve sons – and their entry into Egypt – 70 souls in total, their becoming a nation of 600 000 souls, with Moshe ultimately taking them out of Egypt to bring them into the Land of Israel.
Up until 1948, Har HaZeitim – the Mount of Olives – was considered the holiest of ground to be buried upon in the Land of Israel – and to this day, many choose to be buried there. Others are buried there by default, and yet others choose other cemeteries such as Har HaMenuchot – the Mount of those who are resting. This – certainly when it comes to a burial place within Jerusalem. The actual costs of burial and reasons why people choose certain cemeteries over others is left for a completely different time!
In 1948, with the war going on, many of the Tzadikim – righteous individuals living in Jerusalem – were not able to be buried on Har HaZeitim – and as a result, this small cemetery – Sanhedria – became the next available choice. Interestingly, the Gerrer Rebbe – known as the Imrei Emet – Rabbi Avraham Mordechai Alter (son of the Sefat Emet) – was buried right outside his Yeshivah – in the centre of Jerusalem, directly opposite the Machaneh Yehudah market – as he left this world in 1948 and there was no possibility of burying him on the Mount of Olives – which was then occupied by the Arabs at the time of the war. His son – the Pnei Menachem, Rabbi Pinchas Menachem – is buried next to him – in their own “tent”. It is an awesome place to sit quietly and pray to G-d. We never pray to the dead person – but we know that the area surrounding the Tzadik has a certain kedusha – holiness – to it, and hence is a fitting place to pray and where one’s prayers can even be stronger! Those who are here in Jerusalem and feeling the need for some sort of outlet to sit quietly and pray may well stand to gain by visiting this small holy area – right in the middle of Jerusalem – with all the bustle surrounding it outside!
But I digress… Here I was near the holy cemetery of Sanhedria and felt (as I often do) the urge to enter, present myself in front of as many graves as I could – and recite Tehillim – Psalms – praying to G-d to help me get through my own challenges in life. The atmosphere of holiness is tangible there. Having spent so much time there in my life – I am well familiar with the locations of dozens of the Tzadikim who have lived over the past hundred years (including at least one hidden Tzadik, who many know nothing about…) – being equally aware as to who they are. Rabbi Aryeh Levin (and his family) the well known Tzadik of Jerusalem, and the “father of prisoners” is buried there too, and I have spent hours standing right there pouring out my heart to G-d for Siyata Dishamaya (help from Heaven!)
I am fascinated by the wording on the tombstones… Being used to such expressions as “here lies ‘x’ who lived up life, and remembered fondly by his sons, grandsons, great-grandsons, brothers, sisters etc. etc.” I look around to find little of the usual “praise” on the tombstones in front of me. I am – for example – amazed to see the wording on the tombstone belonging to Rabbi Yechiel Michal Tukachinsky – the author of the books known as “Gesher HaChaim” (the Bridge of Life) – the most comprehensive work currently available on the laws of death and burial. One section of his work – translated into English – deals exclusively with the path of the soul after leaving its body… The books are studied by the administrators of this very cemetery each day – and by Jews all around the world. Yet, his grave sits just as humbly amongst the others with little “flare”. The wording indicates nothing more than that he is just like everybody else. Yet here lies buried someone – whose teachings are used for practically every person buried in that very cemetery – as well as probably every cemetery in Israel (and the work consulted for other cemeteries around the world.)
I past by Rabbi Yaakov Moshe Charlap’s grave (see picture for this blog post.) It is really here that I bring myself to the purpose of this post. Rabbi Charlap was an expert in both the revealed Torah and the hidden Torah (Kabbalah). Already in his early twenties – he was considered the teacher of the next generation of students – once his own teacher of the hidden Torah died. One would probably expect a heap of praises written on his tombstone – yet I focused on the words thinking about what counted to him… The names of his two main works are engraved on the tombstone, together with the day he departed this world. What else would one imagine to be written? The last lines… He was born in holiness in the city of Jerusalem. He never inhaled the air of outside of Israel…
These were the praises?! Indeed. I glanced at the tombstones surrounding his – they were his family. On them, too – the words “Born in Jerusalem. Buried in Jerusalem. Brought to burial immediately on the day of death.” These were the praises of these great people. One can spend the entire day just reading the powerful words on the tombstones.
Some people come to pray at the cemetery. Yet others may come to read the tombstones. One can gain huge lessons in life – just from reading the messages that share with us what people consider to be important in their lives. Was it important that they “lived up life!” or the like? Or was it important that they left behind a work of Torah – read by Jews around the entire world – every single day? Who would even consider placing a message that what counted for him – was to live his life in Israel – and to never have left it?! “Not having inhaled the air from outside the Land of Israel?” Yet the one of the greatest of Torah giants tells us – that this is the honour! To have been born in holiness in the city of Jerusalem – and to have lived here (at least in Israel) one’s entire life – is in itself – a great lesson in life.
The holy Arizal – Rabbi Yitzchak Luria, leading expounder of kabbalistic teachings over the past 500 years – taught his pupil Rabbi Chaim Vital the location of a large amount of graves in Tzefat and other areas – more than 50 – (see Shaar HaGilgulim chapter 37 in particular). Though these graves had all but disappeared, the Ari – with his holy vision – was able to pinpoint exactly where these people were buried. Naturally, he was only able to do this through Divine Inspiration – but a brief reading of the chapter makes it clear that he knew well what he was talking about. Why would the Arizal have revealed this to his pupil if it had no significance?
Rabbi Daniel Frish, in his commentary, the Matok Midvash, notes that there are three benefits we can learn from this:
- We can certainly go to the graves of the Tzadikim to pray there asking for our requests – just as Kaleiv (ben Yefuneh) went to pray at the resting place of Avraham, Yitzhak and Yaakov in Chevron – so that he would be saved from the (bad) advice of the spies (who reported badly about the Land of Israel.) (See Sotah 34b) All the more so when it awakens us to do teshuva – repentance – because then the dead pray for the living (see Zohar Acharei 70b, in the Matok Midvash – Volume 11 pg 187).
- A person who knows how to perform Yichudim and is fitting to practise this will attain great things (see Chapter 38 in Shaar HaGilgulim).
- The grave markers let the Kohanim know there are people buried there (so that they do not ritually defile themselves there.)
To clarify again:
- One may never pray to the dead person (a prohibition from the Torah – involving black magic.)
- One may pray to G-d at the resting place of the Tzadik – because the ground which one is standing on has a special level of holiness attached to it – and the place is therefore more conducive for one’s prayers being accepted.
- One may ask G-d to answer our prayers in the merit of the Tzadik who is buried at that place.
- There is in fact an automatic system that also takes place. When we arouse ourselves to repentance – to return to G-d, and we recite Psalms at the grave, we awaken a certain part of the Tzadik who prays on our behalf in the higher worlds. This must not be mistaken for point 1 above – the forbidden act of praying to the dead person on the assumption that it is he who answers those prayers.
There is truly a great benefit to praying at such holy places as the cemetery in Sanhedria. For those who feel skeptical regarding the concept of the dead having any involvement in the concept of prayer at cemeteries – remember this, just standing in such a place – and walking around to read the messages on the tombstones – is also well enough good reason to pray there – simply to awaken us to realise what is really important in life. Each of us will have some sort of statement that appears on our tombstone.
What do you want yours to say? That is how one is to live one’s life.