Should we visit grave sites?

לעילוי נשמת אמי מורתי מרת אלקה בת ר׳ צבי ע’’ה

The following is written in memory of my mother, Mrs. Elka Balbin a”h on the occasion of her second Yohr Tzeit, כ”ט שבט.

I miss her incessantly, and not a day goes by without reflecting on her as my biggest supporter—a constant force of positivity and giving. She was a מעיין חי— a living spring—who doled out and infused us with love with every interaction.

During the first year, there was a period during the pandemic, when the Shules were closed, and I could not personally recite קדיש. Like many in this situation, this was disturbing. I looked here and there to make sense of the situation and to see what could be done to “compensate”. I had some ideas and rang מורי ורבי רב שכטר שליט”א, expressing my angst. רב שכטר responded with a comforting thought.

“What are you concerned about? Hashem asks us to follow the Halacha, and He has His ways. We say קדיש for Aliyas HaNeshama, to raise the level of the Neshama and to give a זכות to the נפטרת. Your mother was clearly a type of Neshama who didn’t need such “heavy lifting” and the fact that you couldn’t say קדיש for some time, no doubt had no negative effect above.”

He didn’t know my mother, but his comment was entirely apt.

Surely, everyone visits the בית עולם?

At first glance, based on mimetic tradition, people clearly do go to the בית עולם and visit the graves of their relatives. Rabbi Dr. Haym Soloveitchik famously wrote an important essay (with a recent follow-up, which is on my seemingly ever-growing “to be read” list) about the importance of mimetic tradition. It would, therefore, appear to be an open and shut case. Ironically, the mimetic tradition of the Soloveitchik family was not to visit the dearly departed at the בית עולם. That mimetic tradition can be traced back to the Vilna Gaon, who was against the practice of visiting the dead at their resting place. The Gaon wrote a letter to his wife (some have claimed this was specifically to women, though the practice of his students does not support that claim) stating:

“ותישמר שלא תלך לבית הקברות כלל וכלל

Be careful. Do not go to the Cemetery, ever.

אגרות הגר”א ט

Indeed, Rabbi Dr. Soloveitchik’s illustrious father, the Rav זצ’ל, wrote:

“The Gaon of Vilna, R. Joseph Dov Soloveitchik, his son R. Hayyim, his grandson, R. Moshe, R. Elijah Pruzena [Feinstein] never visited cemeteries and never prostrated themselves upon the graves of their ancestors. The memory of death would have distracted them from their intensive efforts to study the Torah.”

Halachic Man (page 30)

On both sides of the Rav’s family: Soloveitchik and Feinstein, there was no tradition to visit the בית הקברות. There are two things of note in this statement of the Rav.

  1. He describes two separate categories: (a) visiting a cemetery and (b) prostrating upon a grave at a cemetery
  2. He provides a reason for not visiting.

I think both of these points are noteworthy in the context of this ensuing discussion. Are there some who visit (perhaps more than four Amos from a grave) but do not prostrate? Is there a problem for a simpler person, who is not as intense with their Torah studies, to visit the cemetery? I do not know the answer to these questions, though they can be interpolated into the analysis.

Interestingly, the Rav found this restriction exceedingly difficult to sustain once his wife passed away, and felt it necessary to visit her grave in West Roxbury, Massachusetts, admitting to breaking with his family tradition. This was not automatic: the Rav kept his Brisker family traditions, zealously.

It would perhaps be intellectually lazy to assume that the reason one ought not to visit a cemetery is because of the frequency of pervasive metaphysical קליפות – impure forces of Halachic Tumah – at a cemetery. It would appear that if one kept four Amos (about two meters or 6.5 feet) away from an actual grave (as we Cohanim do anyway) then a concern of Tumah impurity is not germane. Therefore, if Tumah was the underlying reason for avoiding the cemetery, one could qualify the advice by saying “You may visit but don’t get too close”

I have often wondered whether a Cohen needs to wash his hands when leaving the בות עולם given that he doesn’t approach within the four Amos. (I found that both the Pri Megadim, in his Eshel Avraham 21, states that in such a circumstance a Cohen would not need to wash, see also the Chayyei Adam in 135:25)

The Gemara in Brachos 3b states that it is forbidden to say any Dvar Torah near a grave. This is codified by the Rambam (הל’ אבל פ”יג ה”ט) . Tosfos (ב”ק טז:, ד”ה שהושיבו) explains that this is okay as long as it is at a distance of four Amos. The Shulchan Aruch, however, does permit it even within four Amos (יו”ד סי’ שד”מ סעיף י”ז). Some Acharonim were careful nonetheless and distanced themselves by four Amos. Indeed, the Shulchan Aruch itself states (and is supported by the Shach (סי’ שס”ז ס”ק ג’)

שאחר שנגמר סתימת הקבר נעפר… מרחיקין מעט מבית הקברות ואומרים קדיש

After the burial one moves away a little from the the cemetery (!) and says Kaddish

יו”ד שע”ו סעיף ד’

R’ Chaim Vital (1542-1620) quotes his teacher the AriZal (also recorded by the Magen Avraham (או”ח סוף סי’ תקנ”ט))

ותמיד צריך להיות רחוק ד’ אמות מן הקברות

One should always be at least four Amos from a grave

שערי רוח הקודש, תיקון י”ב

Leaning on and/or touching the gravesite/Matzeyva would possibly be considered akin to prostrating, though I hasten to add that this is not necessarily so, especially outside of Israel, where the dead are buried in a coffin. I won’t go into detail here, but note that there is a Halachic question whether טומאה בוקעת – Tumah escapes upwards – when there is a gap within the structure of a coffin. I know of at least one local Rabbi who is a Cohen who does approach the tombstone, based on this question. In addition, there is a question of whether something buried deeper than Ten Tefachim is in a separate רשות, but this beyond of the scope of this post.

Tumah/Impurity, though, was seemingly not the source for the practice of the Vilna Gaon and his family, and those who follow the Brisker tradition on this (like מורי ורבי ר׳ שכטר שליט”א). As is well known, rulings of the Rambam are often a reason to adopt a stricture for those whose mimetic tradition derives from the practices of the Vilna Gaon.

The position of the Rambam

It appears then that the source for that tradition is a lesser-known statement by the Rambam in הלכות אבל (which curiously is inserted in the ספר שופטים of the Rambam’s משנה תורה)

והצדיקים אין בונים להם נפש על קברותיהם …ולא יפנה אדם לבקר הקברות

רמב”ם הלכות אבל ד: ד

Rabbi Touger’s excellent translation of the Rambam renders this

Markings are made on the graves. A tombstone is placed on the grave. For the righteous, by contrast, a tombstone is not placed, because their words will cause them to be remembered; a person will not need to visit in the cemeteries.


According to the Rambam, the reason that we put a tombstone on the grave is to remind and inspire us about the person who is buried there, presumably through some choice words etched on the tombstone. However, since the words of a Righteous Tzadik remind us of their memory and inspiration, no tombstone should be placed on the grave of a Tzadik! Indeed, R’ Moshe Feinstein in Igros Moshe (יורה דעה ד:נז) interprets this Rambam as implying that it is forbidden to do so and can be seen as insulting to the Tzadik!

Another reason for Tombstones, not brought here, is to mark out the perimeter of the grave so that Cohanim don’t accidentally wander and become impure (see ריש לקיש היה מציין קברי תלמידי חכמים, רש’’י בבא מציעא פה, ב).

We make the following observations:

  1. Touger appears to interpret the Rambam’s advice not to visit gravesites as pertaining to the graves of Tzadikim. That is, one might be able to visit an ordinary person’s gravesite.
  2. Touger appears to reinterpret or qualify the Rambam’s words as somewhat less than a prohibition. Touger interprets the words ולא יפנה as a person “will not need” to visit a gravesite. In other words, according to Touger, the Rambam isn’t expressing a black and white view of what a person is permitted and not permitted to do. Rather, a person is permitted to visit a grave. A/The (prime) purpose of visiting a grave is to be inspired by the deeds, words, and memory of the person buried there. In the case of an ordinary person, this is a side effect induced by reading the Matzeyva. In the case of a Tzadik, however, visiting the grave in order to be inspired is not necessary. The Tzadik’s monumental legacy and inspiration is not their Tombstone, but rather the Torah and good deeds that they have spread in this world. That Torah is prevalent at all places and time without needing a visit to the cemetery in order to be (re)exposed and (re)inspired.

Simply speaking, dare I say rationally speaking, one can read the Rambam’s choice of words of ולא יפנה differently. The Rambam is giving advice to the person who seeks inspiration and/or motivation. Though it is true that reading the Matzeyvos of ordinary people may well prove to be stimulating, it is better for a person to not “choose to frequent” the Cemetery [for this purpose]. Certainly, the greatest inspiration is in the memory of the Tzadikim, and the greatest stimulation is not provided by their graveside. Rather, one should study the Torah of Tzadikim. That Torah is accessible at any time. One need not be involved looking for a פנאי – an opportunity – to visit the cemetery in order to be energised and invigorated by their memory and Torah.

Examples of this phenomenon abound. Indeed, in the Rav’s own writings, he constantly refers to the Torah and examples of his forebears with palpable inspiration. According to the Rambam then, what is to be gained by actually visiting the gravesite?

The commonly cited source of the Rambam for not building a monument over the grave of a Tzadik is

תַּנֵּי. רַבָּן שִׁמְעוֹן בֶּן גַּמְלִיאֵל אוֹמֵר. אֵין עוֹשִׂין נְפָשׁוֹת לַצַּדִּיקִים. דִּבְרֵיהֶן הֵן זִכְרוֹנָן

Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel says, one does not build mausoleums for the just; their words are their remembrance

Yerushalmi Shekalim

And a source for his view to avoid visiting the cemetery is possibly

כל המקבל עליו ארבעה דברים [מקבלין אותו] להיות חבר אינו הולך לביתהקברות

Anyone who accepts upon himself four things [will be accepted] into the fellowship: that he will not go into a cemetery

אבות דרבי נתן מא ח

Did the Rambam’s view become the common Halacha? What do the commentators on the Rambam write?

Position of the Radvaz

The Radvaz (1479-1573) explains

פירוש “לבקר הקברות” הוא לפתוח הקבר לפקוד את המת וזה יש בו מדרכי האמורי, אבל לפקוד הקברות מבחוץ אין חשש בזה וכן נהגו כל ישראל לפקוד את מתיהם ולהשתטח על קבריהם

רדב”ז הלכות אבל ד:ד

that the Rambam was certainly not discouraging people from visiting a gravesite. The Radvaz focuses on the word לבקר הקברות from which he derives that the Rambam was concerned that people were copying the ways of the אמורי which is forbidden. The “ways of the Emori” pertains to practices and superstitions that are forbidden but were occasionally temporarily practised by ignorant Jews. The practice of the אמורי in this context is recorded in the minor tractate of שמחות as

יוצאין לבית הקברות ופוקדין על המתים עד ג׳ ימים ואין חוששין משום דרכי האמורי

We go out to the cemetery and examine the dead within three days and do not fear [being suspected of] superstitious practices

מסכת שמחות פרק שמיני

The practice used to be that the “”lid of the coffin” was opened during the first three days after death to double-check that the person was not buried alive. Apparently, there were cases where someone was incorrectly assumed to be dead. According to Mesechta Semachos, it is okay to perform this check for the first three days because it would not be assumed that it is being done for superstitious reasons (דרכי אמורי) however after three days this practice was forbidden. The Rambam, based on the understanding of the Radvaz, interprets the meaning of the word לבקר as opening the coffin at any time after burial. The Radvaz explains that this is what the Rambam meant when he expressed the view that one should not visit the grave. Visit here means for the purpose of opening the coffin, as above. According to the Radvaz then, it would appear that an ordinary visit, these days, was not something that the Rambam was writing about. In order to make this interpretation, the Radvaz would need to consider the previous statement about Tzadikim not having Matzeyvos, as something completely independent and not at all linked to the prohibited form of visitation. The interpretation of the Radvaz is not the only one.

The view of the Chasam Sofer

The Chasam Sofer (1762-1839) makes important points about both מסכת שמחות and the רמבם in his responsa (יורה דעה של”ח, בד”ה וע”ד הברייתא). He contends that a daily visit for the first three days is far-fetched and most unlikely to discover the unfortunate case of someone who was effectively buried alive! Surely, the fact that they were covered with earth (even in the days when they buried people in caves) would make it nigh on impossible to discover a mistaken burial. In the least, one would need a full-time guard for all of three days who was highly attuned to any slight movement of soil, reacting quickly. Quoting the Yerushalmi, at the end of the second chapter of Sanhedrin, the Chasam Sofer writes that there was a time when the custom was to have a two-stage burial. The first stage was a “temporary” stage, at which time there was no formal burial under the earth. This could have been achieved by secreting the body in the caverns in a rock face or similar. At a later stage, the bones were extracted and traditionally buried. During that first stage, claims the Chasam Sofer, it was possible for an occasional error, and so they used to visit for the first 3 days to be sure. However, since that time, this practice was no longer observed. As such, the Rambam writes, based on the explanation of the Radvaz, that after burial, one should not visit the grave to open the grave in order to check if the person actually died. Anyone doing so was clearly following דרכי אמורי (who also did this for a lot longer than just three days because they attributed some mystical experience around the spirit of the dead) and therefore such visitation is clearly forbidden.

Based on this explanation of the Radvaz, through the lens of the Chasam Sofer, the immediately preceding comment of the Rambam about not placing a tombstone on the grave of a Tzadik, is a separate and disconnected Halacha. Following on from that Halacha, the Rambam adds that one should not visit the cemetery for the purpose of checking, as above.

Islamic Practice

There are some who postulate that the word לבקר of the Rambam is a translation of the Arabic זיארה Ziara which was perhaps the practice of pilgrimage in Islam (outside of the Hajj according to some) and it was this practice that the Rambam was concerned about. Interestingly, it is the Shiites who have the practice of visiting graves. The Sunnis consider this practice heretical. In the Rambam’s Egypt, the vast majority were Sunni.

The position of the Rivash

The Rivash (1326-1408) in his Responsa תכ”א draws our attention to a question of differing versions of the Rambam’s text. We had explained that some interpret the word לבקר in our text of the Rambam to be about visiting and checking to see if the person is possibly alive. The Rivash notes another נוסח which excludes the word לבקר—to visit.

ולא יפנה אדם לבית הקברות

and therefore plainly means

“don’t turn towards the cemetery”.

What does “turn” mean in the context? It means don’t turn your attention to the cemetery. Why not? Based on the preceding comments: in the case of a Tzadik, one would be better advised to be inspired by the Torah and spiritual output of the deceased. In the case of an ordinary person with a formal tombstone and fancy wording, the Rambam is saying “don’t be distracted by such things”. The Rivash considers the comments about monuments and visiting a cemetery as strongly linked to each other, as opposed to independent statements.

The Chasam Sofer eventually concludes his treatment and states that the statements are linked and that the Rambam extends the words of Mesechta Semachos and prohibits going to the cemetery even before three days have elapsed.

The author of the Shulchan Aruch, R’ Yosef Karo (1488–1575) in his Kesef Mishna commentary on that Rambam, learns plainly like the Rivash before him that the Rambam discourages if not “prohibits” visiting a cemetery. I have used italics because the Rambam doesn’t express this using clearly normative prohibitive language.

Given the above, how are we to understand the Rambam elsewhere?

אַחַר שֶׁמִּתְפַּלְּלִין יוֹצְאִין כָּל הָעָם לְבֵית הַקְּבָרוֹת וּבוֹכִין וּמִתְחַנְּנִים שָׁם

[ In all places where these seven fasts are decreed ] all the people go out to the cemetery after praying and weep and offer supplication


Clearly, the Rambam has no problem with going to the Cemetery on a Fast day in order to be inspired by the spectre of death, in order to motivate repentance. What is the intention of going to the cemetery on a fast day? The Gemara in Taanis 16a describes two reasons given by Tanoim: (a) the spectre of death induces Teshuvah, or (b) so that the dead will ask for mercy on our behalf. The Rambam adopted the first view, that the atmosphere was conducive to Teshuva, as opposed to the suggestion that one might “interact” with the departed while there. This can be seen as consistent with his previously mentioned view. One should avoid going to the cemetery unless there is an external factor (such as the need for Teshuva on a fast, or giving honour on a Yohr Tzeit). That is, do not frequent the Beis HaKevaros.

According to the Radvaz, there is seemingly no issue to visit if there is no intention to open the coffin. Based on the Kesef Mishna, Rivash and others, one could say that perhaps the Rambam was opposed to using the motivation of the בית הקברות in general, and most specifically, in respect of visiting the graves of Tzadikim—special people. Instead, the Rambam encouraged connecting and being inspired through their Torah instead. This would not preclude going on a Fast day, such as one held due to a lack of rain, or seemingly other occasions, such as a Yohr Tzeit.

Sources for visitation

The earliest example of visiting a gravesite is brought in :סוטה לד regarding Calev who went to Chevron to pray at the Mearas Hamachpela so that he wouldn’t fall under the spell of the spies. Another example is in :בבא מציעא פה regarding someone who prostrated himself on the grave of Rav Chiya, as well as the story about Rav Mani in :תענית כג who was persecuted until he too went to prostrate himself.

At the end of Yevamos, the Gemara describes the story of a certain lady, whose husband had apparently been murdered, who went to the Rabbis on three occasions to obtain permission to remarry. What were those three occasions? Rashi writes:

– שהיו תלמידי חכמים נקבצים לשמוע דרשה הלכות פסח בפסח והיתה שואלת מהם. ובתשובת הגאונים מצאתי כל הנך ריגלי דאמוראי היינו יום שמת בו אדם גדול קובעים אותו לכבודו ומדי שנה בשנה כשמגיע אותו יום מתקבצים תלמידי חכמים מכל סביביו ובאים על קברו עם שאר העם להושיב ישיבה שם

בד”ה תלתא ריגלי

Rashi quotes the responsa of the Geonim which states that these three occasions were a time when the great Rabbis used to gather each year on a famous Yohr Tzeit, at which time they gathered at the grave in honour of the day. Clearly, according to Rashi quoting the Geonim, there was a custom to go the gravesite on a Yohr Tzeit. Was the Rambam arguing with the Geonim and Rashi? Perhaps the Rambam’s advice not to visit graves is limited to those times where it is not traditional to go, such as on a fast day or a Yohr Tzeit. Perhaps this is why he used the words ולא יפנה which might mean “don’t clear your diary” on a given day, so to speak, and go to cemeteries, even if your motive is to be inspired (as opposed to grieving). This idea is perhaps expressed by the Mishna Brurah (quoting the Maharil)

דבית הקברות הוא מקום מנוחת הצדיקים והתפלה נתקבלה שם יותר, אך אל ישים מגמתו נגד המתים אך יבקש מהש”י שיתן עליו רחמים בזכות הצדיקים שוכני עפר ויקיף הקברות ויתן צדקה קודם שיאמר התחנות

The Cemetery is a place of rest for the Tzaddikim and one’s prayers are accepted there more readily, however, one should not place his expectations “on the shoulders” of the departed, but rather, one should ask Hashem to be merciful in the merit of the Tzadikim who reside in the earth and he should walk around the graves and give Tzedaka before he utters supplications.

(משנה ברורה (תקפא, כז

The Ramoh (ibid) mentions the good custom to visit the Beis HaChaim on Erev Yom Kippur and Erev Rosh Hashana.

Moshe’s Gravesite

Yet, the greatest Navi and leader, Moshe Rabenu’s resting place was purposely hidden from us

א”ר חמא בר חנינא, מפני מה נסתתר מקום קברו של משה מעיני בשר ודם, שגלוי וידוע לפני הקב”ה שעתיד ביהמ”ק לחרב וישראל יגלו מארצם, שמא יבאו לקברו של משה ויבכו ויתחננו ועומד משה ומבטל את הגזירה, מפני שחביבים צדיקים במיתתם יותר מבחייהם

:עין יעקב סוטה י’’ד

because the was a real fear was that if we visited Moshe’s resting place, then Hashem would be forced to listen to our Tefillos on account of Moshe’s merit (and his intercession). Clearly then, even though Tzadikim today are not at the level of Moshe and we know where they are buried, perhaps it does make sense that we should daven there? The Rambam would not agree, of course.

The position of the Bach

מיהו כבר החזיקו במנהג זה ואין מוחה ויש לזה סמך בספר הזוהר, ודווקא להשתטח על קברי אבות ולהתפלל לפניו יתברך על כל צרה שלא תבוא בזכות אבותיו הנקברים פה וכיוצא בזה, וכבר נתקנו סדרי התפילה למשתטחים על קברי אבות ואין לשום מורה למנוע ולבטל מנהג זה

Be that as it may, people have already adopted this Minhag (of going to Graves) and nobody seeks to prevent them. They have support from the Zohar. Specifically, they can prostrate themselves at the gravesites of their ancestors and to pray to Hashem [to save them] from every tragedy that might otherwise have come if not for the special merit of the ancestors who are buried there. And there have been special prayers constructed for this purpose … and no Posek should seek to annul the practice.

יורה-דעה סו”ס ריז

It is noteworthy that the Bach (1561-1640) adopts the approach that one should pray that “the merit of the ancestors” should save/assist them. This is in contradistinction to those who ask that their prayers be carried to Hashem through the agency of the person who is buried there. Poskim differ on what is the correct mode of prayer.

There is no doubt, however, that one needs to be exceedingly careful that their words not be understood as making supplications to the dead person. It is a very fine line and one needs to be careful not to transgress דורש אל המתים.


The Munkatcher, in his responsa, was known to defend the customs of the Chassidim, especially when these appeared to be different to past practice. Towards the end of my research on this topic I came across a most comprehensive responsa which lists most of the sources I have above and many others. He wrote:

והוא צורך גדול ותיקון לנפש… ולפי המנהג אף בצדיקים בונין נפש והכל מתקבצין אצלה להתפלל…

This (going to the grave of a Tzadik) is a great need and heals the soul, and according to the Minhag, even for Tzadikim we build a Tombstone/Mausoleum … and people gather there to pray

שו”ת מנחת אלעזר א:סט

The Minchas Elazar (as expected) strongly defends the practice of Chasidim to visit the grave of the Tzadik. Strangely, however, I didn’t see the Minchas Elazar in that responsa discuss and consider the Rambam quoted at the beginning of this post. He was certainly aware of it, and his words “even for Tzadikim” are well understood in the context of the Rambam, above. That being said, I do not understand why he didn’t quote and discuss the Rambam explicitly. He extends the consideration in his response to discuss the issue of דורש אל המתים – the prohibition of “supplicating” to the dead. He argues that this does not include asking the Tzadik to intervene on one’s behalf. Rav Moshe Feinstein does not agree with the Minchas Elazar. He states:

אין להפקיע הקרא דדורש אל המתים מפשוטו, דהוא איסור גם מלבקש מהמתים שהם יתפללו בעבורינו

… It is also forbidden to ask the dead to pray on our behalf

שו”ת אגרות משה חלק או”ח ה סימן מג.

The famous non-Chassidic Shulchan Aruch of the Chayei Adam (1748—1820) is explicit:

איסור דורש אל המתים… וכן עמי הארץ שהולכין על קברי מתים וכאילו מדברים עם המתים ואומרים להם צרותיהם

The prohibition of “supplicating” to the dead … and the simple people go to the gravesites and it is as if they speak with dead and relate all their problems

סי’ פ”ט ס”ק ז’

The issue extends to whether someone can leave Israel in order to visit the grave of a Tzadik. One might expect that this would elicit a positive response from Chassidim and a negative response from those who are not Chassidim. The issue transcends Chassidim and non-Chassidim. Rav Kook also writes about this problem in his responsa. Rav Sternbuch, who is generally a follower of the Brisker approach, basing himself on Rav Elyashiv’s grandfather, the Leshem, who was not a Chassid but a great Kabbalist

אם מרגיש התעוררות מיוחדת לצדיקים מיוחדים, שלומד מתורתם, לבוא על קברם ממש, יש בזה מצווה

If someone feels a special awakening when visiting the specific grave of a Tzadik, where they also learn the Torah of that Tzadik, to visit that grave, this is a Mitzvah (!)

תשובות והנהגות, ח”ג סימן סא

Rav Yitzchak Yosef in his Yalkut Yosef, Yoreh Deah on page 254 writes that

It is forbidden to go the cemetery except for a Levaya … but it is permitted to prostate oneself on the graves of the righteous or to visit the grave of one’s father or mother to honour them …

סימן י, שו”ע ס׳ שמג–שסא

So, how does one make sense of all of the above, taking into account the view of the Rambam? I think one can summarise the issues as follows:

  1. The Beis HaChaim/Cemetery is full of impurity and not somewhere to “hang out”. Someone who does so because of extreme grieving should also liaise with a professional.
  2. Visiting graves on a Yohr Tzeit or for special occasions is an ancient practice. It would appear that the Rambam was not opposed to this, although the Brisker tradition would suggest otherwise.
  3. Visiting the grave of a Tzadik can provide inspiration, especially when one also learns the Torah of that Tzadik. We see this phenomenon perhaps even more than any period of time, with visits to the graves of the last Lubavitcher Rebbe and R Nachman of Breslav particularly popular. As we have discussed, some would recommend the gravesite should inspire, but no direct interaction should take place.
  4. Visiting the grave of a Tzadik can potentially be problematic in the sense that one may speak in a manner which somewhat bypasses Hashem. Ultimately, the Tzadik was (and is, in the sense that they are “more alive” after they have passed away) a conduit. Some say that addressing the Tzadik is forbidden. When I visited the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s gravesite -long story- I followed the formulaic text of the מענה לשון.
  5. Those who are not Chassidic and whose inspiration primarily was through learning Torah (in the main) without frequenting a Tzadik for inspiration etc will not use visits to the Beis HaChaim as a source of inspiration and growth. One could argue that this is the Rational School of Judaism as opposed to the more Spiritual/Mystical School, and that the Rambam, who is often considered the prime Rabbi of Rationalist Judaism, therefore did not encourage, if not prohibited, the practice of visiting graves, especially those of Tzadikim.

I’m not advocating one approach over another. Both approaches are rooted in Chazal.

Peeled Eggs, Onion or Garlic overnight: Part 2

I had written a blog post on this in 2011. You can see it here.

Recently, the OU in their emails sent the following:

May I dice onions and place them in sealed packaging to avoid the sakana (danger) of eating peeled onions that were left overnight?
(A subscriber’s question)

The Gemara (Nida 17a) writes that there is a sakana to eat peeled onions that were left overnight, even if they were placed in sealed packaging. The only exception that the Gemara mentions is if part of the roots or the peel is left on the onion. Tosfos (Shabbos 141a s.v. Hani) writes that the sakana applies to diced onions as well. However, if there are other ingredients mixed in to the onions, Rishonim already discuss that one can be lenient. Igros Moshe (Y.D. III: 20) writes that industrial produced products are not subject to this sakana. So one may purchase frozen packages of diced onions.

as well, the OU wrote:

Q. Does the halacha of not eating onions which were peeled and left overnight apply to the following: red onions, white onions, scallions, shallots and leeks? (A subscriber’s question)
A. Rav Belsky, zt”l said the halacha applies to both red and white onions and shallots, but not to leeks and scallions.

I sent my article to the OU for their feedback. It was sent onto the Safra D’Dayna Rabbi Eli Gersten, who responded that:

You are correct that the topic of ru’ach ra’ah is certainly unclear.

I don’t have an explanation as to why earlier poskim (Shulchan Aruch, Maharshal, Rema…) where seemingly unconcerned about this type of ruach ra’ah and yet later generations again began to be choshesh.

Rabbi Yosef Grossman of the OU offered to send me an article from the Daf Hakashrus of 2005 on the topic, which I copy below. I am chuffed that my thoughts were somewhat aligned with Mori V’Rabbi R’ Hershel Schachter שליט׳א (though I didn’t know of him in 2005).



Poetry to my ears, a paunch to my boich

Remember, our parents and grandparents couldn’t have been wrong. Poskim always have trouble saying something is forbidden if Rishonim and Acharonim said it was ok.

Reverend Shimon Allen will of course tell me that there is nothing new in this.

Finally, I have some ammunition. (click on the link)

My father ע’’ה exulting in his yearly dose of Gribenes on Erev Pesach
My father ע’’ה. R’ Shaul Zelig HaCohen Balbin exulting in the yearly dose of Gribenes and liver and Kartofel on Erev Pesach

There is probably a good answer to this but …

On Shabbos, while in the male urinal, I stood next to a guy who was wearing his gartel. I admonished him and said that the gartel was a הכנה for davening. I don’t believe it is necessary today, but I wear one because my Zayda Yidel HaCohen Balbin ע’’ה did (and on Yom Kippur I wear his Gartel, as he passed away on Yom Kippur)

ר׳ יהודה הכהן בלבין before WW2

The guy thought and said, “you know, you’re right”

Anyway, when I was younger and devoted some time each day to Mishna Brura, I remember being inspired by his words regarding wearing Tzitzis out, as opposed to in. I don’t include the uncouth manner of some who wear their shirts out of their pants as well today, something I don’t understand unless one wears a Kapote covering it (I see boys from the local Yeshiva all dressed like that, and personally I don’t agree with that practice).

Getting back to the Mishna Brura, in his usual way (not Litvish) of quoting all opinions he wrote very strongly that one should wear the Tzitzis out, as if he was a proud member of Hashem’s army. That was when I was in Kerem B’Yavneh. From that time on, I followed the Mishna Brura. (Ironically, the major Posek was actually the Aruch Hashulchan, but he was then considered controversial for very bad reasons by Hungarians, but in Lita and elsewhere they followed the Aruch Hashulchan).

Anyway, to my question. I don’t wear a suit jacket to work. My Tzitzis have always hung visibly at University. I am sure it didn’t help, but I don’t and didn’t care. I wear a shirt and pants, generally. In winter its warm and in summer it’s cool. It’s natural.  I walked into the bathroom, and went to the urinal to do what men do. In Universities, they don’t exactly smell “wonderful” once the students are in season. I left the Urinal and asked myself for the first time (I don’t know why) whether I should have tucked in my tzitzis before entering. At the end of the day, although the Mitzvah of Tzitzis is not a Chovas Gavro but a Chovas Cheftza, the Tzitzis themselves are M’aaseh Mitzvah. I haven’t looked to see  if this has been discussed anywhere (many Poskim/Haredim wear jackets and Yibitzes which cover the Tzitzis).

For Sephardim who follow the Zohar and Ari, this isn’t a question because they aren’t allowed to wear their Tzitzis out from memory because it’s considered Yuharo (showing off).

Am I asking a silly question?

PS. I’ve also mentioned to Meshichisten who have the advertisement on their Yarmulka that they should turn it inside out before entering a bathroom in my opinion.

Walking between two women/men

In an earlier post, I remained בצריך עיון without an adequate understanding of how a certain bad spirit רוח רעה could cease to be a concern for the Rambam and Shulchan Aruch, Ramo and others, and yet become an issue again over the last 200 years. I wondered whether the particular manifestation of רוח רעה might have disappeared for a period of time, and if so, how and why later poskim decided that the cause of such harm had returned. Alternatively, perhaps from a bland rational stance, an increase in צרות and bad happenings to Jews caused Poskim to re-examine possible causes and re-introduce once discarded so-called הלכות.

Onto the matter at hand: there are two places in Shas which discuss whether (amongst a range of other things) a male/female is permitted to pass between two females/males: one is in Horayos, and the other in Pesachim. The source in Horayos describes the practice less in terms of being forbidden, but more in terms of the action as being a “cause of forgetting” one’s Torah learning. In other words, passing between two women has (or potentially has?) the effect that it can cause the male/female to forget what they have learned. Is this like the prohibition of unpeeled eggs overnight , another instance of a particular metaphysical effect that is beyond our physical discernment, and that we would be well advised to stay away from? To be sure, the Gemora also lists a series of “antidotes” in the sense that these promote a heightening of one’s ability to remember what they have learned. The antidotes include consumption of particular food stuff. I think that my own inability to remember things that used to roll off my tongue is simply due to me not doing חזרה revision. I have a tendency to read things that I have never studied, rather than things that I once had studied. That’s probably the academic in me. Here is a list of items designed to help ones memory.

1. Eating bread baked on coals (and all the more so, the coals themselves);
2. Eating a scrambled egg without salt;
3. Frequent consumption of olive oil;
4. Frequently drinking wine and smelling spices;
5. Drinking water left over from kneading a dough;
i. Some say, also sticking one’s finger in salt and using that finger to eat.

One side of me is tempted to adopt the approach of R’ Schachter on the issue of eating Fish and Meat together. R’ Schachter contends that not eating fish and meat together was the “best medicine of the time” but that we are enjoined to follow the best medicine of our time. Accordingly, that is the reason why many Poskim do not consider there to be any issue today in eating fish and meat together. In our case of walking between to humans of the same gender, could it be argued that the list of 5 (from Horayos 13b) constituted the best medical advice of the time (given the primitive understanding of medicine back then) and that in our day, we should only follow evidence-based, and medically sound treatment?

The items which stymie one’s ability to function well in their Torah (only?) learning, the Gemora lists:

1. Passing under the reins of a camel, and all the more so under a camel itself;
2. Passing between two camels; passing between two women; and a woman who passes between two men (causes difficulties for the men);
3. Passing where one can smell a carcass; passing under a bridge which has not had water under it for 40 days;
4. Eating bread that was not fully baked; eating the froth that accumulates on the spoon used to stir cooking meat; drinking from a stream that passes through a cemetery;
5. Looking at the face of a corpse;
i. Some say, also reading what is written on a tombstone.

I haven’t done the due research to find out if it was commonplace for medics in those times to also include non physiological causes, but I suspect that it was indeed common.

Interestingly and strikingly, it would appear that the Rambam and Shulchan Aruch, again decided not to include the advice that one should not walk between two women/men. I am sure that there are Acharonim that discuss the reasons for this. I regret to say that I haven’t done adequate research. I understand that Rav Aviner does indeed permit it in his גן נעול.  Rav Aviner’s “right hand man” contacted me to clarify that Rav Aviner asks the same question as I do in his גן נעול and remains בצריך עיון but he doesn’t permit the practice להלכה except using well known leniencies. Unfortunately, being Erev Pesach, I was unable to procure a copy of the relevant pages in גן נעול.

It was with interest then, that I was reading on Shabbos, the newly published Piskei Halacha of R’ Yisroel Belsky who together with R’ Schachter are the senior poskim of the OU (may R’ Belsky continue with a Refuah Shelema). In this book it states:

Most poskim maintain that women may perform actions that cause forgetfulness of Torah (Shemiras HaGuf V’Hanefesh pages 98-99). Practically speaking, though they should l’chatchillah be stringent (R’ Belsky).

The halacha of not walking between two women applies whether a man is walking between two women that are stationary (R’ Belsky, Minchas Yitzchak 10:68:3) or if a man walks between two walking women. Certain poskim question whether this issue applies to one walking between non-jewish women (Maharsham 4:148). Practically speaking one should be stringent (R’ Beslsky, Shmiras HaGuf VeHanefesh 111:9, Beis Baruch 1:39).

One should not walk between his wife and his daughter (R’ Belsky, Shmiras HaGuf VeHanefesh page 33. Refer to Shevet HaKehasi 2:325 who permits if the girls are under 12).

There is a misconception that one who eats the end piece of a loaf of bread is susceptible to forget his Tora knowledge. However, there is no real source for this minhag, and one is permitted to eat it (Orchos Rabeinu 3, page 104 states that the Steipler did not eat the end of the loaf).

It seems to me, that the problem exists only if the two women or men (or beasts!) are companions. Otherwise, no one could go anywhere, since there are enough men and women in the world that one is always passing between them?

The aforementioned stricture of a male/female passing between two females/males is brought in Kitzur Shulchan Aruch Siman 3:8 and the Chazon Ish is known to have been very careful with this (as quoted by R’ Kanievsky in Ta’ama D’Kra page 108 (6th edition)). So the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch mentions it, but the Rambam and main Shulchan Aruch ignore it. Do you understand that? I don’t.

The Magen Avraham סעיף קטן ג בשם כוונות also notes that one should not put on two clothing items together for the same reason. This is perhaps germane when one puts a hat on, together with the yarmulka inside the hat. In Rivevos Efrayim from Memphis, Tennessee (ח”ח סימן רצא) R’ Greenblatt was asked whether a man who is walking with his wife in the street (on his right) and then passes another woman to the man’s left, if the man is transgressing. He answers that this is okay, because the Gemara talks about two stam women, not a woman and a wife! I’m not sure whether this is a Litvish piece of hermeneutics which seeks to avoid an uncomfortable issue, or not. The Ben Ish Chai שנה ב’ (פרשת פינחס אות יז) qualifies this general Halacha to when the three people (man and two women or woman and two men) are in a straight line, and when there is less than four Amos between them.

Is this Halacha similar to the eggs overnight or meat and fish issue? Is this a Halacha that stems from medical advice, or is it one that derives from metaphysical considerations, such as Shedim or Spirits? If it is the latter, then I ask again, why the Rambam and Shulchan Aruch didn’t include it. The latter, R’ Yosef Caro certainly was deeply steeped in Kaballah as is well-known. Today is also the Mechaber’s Yohr Tzeit. May he have a Lichdige Gan Eden.

The Sefer Leket Yosher (d. 1490) who was a Talmid of the Terumas Hadeshen perhaps enlightens us on the general issue. He states

עיין בשער המצות (ס׳ וילך) וז״ל: צריך לזהר במאד מאד שלא לאכול שום לב בהמה וחיה ועוף, חכלית שרש התקשרות נפש הבהמית, ואם יאכלהו האדם מחקשר בו נפש הבהמית ההיא לגמרי, והיצה״ר מתקשר בו. ומטע״ז ג״כ ארז״ל שהאוכל לב בהמה גורם לו שכחה וטפשות הלב. עכ״ל.

Incredible stuff. He states that eating the heart of an animal (one of the other things one should not do for the same reason) is dangerous because one is effectively eating the soul (life source) of the animal, and as such he eats the source of גשמיות and יצר הרע, the Animal Soul or the Nefesh Habehamis. It seems to me to show that this is not a medical piece of advice (at least for this item) but a more metaphysical/kaballistic piece of advice. Note also, quite interestingly and perplexingly for those who forbid these things, that the Ramoh in Yoreh Deah at the end of Siman 11, says explicitly about Shochtim (who generally must be more punctilious with Mitzvos than the rest of us)

“And it is customary to eat from the heart”

On that note, I’ll sign off and wish everyone a Freilich’n and Kosher’n Pesach … חג שמח

Of peeled eggs, onion and garlic

Is not having a Mesora (tradition) something to be concerned about?

If you took a range of Orthodox people into a room and asked them whether it was forbidden to leave a peeled egg, onion or garlic overnight and use them the next day, you’d get three different reactions:

  1. What are you talking about? My mother and grandmother and great-grandmother never had such a tradition nor did they pass such a tradition onto us
  2. I’ve never heard of that
  3. What are you talking about? It is well-known that this is entirely forbidden. I’ve never even heard of anyone permitting such a thing.

Unlike an “ordinary” question of Kashrus, such as how long one waits between meat and milk for which absolutely everyone agrees that one must wait, except that there are different traditions, e.g.

  1. six full hours
  2. into the sixth hour
  3. three or four hours

The question of eggs, onion and garlic left overnight is:

  1. Not a question of Kashrus per se
  2. Black or white. It’s either yes or no.

In other words, some will be concerned about it whereas others will simply not be.

If you look this issue up in the Gemora (נידה יז), it is intriguing. The Gemora says in the name of R’ Shimon Bar Yochai that leaving these (peeled) items overnight is a most dangerous practice and tantamount to “suicide” if subsequently consumed. Nu, it’s an open Gemora, as they say, with very clear and harsh language, so what’s the issue? On the contrary, based on this Gemora, avoiding such a situation should be common across every single orthodox home.

The mystery then deepens.

Open up a Shulchan Aruch and look for this Din. You will discover that you simply can’t find it. Both the Mechaber, R’ Yosef Karo, and the Ramo don’t mention this Gemora’s advice/din. That’s the prime Sefardi Rishon and the prime Ashkenazi Rishon. You search in the Rambam, the Rif,  and the major codifiers and you find that they too were seemingly not bothered or perhaps no longer concerned by this Gemora. They too do not codify any prohibition.
Chazal say (חולין י) that חמירא סכנתא מאיסורא—a danger (סכנה) is something we are more concerned about than performing a possible איסור.  With an איסור we follow the רוב (the statistical likelihood) however with a possible סכנה we will be concerned about a minute concern. If the reason then for R’ Shimon Bar Yochai’s concern is רוח רעה this would constitute a סכנה, so how do we explain the Rishonim apparently not being concerned about the סכנה expressed by the Gemora?
You are perplexed, and so am I, so you ask your Local Orthodox Rabbi. In all likelihood he will say
It’s best not to leave these things overnight and use them the next day
You will likely be advised that  you can avoid the problem by leaving a bit of the peel or root on the item because the effect of the רוח רעה is nullified by this form of protection.
The Gemorah also mentions another method of protection via אותיות—holy letters. There was a custom to write/carve a פסוק on an egg and give this to a child to ingest when they started their education. Without getting into the topic of how one can “eat” פסוקים, the fact that there were holy letters on the egg meant that the רוח רעה could not take hold. This is mentioned in regards to the Yom Tov of שבועות where clearly the egg had to be written on before Yom Tov (and left overnight) in order for the child to ingest it on Yom Tov itself.
Rav Belsky, who together with R’ Schachter is the major Posek for the OU has written a תשובה where he suggests that putting the egg, garlic or onion in a zip-lock bag (sealed) will also mitigate the problem. His reasoning is that the Gemora in נידה mentions a type of basket which won’t help as protection. R’ Belsky feels that’s because the basket doesn’t constitute a hermetic seal. I’m not sure I understand his reasoning because they did have jars in those days, and presumably a jar would have provided an adequate seal?
R’ Waldenberg ז’ל in ציץ אליעזר suggests that one might consider washing the egg/onion/garlic in order to remove the רוח רעה given that רוח רעה is removed in other cases via washing (e.g. in the morning on one’s hands, or before bread etc). I’m not sure I understand his reasoning because I would have thought the Gemora itself would have mentioned this as a “solution”. In addition, it seems that there are different types of רוח רעה. Perhaps the Gemora in :יומא עז which mentions the demon (and also :חולין קז) called “שיבתא” is suggesting that for this particular demon the רוח רעה is removed with washing, but perhaps the “one” associated with eggs, onion and garlic is unaffected by such washing?
So, what we can see thus far is that while there definitely was a concern about an evil spirit the major Rishonim from whose opinions we determine Halacha seemed to no longer be concerned with this evil spirit.
Why is that? Already we see תוספות in יומא and חולין state:
ומה שאין אנו נזהרים עכשיו מזה לפי שאין אותה רוח רעה מצויה בינינו כמו שאין אנו נזהרין על הזוגות ועל הגילוי”.
In other words, there already was at the time of Tosfos a view that these evil spirits had dissipated (for want of a better word). Interestingly, there is a tradition from the Gaon (as relayed by R’ Shlomo Zalman ז’ל), that after the death of the Ger Tzedek, originally known as Graf Potocki there was a further weakening of רוח רעה to the extent that one no longer had to be concerned about walking four cubits before washing one’s hands in the morning.
We also find similar views echoing Tosfos, such as the מהר”ם מרוטנברג who is quoted by the הגהות מרדכי on שבת to the effect that it would seem that these evil spirits no longer exist in our (his) time.
It would appear that the Rishon (codifier) who was concerned about the issue of peeled eggs, onions and garlic was the סמ’’ק in the early 1200’s in France. It could be argued that from the Gemora in ביצה י’ד one could also conclude that Tosfos were still concerned about the רוח רעה because they also used this reason to permit preparing crushed garlic on Yom Tov itself, but there is little doubt that the Rishonim almost exclusively, especially with respect to the codifiers ceased being concerned about the סכנה posed by this evil demon.
Logically, one needs to conclude that the Rambam and the Rif, the Shulchan Aruch and the Ramo were no longer concerned. Surely if there was even a small doubt remaining, given that we are talking about סכנה, they would have been מחמיר and explicitly codified it להלכה ולמעשה.
So, from the period of the Rishonim until the Acharonim, the prevailing view was, from what I can tell, one need not be concerned.
Seemingly, “out of the blue” in the early 1800’s some 500 years after the Rishonim, the Shulchan Aruch HaRav in דיני שמירת הגוף והנפש codifies explicitly that it is forbidden to eat eggs, onion and garlic that have been left overnight because it is dangerous. In case you are thinking that this is understandable because the Shulchan Aruch HaRav himself was a great מקובל and חסיד of the מגיד of Mezeritch, and may well have been מחמיר because the advice came from R’ Shimon Bar Yochai, but that a Litvishe Misnaged would not have been concerned and would simply have left this out as did most Rishonim, you would be wrong! The ערוך השולחן of Navardok, another major Acharon and Codifier from the era of the Acharonim is also concerned about this phenomenon. I haven’t seen it inside, but the חפץ חיים not in the משנה ברורה but in his לקוטי הלכות is also concerned by the issue, as was R’ Moshe Feinstein ז’ל in Igros Moshe (יורה דעה ג:כ). [R’ Moshe also deals with the two views of Tosfos mentioned above].
In summary: this is an issue which is (to me at least) mysterious. One could almost say
“There was once an evil spirit which the Tanoim were concerned about. That evil spirit seemed to have left this world because the major Rishonim didn’t warn us about it as they did other evil spirits. Suddenly? in the early 1800’s the evil spirit was again a matter of concern and Acharonim warned us about it”
Add this to the very long list of things that my little brain can’t understand. If anyone has heard an explanation about why this phenomenon seemed to re-appear, please follow-up in the comments section.
As I started, my personal view is that one should ask their grandmother and if there was no tradition, then there are certainly opinions that would justify both not worrying about it, or indeed worrying about it!
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