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.

COVID-19: Chassidim vs Non Chassidim

Sadly, perhaps even surprisingly, there are reports of clandestine Rosh Hashana minyanim that took place across the houses of Melbourne despite these being against Government rules. Perhaps it’s a function of my circles, but it appears that these Minyanim involved Chassidim or those who identify themselves as Chassidim.

Prior to Rosh Hashana, the word was out that such Minyanim were being established or considered. Though various voices of “the Rabbinate” were heard clearly in the press and e-news/social media, I likely missed new strong warnings to reinforce that

“though it is heart-breaking and unprecedented for Melbourne’s Shules to be locked for Rosh Hashono and the ensuing Yomim Tovim, we stress and re-stress that it is forbidden to flaunt the Government rules and establish clandestine minyanim.”

I did come across other communication:

  1. Useful compendiums describing what should be said, not said, how, and when.
  2. Laudable pre and post shiurim and recordings designed to inform and migrate people “into the mood”
  3. Comparatively banal interviews with football coaches mischaracterising the Yomim Noroim as a Grand Final series, coupled with the now ubiquitous indiscriminate use of the Shofar as the “Jewish digeridoo”
  4. Opportunistic perversions of the Halachic process by a tiny minority of misaligned rabbis who deemed it sufficiently populist to kasher electronic conferencing.
  5. Clear opinions, such as from the Non-Chassidic Rabbi Moshe Heinemann of the StarK who opined that the sham support group minyanim concept was a Chillul Hashem in the making, for which Yom Kippur would not atone.

At this stage, you may be thinking that I am alluding to Chassidic groups identified by the “Vayatzev Avruhom” shtiebel-Satmar and Munkatch Chassidim who broke away from Adass Israel and whose “exploits” were splashed over the secular press, creating a Chilul Hashem.  I don’t have any information about this group vis a vis the Yomim Noroim, but I would be pleasantly surprised if their need for “support group sessions” somehow abated.

Sadly, I am referring to pockets of minyanim whose membership is seemingly from other Chassidic groups. To be sure, these are not sanctioned by local poskim of the same persuasion and are “unofficial”.

Notwithstanding that fact, one might well ask some questions:

    1. Is there something peculiarly Chassidic or grounded in Chassidism which compels people to ignore Government Health regulations? (and no, it isn’t the case that Chassidim aspire to be “imprisoned and released” as some process of redemptive purification)
    2. Is there a continued antinomian-style approach to Halacha which somehow “supersedes” the will of Shulchan Aruch and perhaps their own Poskim?
    3. Is the binary phenomenon of “Level 1” for a Rebbe and “Level 0” for everyone else responsible for “every man for himself”?
    4. Are there some under intentionally quiet clandestine Rabbis associated with these groups who are ultimately responsible? Who are these Torah Giants who so confidently claim that it is not necessary to worry about the ספק סכנה and whose learning exceeds Poskim like Rav Hershel Schachter and Rav Osher Weiss and others?
    5. Is it that non-Chassidim are less likely to pick and choose a local orthodox Rabbi and focus instead on a quasi-official “Daas Torah”?
    6. Do some Chassidim consider themselves better informed, to the extent that they just know it really is God’s wish that they stand apart and ignore Health directives and שומר פתאים ה׳. (Rav Osher Weiss is a Chassid).

I don’t know the answer to these questions.

I am definitely not inviting people to “name and shame” or “dob in” those who have been involved in such.

PS. On a more personal note: like many, I struggled to teleport a communally inclusive Rosh Hashana davening into the lonely experience of a private Yom HaDin. Screened by the privacy of the four walls of the dining room, if anything, I probably shed more tears, to the extent that experiencing Simcha on Rosh Hashana was comparatively daunting. Then again, I am also an Avel, mourning my dear mother הכ’’מ and that is a factor.  I doubt I was alone or that my experience was in any way unique.

Short word on parshas korach

Human logic-based Egalitarianism is Halachically problematic and is inconsistent with the stratified roles defined by the Torah.

Korach is the philosophical progenitor of postmodern egalitarianism. Suffused with self-allocated, chimeric rank, Korach attempts to deconstruct the assigned and stratified roles legally ordained through Moshe’s direct Godly interaction. There is a biblical prohibition, with tenure today,

“not to be like Korach and his assemblage.”

The parameters of this prohibition are not singular. One parameter is defined as negating the importance of every Jew attaching themselves to an exemplary teacher and role model of Torah.

This morning as I watched an unrelated youtube snippet sent to me, the

“next suggested youtube”

was of the last Lubavitcher Rebbe z’l, whose Yohr Tzeit is on Shabbos. I clicked.

Fortuitously, the Rebbe asked,

“the Talmud says that the teacher one should adhere to, is the imitato dei (as characterised by a holy angel). However, if one has never even seen a holy angel how does one choose the virtuous teacher?”

He answered, quoting the Talmud in Yevamos, that the archetypical Jew exudes the traits of mercy, self-effacedness and kindness. Furthermore, these traits are self-evident and not “advertised”.

Indeed, after he left his father’s house, the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s own role-modeled teacher became his father-in-law, the Rayatz. As noted by Rav Soloveitchik* (whose role model after he left his father’s house, was Rav Chaim Heller), based on an explicit Rashi in the book of Bereishis, even after a prime teacher’s demise, one should implant the teacher, who is spiritually a part of the mosaic soul, in front of him and interrogate that behavioural reality to determine major decisions we confront in life.

There is no antinomian expression intended in the above. Both sides of the coin: the Baal HaTanya and the Nefesh HaChaim describe the soul of the Tzadik teacher and mentor through the same prism.

  • the source for this view of the Rav is in Mori V’Rabbi, Rav Schachter’s Nefesh HoRav.

The more the better? ‘בְּרָב עָם הַדְרַת מֶלֶךְ’

לעלוי נשמת אבי מורי ר’ שאול זעליג בר׳ יהודה הכהן בלבין
נפטר ג’ שבט תשע״ג
In memory of the fifth Yohr Tzeit of my dear father,
R’ Shaul Zelig HaCohen Balbin ז׳ל

בְּרָב עָם הַדְרַת מֶלֶךְ 
The splendour of a King (God) is manifest through fulsome participation

This phrase appears in Tanach, Mishlei (14:28). שלמה המלך notes that the quality of a מצווה is enhanced when that מצווה is performed in the context of a bigger group of people. The commentary מצודת דוד supports this plain understanding, which is also the simple meaning implied in the גמרא Pesachim 64B.

What are the parameters of this phrase? What is bigger? Is three enough? ten? As many as possible? Is such a larger participatory group to be understood as a הידור מצווה, a better way to do a מצווה or is it intrinsic to the required quality of said מצווה to the extent that it is required. For example—and this example motivated this essay—assume a person is davening in a Shule which has twenty people for Maariv. Of those twenty people, two are חיובים (such as one may be a mourner in the 11 months and the other may have Yohr Tzeit on that night). Assume that both have a custom to lead the davening and say קדיש. There is now a choice:

  • either split the מנין into two groups of ten and daven in two separate rooms;
  • or one בר חיובא leads Maariv for twenty, and the other בר חיובא leads Mincha for twenty on the next day.

Assuming the interpretation that בְּרָב עָם הַדְרַת מֶלֶךְ is a הידור מצווה one may rationalise splitting the מנין on the grounds that a person affects a הידור only once the fundamental מצווה has been established. Given that two people consider it their fundamental need to lead the davening (because they wish to give נחת to the נפטר so that they will have an עלית נשמה), perhaps one could argue that every group of two additional people who may subsequently arrive, ought to be split evenly between the two מנינים, so that each has ‘maximised’ its size vis-à-vis בְּרָב עָם. The other approach, which perhaps sits a little easier?, is that a-priori, when one has a מצווה to fulfill, one should do that מצווה with as many people as possible לכתחילה. Of course, if there aren’t many people then the basic מצווה is still achieved. Its beauty, however, is enhanced, like the beauty of an אתרוג, when it is possible to meet the “A grade” version of the מצווה through a bigger crowd or participation.

Consider this example. The Midrash (תורת כהנים (9:2 describes the process of קמיצה, where the כהן takes some fine flour for the קרבן מנחה and with three of his fingers holds onto a blob of flour, while the top and bottom fingers (index and pinky) are used to ‘smooth off’ any protruding flour. In that process, it is possible that the one כהן performs all the actions of קמיצה.  That  כהן happens to be on scheduled guard duty. There are, however, other כהנים who potentially can help. Consequently, the Midrash quotes בְּרָב עָם הַדְרַת מֶלֶךְ and suggests that each step of the process be performed by a different כהן, and in this way, since more people are involved in the real מצווה of קמיצה, God’s majesty is enhanced. (One כהן passes the flour, another holds the special vessel and another performs the rounding off the flour. Alternatively, where oil is mixed with the flour, one measures, another kneads with the oil, and the third rounds off the flour, see (תוספות ר’’ש משאנץ שם). The Midrash derives this approach from the פסוק which states והביאה אל בני אהרן הכהנים. The plural indicates a Torah preference for more people to be involved.

The plural is used to increase the number involved in the מצווה. It seems that the preference to have more people involved in a מצווה is more than a qualitative improvement. Since the תורה explicitly advises that more כהנים are required, we might learn from this that in all cases “the more the merrier” is a fundamental aspect of the מצווה. On the other hand, one could argue the opposite. The תורה had to tell us to use more כהנים here (as per גמרא Menachos 7a) because בְּרָב עָם on its own, is not an imperative in general, but rather a better way to do things.

An example involving the sprinkling of the blood: the משנה in Pesachim (5:6) states explicitly that once the blood of a קרבן was collected and passed from one כהן to another, this is performed through a chain of Cohanim until the last Cohen nearest to the מזבח performs the זריקה sprinkling. The גמרא Pesachim 64B states that the reason many כהנים are involved is to make sure as many people are taking part in the מצווה as per the פסוק of בְּרָב עָם הַדְרַת מֶלֶךְ .

Indeed the אור זרוע: קטח is of the view that for every מצווה that can be broken up into parts (eg תפילה בציבור) it is better if partial honours are undertaken by different people, as opposed to one person doing all the davening, layning, and then saying haftora.

Another example is brought by the רמב’’ם in (הלכות בכורים (4:16, where the רמב’’ם notes that as the farmers approach ירושלים to present their first fruits, they pause and gather together in the central town of the regional area and then march en masse in the morning to ירושלים עיר הקודש to offer their first fruits. Why don’t they go up in the order that they happen to arrive? Why do they gather in a central town first and arrive in a block? The רמב’’ם explicitly states that it is required that they come as a larger block and not as individuals. Again, we see the importance of involving a crowd in the performance of a מצווה. One might argue that the רמב’’ם needed to tell us this law because we would not have done so in a large group otherwise. Alternatively, one could argue that בְּרָב עָם is always a requirement. However, sometimes we are directed in the method through which many people can indeed be involved.

An unrelated but similarly qualitative approach to a מצווה is the concept of זריזים מקדימין למצוות—those who are punctilious observe a מצווה at the earliest opportunity. A well-known example is that of ברית מילה which is done first thing in the morning, even though it might be easier for people wishing to attend an accompanying סעודה to have the ברית in the evening. We learn this from אברהם אבינו and וישכם אברהם בבקר.

What do we do when זריזים מקדימין למצוות clashes with בְּרָב עָם? For example, if there is a small crowd on time for מעריב during the week, should they wait a little longer as there would certainly be a bigger מנין? On the other hand, since the gazetted time has been reached and there is a מנין there is excitement to daven מעריב (yes I know it’s a רשות) so perhaps one should Daven immediately at the first opportunity. The חיי אדם in  הלכות זהירות מצווה 58:7 states that זריזים מקדימין למצוות has preference over בְּרָב עָם based on the גמרא Rosh Hashana 32B.  The גמרא asks about the place for the saying of הלל in שחרית. If we do so at the first opportunity then it is immediately after שחרית, and is an example of זריזים מקדימים. On the other hand we could have delayed הלל  to מוסף where there would be more people and בְּרָב עָם. We see from this משנה and גמרא that we prefer זריזים over בְּרָב עָם.

Another example of בְּרָב עָם occurs when one wishes to bless the Moon after ראש חדש. We know that one is able to do so until the 10th of the month. Imagine it is day 8, and one observes a clear moon. In such a case a person is able to say the blessing over the moon without any crowd, on his own. Should he wait until מוצאי שבת that is approaching where, if the moon is visible, there will be a nice crowd of people => בְּרָב עָם הַדְרַת מֶלֶךְ saying it together? The ביאור הלכה on הלכות ראש חדש ס’ תכו:ב states explicitly that לכתחילה, in the first instance, it is better to say it בְּרָב עָם. In other words, wait until מוצאי שבת (if it is before the 10th) and do away with זריזים מקדימים!

We could argue that the limits for בְּרָב עָם are that the מצווה itself is not a private מצווה. Therefore, for ברית מילה there would be no בְּרָב עָם whereas for a מצווה which is done for a ציבור or by the ציבור we do have בְּרָב עָם. An example of the ציבור would be saying בורא מאורי האש for many people as opposed to few. Others say that בְּרָב עָם doesn’t apply to ברכות הנאה (like בורא מאורי האש) and only to ברכת המצווה.  That is a separate topic.

One more example is in the שולחן ערוך Orach Chaim (90:9) where the מחבר recommends that a person should try to daven with a מנין in Shule. The משנה ברורה 28 (ibid) notes that if one has two Shules nearby and one Shule has a bigger מנין, and otherwise both מנינים are decorous, then one should daven in the מנין that has the bigger crowd because of בְּרָב עָם. (This also finds its way in Halacha where people make Minyanim in their houses, say, on Friday Night instead of davening in a nearby Shule. One should ask their Local Orthodox Rabbi. From where I stand, it would appear to be a practice that is contraindicated according to Halacha. This is also similar to layning the Megilla privately when it could be done בְּרָב עָם at Shule)

I have not in any way exhausted the different considerations with respect to this notion. The topic certainly isn’t done justice by this short essay. That being said, let us now return to the example mentioned initially:

where there are twenty people and two are חיובים, and as a result the twenty is split into two מנינים of ten, should one split the מנין or is it better to split the service itself where possible between two חזנים!

It could be argued that the חיובים of a mourner are not a true Halachic imperative. Rather, they are מנהגים that have been adopted with the single aim of giving נחת to the departed, so that the נפטר will attain an עלית נשמה. Accordingly, if the מנין is split, and there is (apparently) no הדרת מלך, we need to ask ourselves if in fact the נפטר would draw נחת from an act which ignores the הדרת מלך of הקב”ה and creates small adjacent minyanim?

There is an interesting text in גמרא Succa 51B. The Gemora describes an enormous Basilica Synagogue in Alexandria, Egypt, which could hold six hundred thousand people, or even twice that. That number may be an exaggeration; I don’t know. Either way, the Synagogue held very many people to the extent that there was no way to actually hear the חזן and know when to answer the חזן’s קדיש. The solution to this problem was to use flags, which acted as a semaphore, so that the people knew when to say אמן. A raised flag might have meant “time to say אמן”. Mori V’Rabbi Rav Hershel Schachter שליט”א informed me of the פירוש of the חיד”א in his פתח עינים on עין יעקב, in reference to that גמרא in Succa 51B. The חיד”א asks a good question. Surely, if there were so many people in that Alexandrian Basilica Shule, the solution to the problem of the חזן being inaccessible would be to split the מנינים into smaller parts such that each חזן was heard and there would be no need for flags. I don’t know how that would work logistically, but it’s certainly a logical approach to ameliorating the problem. Answers the חיד”א, this solution was not permitted, that is, they were not permitted to split the large מנין. Why? Because a large מנין personified the majesty of a great and large crowd, all davening at the same time. That is, it would have been prohibited to split given בְּרָב עָם הַדְרַת מֶלֶךְ!

Whatever the case, it is somewhat difficult to understand why some split מנינים. This is especially so when one can hear parts of the davening from a split מנין that is within ear shot.

After I finished this essay, I came across a talk from Dayan Osher Weiss on this topic. If your hebrew is reasonable, you should be able to understand. (At the time of writing, I haven’t yet listened to the Shiur). I also found that the נטאי גבריאל brings two Responsa which give permission to split the minyan. Alas, I haven’t yet looked into these via


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