I would like to know if Jews consider it acceptable to pray to deceased ancestors, forefathers, or "saints" like some Christians in the Catholic tradition do. Deuteronomy 18:11 would seem to prohibit speaking with the dead or praying to them, and several pagan religions have "ancestor cults" where they pray to their predecessors. Therefore I would expect it to be explicitly forbidden in Judaism to pray to any of the dead, whether they were righteous or wicked.

However, I was reading in Sotah 34b and I noticed that it reads:

Raba said: It teaches that Caleb held aloof from the plan of the spies and went and prostrated himself upon the graves of the patriarchs, saying to them, 'My fathers, pray on my behalf that I may be delivered from the plan of the spies'. (As for Joshua, Moses had already prayed on his behalf; as it is said: And Moses called Hoshea the son of Nun Joshua,17 [meaning], May Jah save thee [yoshi'aka] from the plan of the spies.)

This seems like mere speculation on the Rabbi's part and is an interpretation that appears to conflict with Deuteronomy 18:11. Do Jews take Sotah 34b as an example of legitimate prayer to deceased ancestors? And if so is there any teaching in Judaism that the deceased can hear when someone calls to them?

If Judaism allows praying to ancestors then how would that be distinguished from the forbidden practice of necromancy, and the episode of King Saul consulting the sorceress at Endor to speak with the prophet Samuel?


3 Answers 3


For a long time there have been Jews who have indeed beseeched the dead. However, numerous sources state that this is prohibited. Some state that it is permitted if the request is not directly from the dead, but just that the dead beseech God.

Forbidden when the request is directly of the deceased

Maharam Shikk writes in a responsum (OH 293) that such practices raise both the issue of doresh el hametim (Deut. 18:11) and of serving God through an intermediary (apparently the prohibition of avoda zara; idolatry). He concludes that if one relates one's problems to the dead hoping that they will intercede with God it is permissible, but if one wants help from them directly, it would be forbidden. He emphasises that even using them as intermediaries is forbidden according to many authorities.

Similarly, the Ben Ish Hai writes in a responsum (Rav P'alim Vol II YD 31) that it is forbidden to make requests of a dead person directly. Doing so constitutes doresh el hametim. One may only ask that the dead intercede with God. He writes this in explanation of the Zohar (Acharei Mot: 71) which is quoted by some as a source to permit praying to the dead:

נמצא לא הותר לאדם להתפלל על קברי הצדיקים, לשאול בקשתו מן הצדיקים עצמן, כי זה חשיב דורש אל המתים, אלא הוא מתפלל ושואל בקשתו מהקב"ה, ורק מבקש מנפש הצדיק שתתפלל עליו לפני הקדוש ברוך הוא, שישמע תפלתו ויעשה בקשתו

Always forbidden

Others, take an even harsher stance; that it forbidden even if the request from the deceased is just that it intercede with God. R. Moshe Tsuriel notes here that Rambam (Hilkhot Ta'aniyot 4:17) emphasises that prayers in a graveyard are not meant to be directed to the dead. In this, Rambam rules like Rabbi Levi Bar Hamma, in Ta'anit 16a against a contrary opinion recorded there. R. Tsuriel (there) is of the opinion that those who were accustomed to pray in various forms to the dead are following the contrary view in Ta'anit, but that halakha is not in accordance with that view.

The Sefer Hameorot (Ta'anit 16a) similarly explains that according to the latter Talmudic view (who he himself follows) addressing petitions to the dead is forbidden:

שאין לנו לבקש מן המתים שיבקשו רחמים על החיים, שהרי לא מצינו בכל המקרא בכמה צרות שאירעו לישראל, ליחידים או לרבים, שיבקשו מן המתים לבקש רחמים עליהם

Similarly, the Bach (YD 217:51) implies that prayer in a cemetery can only be permitted if it is addressed to God; not the dead. (although he cites views that even this would be prohibited, see there for more):

ודוקא להשתטח על קברי אבות ולהתפלל לפניו יתברך

Additionally, the Hokhmat Adam (Issur V'heter 89:7) writes negatively about people who discuss their problems with the dead:

ז איסור דורש אל המתים זה שמרעיב עצמו ולן בבית הקברות כדי שתשרה עליו רוח הטומאה (סימן קע"ט סעיף י"ג) ואותן נשים וכן עמי הארצות שהולכין על קברי מתים וכאילו מדברים עם המתים ואומרים להם צרותיהם קרוב הדבר שהם בכלל זה

And [regarding] those women and ignoramuses who go to graves and speak as though to the dead and tell them their woes, and it seems likely that they are included in this prohibition. (My translation of the bolded portion)

Maharam Shikk understands that he is saying that it is doresh el hametim.

Maharam Mintz (Responsa:79) similarly cites the opinion that making requests of the dead; even just that they intercede with God is forbidden as doresh el hametim:

כי בלאו הכי יש גדולים קראו תגר ע"ד זה וקראו ודורש אל המתים, דרוב עמי הארץ ונשים עבידי מליצים בינם ובין קונם ב"ה.

The Minhagei Maharil (Hilkhot Ta'anit 18), quoted by the Elya Rabba (581), Ba'er Hetev (OH 581:17), and the Mishna Berurah (581:27) similarly writes that one shouldn't address the dead at all:

והמשתטח על קברי הצדיקים ומתפלל אל ישים מגמתו נגד המתים השוכבים שם, אך יבקש מאת השם יתברך שיתן אליו רחמים בזכות הצדיקים שוכני עפ

That is, one mustn't address the dead or even pay attention to them, but only address God.

The Hayei Adam (138:5), and Kitsur (128:13) paraphrase the Maharil and add that addressing the dead directly would seem to violate doresh el hametim:

ויעשה הקדוש ברוך בו חסד בזכות הצדיקים אבל אל ישים מגמתו נגד המתים השוכנים שם, כי קרוב הדבר שיהיה בכלל ודורש אל המתים

Do Jews take Sotah 34b as an example of legitimate prayer to deceased ancestors

As mentioned, like non-Jews, many Jews throughout the ages have beseeched the dead. Some invoked this story in Sotah as justification. However, those authorities who prohibit such activities clarify that the passage is not a proof. For example, R. Hayim Paltiel of Magdeburg cited by the Bach (ibid), writes that the passage in Sota refers to praying to God, and merely using the grave-site as a holy location which at which it is advantageous to pray:

דלא מצינו רק גבי כלב שנשתטח על קברי אבות- היינו שמתפללים לה', ומקום קדוש גורם שתהא תפילתם נשמעת

[It is not clear to me exactly how he read the passage in Sotah; perhaps he had a variant text.]

Most sources saying it is forbidden do not mention the passage. Perhaps this is because it is aggadic and does not carry the same authority as halakhic passages. Additionally, even were the passage in Ta'anit halakhic, not every halakhic position in the Talmud is accepted. In this matter, for example, we have already noted commentators who understand the matter of addressing prayers to the dead to be the subject of a Talmudic dispute. Accordingly, the passage in Sotah could be aligned with the view in Ta'anit that permits, while the aforementioned authorities could nevertheless rule against it, in accordance with the other view in Ta'anit.

And if so is there any teaching in Judaism that the deceased can hear when someone calls to them

Although you are only asking for sources that the deceased can hear one praying according to those who invoke the passage in Sotah as a source to beseech the dead, in reality, the question exists in a vacuum; that is, even if it is forbidden to beseech the dead, they may still be able to hear the living.

An aggadic passage in Berakhot 18b indicates that the dead are aware of the goings on in the world, and can hear people talking to them. However, others are of the opinion that the dead are not aware of what is happening in their vicinity. (See R. Qafih's explanation of Rambam's Hilkhot Evel (14:13). One verse that indicates the contrary is Ecclesiastes (9:5) which states:

הַחַיִּים יוֹדְעִים, שֶׁיָּמֻתוּ; וְהַמֵּתִים אֵינָם יוֹדְעִים מְאוּמָה

The living know they will die; but the dead don't know a thing.

In a similar vein, R. Yehuda ibn Bil'am writes in his commentary to Isaiah (8:19):

הנפש אין לה שום ידיעה אחר פרידתה מן הגוף

The soul has no knowledge after its separation from the body.

Radak similarly implies that he understands the verse in Ecclesiastes simply, and that for this reason, any prayers to or through the dead, are absurd in his commentary to Isaiah (8:19):

אבל זה שאתם אומרים לנו שנדרוש אל האובות והידעונים זהו דבר שאין הדעת סובלתו כי הם מתים, ואיך נדרוש בעד החיים אל המתים, כי המתים אינם יודעים מאומה

But this that you say to us, that we should seek out the ovot and yidonim, this is something that the intellect does not accommodate, for they are dead! And how can we beseech the dead on behalf of the living, for the dead don't know anything.

If Judaism allows praying to ancestors then how would that be distinguished from the forbidden practice of necromancy

At this point I will mention some of the opinions of those who permit such practices. R. Eliezer of Metz writes in his Sefer Yereim (334-335) that the prohibition of doresh el hametim only includes involvement with the body of the deceased; involvement with the spirit of the deceased, however, would be permitted. This is one of the sources cited in justification of the practice to distinguish it from forbidden practices.

  • @Maimonist hopefully this answer satisfies your desire for clear sources that prohibit utilising the dead as intermediaries to God.
    – mevaqesh
    Commented Mar 28, 2017 at 19:06
  • FYI Rav Dessler (don't know the exact location) says the conclusion of the gemarra in brachos isn't clear, and explains that in reality the deceased do know what's going on, they just don't care, as things in this world seem less significant from the perspective of the afterlife.
    – robev
    Commented Aug 9, 2017 at 12:44

See tshuvas Binyan Tzion from Rav Etlenger siman 67 where he says 'even being doresh from [requesting of] the dead in the grave is muttar [allowed] as we find the greatest amoraim doing doing so, as long as one is not doresh from the body of the deceased but rather from his spirit'. This is an idea mentioned in the Beis Yosef in Yoreh Deah siman brought in the Shach there siff kattan 16 where he mentions a Taz who disagrees with this distinction, but settles it.

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    I will need some interpretation as to what "doresh from" and "muttar" means. I am not steeped in Talmudic terminology. Also can you clarify what "distinction" you are talking about? Is this prayer or talking to the dead in general? Commented Aug 22, 2014 at 16:14
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    @user6591 - there is no distinction between necromancy and praying to the dead. They are the same thing! Is the trinity now a monotheistic belief because we can do verbal gymnastics to justify it? Come on, people. I know I'm not the only one. Where is everybody? Where is the outrage?!?
    – user3342
    Commented Oct 16, 2015 at 2:15
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    @Maimonist you are very wrong. I am in the middle of a really really long answer so just have some patients and we can continue this conversion after I edit this.
    – user6591
    Commented Oct 16, 2015 at 2:18
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    But let me ask you, do you have any explicit sources? Or is this your assumption? Do you have a Rambam saying that praying to the dead to intercede is the same as praying to an avoda zara, or is that an assumption as well?
    – user6591
    Commented Oct 16, 2015 at 2:24
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    @Maimonist Could you please do us the favor of submitting your own answer to that it can be reviewed? It seems that all the other answers lean the other way. Commented Oct 17, 2015 at 4:01

In a nutshell, yes. There are many stories in the talmud and medrash where great men prayed to their ancestors.

It is halachicaly accepted as seen in Shulchan Aruch Orach Chayim siman 579 with Magen Avraham 11.

The source of confusion is found in the Mishna Berurah siman 581 siff katan 27 where the simplistic reading would seem that we may not pray to the dead. I'll quote and translate his words "a cemetery is the resting place of the righteous and prayers are accepted there more readily, but do not pray to the dead, rather request that God should have pity on him in the merit of the righteous who rest in the ground".

But considering that it is against many chazzal, we must assume he means something else. First let's quote Chazzal which are explicitly not like this simplistic reading. See Taanis 16a where one opinion says we pray in the cemetery so the dead can ask mercy for us. See also Chagiga 22b where Rabi Yehoshua stretched out on Shamai's grave, begging him for forgiveness. This, of course, is not a prayer per se but it is a conversation and a request made to a dead person. Also see the famous medrash in the pesichta to eicha rabba 24 where Yirmiyahu went to the avos and Moshe to ask them to beseech Hashem for mercy.

We must assume then that the Mishna Berurah means something else. We can easily read his words as saying that the dead are not empowered to help of their own accord, rather we pray to them to in turn go pray to Hashem. This is in fact the end of the narrative in Eicha Rabba where Rachel went to beseech Hashem to have mercy on us.

Also of interest, if you look up the gemara in Taanis you will see another opinion why to pray in the cemetery, and that is to show Hashem that we are as if dead. The gemara says the practical difference between the two opinions is whether or not to go to a non-Jewish cemetery, and as Rashi explains, a place with no Jewish graves to ask for rachamim even upon themselves, and certainly on us. We see from here that the dead do pray, and for themselves as well.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. Commented Aug 22, 2014 at 18:54
  • @user6591 Thank you. I believe this adequately shows the Jewish view on this topic. Commented Aug 22, 2014 at 20:44
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    No, we don't assume Mishnah brurah meant something else. We rather understand that Mishnah brurah is saying a conclusion briefly, where he is aware of the great volume of rabbinic literature explicitly discussing the meaning of those purportedly contradictory statements of chazal. Commented Oct 15, 2015 at 11:22
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    Ok, for what I am saying, see eg Bach Y.D. 217 that Calev only prayed to hashem, not to the Avot. That is, rishonim and acharonim interpreted chazal in different ways than you are assuming, and so we should not then interpret away the clear conclusion based on those interpretations and say there is no machloket on the matter. Commented Oct 15, 2015 at 11:37
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    sounds good. from my perspective, a survey of the different positions is fine, so long as it is clear that there is a machloket in the matter and what the mainstream approaches are and mean. Commented Oct 15, 2015 at 12:10

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