Thursday, November 12, 2009

Ancestral Spirits in Israel and Judaism

[The shrine over the Cave of Machpelah, where the Patriarchs and Matriarchs were buried]

The belief in the continuing presence of the dead and their and influence on the living has been, in different forms, a feature of Jewish belief from earliest times. This has led to venerating the ancestral dead, and even cults dedicated to them. The Bible itself refers to such practices as ensuring the dead are gathered together with the clan on ancestral land (Gen. 50:24-25), caring for the dead spirits (Deut. 26:14; Isa. 57:6), and consulting them for occult knowledge (Deut. 18:11; Isa. 8:19-22; 19:3; I Sam. 28:3-25).

It is clear that ancient Israel venerated its dead (Deut. 10:15). Many scholars also believe that the Children of Israel inherited a cult of the ancestral dead, possibly even deified dead, from their Semitic milieu and that it remained a popular belief among Israelites despite the opposition of the Prophets.The burial places of Judges and Rachel may have served as shrine/oracles (Judges 8:30-32, 10:1-15; 12:7-15; Sam. 10:2; Jer. 31:15).

References in the Bible to the ob, (A familiar spirit, possibly derived from the same Hebrew root as "father") has been considered part of that covert tradition. Other scholars argue that a cult of the beneficent dead was introduced by influence of the Assyrians, who were obsessed with necromancy, in the 8th-7th Centuries BCE (Isa. 29:4). From this perspective, all seemingly earlier references found in the Bible are actually anachronisms introduced by later editors.1 The
only clear example of a Biblical figure who, contrary to the proscription of the Torah, consulted the ancestral dead for guidance is that of Saul summoning the dead spirit of the Prophet Samuel (I Samuel 28:4-25). The account clearly illustrates that the author of Samuel believed necromancy was real, though the end results for Samuel were personally disappointing.

With the prophetic verse Jer. 31:15-16 serving as locus classicus, "A cry is heard in Ramah, wailing, bitter weeping, Rachel weeps for her children, she refuses to be comforted...," the Sages of Talmudic times believed that their ancestors were aware of what transpired on earth and would plead before God on behalf of their descendants (Ta’anit 16a; Men. 53b). Midrash Lamentations Rabbah includes a description of Biblical figures like Abraham, Moses, and Rachel interceding before the Divine Throne when God's judgment is being pronounced against Israel (Lam. R. 24). In time this idea of the positive influence of the beneficent dead expanded into the doctrine of zechut avot (the merit of the ancestors), which became canonized in the daily liturgy with the Avot prayer ("You remember the faithfulness of our ancestors and therefore bring redemption to their children's children..."). Sefer Chasidim describes how the dead pray for the living (452). As late as the Zohar, we find the theme of being reunified with one’s relatives is still a prominent expectation of the afterlife (Va-yehi, 218b). In later Kabbalah there is a shift from veneration of biological ancestors to “soul” ancestors (see Reincarnation).

Under the influence of Christian and Muslim saint veneration, the doctrine of zechut avot eventually evolved into a more direct veneration of the meritorious dead, with practices such as praying to them for their intercession in personal matters. The purported graves of many luminaries - Biblical (Rachel's tomb in Bethlehem), Rabbinic (Simon bar Yochai in Meron), Medieval (Meir Baal Nes in Tiberia), and modern (Nachman of Bratzlav) - have become the focus of pilgrimages and prayers for divine intervention among the Ultra-Orthodox. Even the tombs of Jews who would have scoffed at such behavior, like Maimonides, have become destinations for Jewish pilgrims and supplicants.

The custom of graveside veneration endures and thrives to this day in some sects of Judaism, and is extended even to such 20th Century figures as the Moroccan faith healer Baba Sali and the seventh CHaBaD rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson.

1. Schmidt, Israel’s Beneficent Dead, pp. 132-263.

Zal g'mor - To learn more consult the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism: http://www.amazon.com/Encyclopedia-Jewish-Myth-Magic-Mysticism/dp/0738709050


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