cult of ancestors

Contributed by Rabbi Geoffrey W. Dennis

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,1 caring for the dead spirits,2 and consulting them for occult knowledge.3

It is clear that ancient Israel venerated its dead.4 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. References in the Bible to the ob, (a familiar spirit apparently 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 eighth-seventh centuries BCE. From this perspective, all seemingly earlier references found in the Bible are actually anachronisms introduced by later editors. 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.5 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 Jeremiah 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 the ancestors were aware of what transpired on earth and would plead before God on behalf of their descendants.6 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 (24). In time this idea of the influence of the beneficent dead expanded into the doctrine of zachot 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...").

Under the influence of Christian and Muslim saint veneration, the doctrine of zachot 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 of import. The purported graves of many biblical (Rachel's tomb in Bethlehem), rabbinic (Simon bar Yochai in Meron), medieval (Meir Baal Nes in Tiberia), and modern (Nachman of Bratzlav) luminaries have become the focus of pilgrimages and prayers for divine intervention among the Charedim (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 twentieth century figures as the Moroccan faith healer Baba Sali and the seventh CHaBaD rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson.

Article copyright © 2004 Geoffrey Dennis.