The Yahrzeit of Rachel Imeinu

 

Today, the 11th day of the month Cheshvan, is the Yahrzeit, the annual remembrance day of Rachel Imeinu (i.e. the Matriarch Rachel). Many in Israel travel to Bethlehem on that occasion and say prayers at her tomb. There is a story connected to this practice, which attempts to give a deeper motive why Rachel was buried there and not in Hebron, where all the other Patriarchs and Matriarchs are buried. The story tells us that this happened with a purpose. When in their later history the Israelites were led into captivity by Nebuchadnezzar, they would pass Rachel’s tomb and have the opportunity to say prayers there. Rachel would hear her children praying at her gravesite and she would cry and plead to G-d on their behalf [1].

A disturbing thing about this story is the mentioning of a dead person pleading to G-d on behalf of the living. This is not a concept found in Scripture. It is wholly contradictory to the teachings of Scripture. The Bible tells us again and again that the dead are really dead and not alive [2]. They cannot intercede for us with G-d or help us in any way. Only living people can help others or intercede for them in prayer. Accepting the concept of the dead pleading for the living easily leads to the acceptance of the closely related concept of the living praying to dead saints as intermediaries with G-d. This last mentioned concept is expressly and definitely prohibited in the Torah (Dt. 18:11).

Praying at a gravesite of a dead saint with the intention that these prayers should be heard by him in order to gain his intercession is dangerously close to transgression of the prohibition of praying to the dead, even if one directs these prayers to HaShem. The first error, that the dead are somehow alive and can help the living through intercessory prayers, naturally leads to the second, that it is proper to seek the intercession of the dead and ask them to act as intermediaries with HaShem [3].

If one wants to avoid the error of praying to the dead, one should first avoid the misconception that the dead are somehow alive, having knowledge and being able to interfere in the affairs of the living. The biblical teaching is that the dead have no knowledge or power at all. Death according to Scripture is simply the end of existence. For that reason, all practices that suggest otherwise or that can lead to misunderstanding and confusion should be avoided.

At this point it is perhaps good to remind ourselves that, from a Torah viewpoint, a gravesite is an unclean place and a major source of uncleanness. One can ask oneself what sense it does make to perform the ritual of handwashing (Netilat Yadayim), required before prayer, and then to say one’s prayers at a place of unclean contamination. [4].

It is certainly proper to honour the memory of the faithful departed, and to remember the Patriarchs and Matriarchs of Israel is a way of fulfilling the commandment to honour one’s parents (Ex. 20:12). It is also proper to honour the memory of the deceased of one’s family or nation. There is nothing wrong with observing their Yahrzeit and marking this day by burning a Yahrzeit candle. But one should avoid erroneous or confusing practices. One should not pray for the deceased. This is senseless, since the deceased are no longer in existence. For the same reason, and because of the prohibition found in the Torah, one should not pray to the dead. One should also avoid all prayers which seek the intercession of the deceased.

A proper prayer for the occasion of a Yahrzeit consists in thanksgiving for the lives of the deceased persons and for their contributions to the life of later generations.

It is by no means excluded by the foregoing that HaShem grants us blessings because of the faithfulness, piety and righteousness of saints who lived in earlier generations. And accordingly, HaShem may still answer prayers which they in their time offered on our behalf. But these things are secrets of which we cannot have accurate knowledge. It is sufficiently certain, however, that we can no longer actively seek the assistence and intercession of the departed. Their earthly tasks and responsibilities have ended. They have gone out of existence and will not be restored to life again before the resurrection [5].

The only person who can now intercede for us is Messiah Yeshua, our living High Priest in heaven, who is always prepared to pray to the Father on our behalf. That’s why we should offer our prayers to G-d the Father in his name.

Rachel the Matriarch is connected to Yeshua’s life through the terrible event of the slaughter of the innocent children of Bethlehem by the cruel king Herod. In his account of this Mattityahu quotes the prophet Yirmeyahu (31:15):

Mt. 2:17-18: Then was fulfilled that which was spoken by Yirmeyahu the prophet, saying, In Ramah was there a voice heard, lamentation, and weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, and would not be comforted, because they are not.

Rachel is introduced here in a figure of speech, as a personification of the nation of Israel, because she is a mother of Israel and because her tomb is situated in the neighbourhood of Bethlehem, in Ramah. Israel is the intended mother of this personification, bereft of her children through exile and slaughter. Rachel died in giving birth to Benyamin, and thus she literally gave her life for one of her children. Her self-sacrificing care for her children would grow utterly bitter and without purpose, if these children, or their posterity, should be murdered or sent into exile.

About the time of the Maccabean revolt and the rise of Pharisaism, belief in the immortality of the human soul was introduced in Judaism. And thus it became possible to interpret Yirmeyahu’s words, cited above, in a literal manner and to understand them as speaking of the immortal soul of Rachel. This interpretation afforded the foundation for making the person of Rachel into a kind of national mediatrix with G-d for Israel. This was a wrong spiritual development in Judaism, which shows uncanny analogies to the excesses of later Catholicism as to the status and position of Miryam, the virgin mother of the Messiah.

We should avoid all these excesses, and honour the memorial of our ancestors on a biblical basis and within the limits provided by the Torah. This we can do by not only giving due attention to their Yahrzeit days, but above all by following their walk and example of faithfulness. We believe that the following Yahrzeit Prayer is in accord with this duty.

 

Yahrzeit Prayer:

O G-d, the King of saints, we praise and magnify thy Holy Name for all thy servants who have finished their course in thy faith and fear; for the blessed Virgin Miryam, the Mother of our Lord; for the holy Patriarchs and Matriarchs, for Rachel the Matriarch; for the Apostles and Martyrs; and for all other thy righteous servants known to us and unknown;  and we beseech thee that, encouraged and inspired by their examples we may with them be partakers of the inheritance of the Saints in light, in that great Day of the Appearing of our Lord and Saviour Yeshua the Messiah, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Ruach HaKodesh, world without end. Amen. [6]

____________

[1] “11 Cheshvan – Rachel Imeinu Passes Away” at: Orthodox Union.

[2] View the article:  “The dead are dead until the Rapture or Resurrection” at: Truth or Tradition.

[3] That the intercession of Rachel is actually sought is clear from the following quote from the Kever Rachel Imeinu website: “Since the time of her burial- more then 3000 years ago,  the Tomb of Rachel has always been a special place for prayer.  To this very day, men and women go to Rachel’s Tomb to shed tears and beg “Mother Rachel” to intercede with G-d on their behalf — for the health of a loved one or for Divine Intervention for those in need.”  “Rachel’s Tomb. The Jewish Second Holiest Site.” at: Kever Rachel Imeinu.

[4] Cf. Rav David Brovsky, “Washing Hands upon Waking and before Prayer” at: The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash.

[5] View footnote [2].

[6] An adapted version of the prayer found on page 489 of The Book of Common Prayer of the Episcopal Church, Edition 1979, The Seabury Press.

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