Take a Journey Through Israel's Graves of Holy Men (And Women)

From Mount Meron to a Safed apartment: Israel’s tradition of visiting the tombs of tzaddikim is no new phenomenon, but tells a story of evolving attitudes toward faith, folk tradition and even coexistence

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Religious women pray at the tomb of Yonatan Ben Uziel, near Amuka, in 2006.
Religious women pray at the tomb of Yonatan Ben Uziel, near Amuka, in 2006.Credit: Shaul Schwarz / Getty Images IL
Eness Elias
Eness Elias
Eness Elias
Eness Elias

In the Biriya Forest, among rich foliage, springs, orchards and historical sites, a path twists toward one of the most popular tombs of tzaddikim – righteous or pious religious figures – in the region. It is that of the sage of the Mishna Yonatan Ben Uziel, which is near Safed. The tzaddik is known for his special ability to make matches and grant fertility, which is why many of his visitors are women. The path to his gravesite is separated by a tall, white, metal barrier, which conceals the open landscape.

I climb up a small hill and peer over at the balcony of the men’s section, which spreads out to the open spaces. When the conditions are good, you can even see Mount Hermon from there. Inside the tomb folded notes burst from every slit among the bricks carrying requests, and various names are written on every available space. Outside, the tree that stands opposite the structure bears dozens of colorful scarves tied to it, a common initiative of female believers for the granting of their request.

Not far from there, in Hatzor Haglilit, there is a marker for another tomb. It is a cave identified as the resting place of first century B.C.E. sage Honi the Circle Maker, which was usually visited during periods of drought in order to pray for rain. These days, it hosts a hilula, a joyous event to commemorate the figure’s death, each year on Independence Day. Hatzor Haglilit is near the Syrian border, and it was shelled after the 1973 Yom Kippur War, 48-year-old Dikla Peretz, who grew up in the community, explains. “There was a feeling that there’s nobody protecting us.” She now lives in the center of the country, and is stopping at the nearby Ein Honi spring with her husband and their three children during a family visit.

Jews who visit Rachel's Tomb can be seen next to the separation barrier in Bethlehem, in the occupied West Bank.Credit: Emil Salman
Rachel's Tomb is seen with Bethlehem in the background.Credit: Tomer Neuberg / Gini

“My mother and her friends talk to this day about the tzaddik who protected us during the war.” She says. “It was part of our culture. The people of Hatzor invested in this place over the years and always took care of it, and came here, entire families. I also bring my children here and tell them the story of Honi.”

The tomb of Yonatan Ben Uziel and the tomb of Honi the Circle Maker – who according to the Talmud prayed for rain and was answered with a downpour so strong that he was forced to pray for its cessation – are only two of the tombs of tzaddikim in the Galilee. They serve as a pilgrimage site for hundreds of thousands of people, and even a lifetime project for faithful Mizrahi Jews (of Middle Eastern and North African descent), who also take part in developing them.

These tombs are in some cases symbolic sites, which represent the legacy of the tzaddikim and enable communion and association with it; in some cases there are hilulas for the elevation of their soul. The largest hilula takes place at the tomb of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, also known as the Rashbi. Since the deadly stampede that took place at his gravesite on the holiday of Lag B’Omer last year, this event has been tainted with sorrow and mourning, and with the upcoming anniversary, it will be replaced by an unofficial memorial ceremony for the 45 victims of the disaster. Aside from this hilula, there are others that take place around this time throughout the Galilee, representing another peak for ancient tradition.

People pray at the grave of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai at the foothills of Mount Meron.Credit: Yaron Kaminsky

Alienation vs. visitation

Many in Israel view the pilgrimages to the tombs of holy men as a modern phenomenon, but it originated during biblical times and it flourished again throughout history, although it has had its detractors over the years. In the 12th century, the pilgrimage to the tombs of Amoraim (sages of the Talmud) and Tannaim (sages of the Mishna) was popular mainly in the Galilee – a region where Jews and Muslims sometimes shared a map of holy sites and a common popular culture that recognizes these places as having special benevolence and healing properties. Around the cave of Hillel the Elder and his disciples in Meron, for example, which in the testimony of 13th century pilgrims is said to be associated with blessings of water, the Jewish and Muslim farmers held annual ceremonies of praying for rain.

The 16th century was a turning point for the cult of tombs. The Spanish exiles, who arrived in Safed at the time, developed the city’s Jewish Quarter. The activity of the community’s sages and rabbis, headed by the city’s greatest kabbbalist, the Holy Ari (Rabbi Yitzhak Luria), turned it into a center of mystical meditation.

Jewish men and youth attend the Shimon Hatzaddik Hillulah at the Tomb of Shimon Hatzaddik in East Jerusalem, in 2019.Credit: Emil Salman

Kabbalists from this elite, including Moshe Cordovero and Shlomo Alkabetz, began to prostrate themselves on Friday nights on the graves of second-century tannaim. They did so first among them the tomb of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai in Meron and the adjacent Rashbi Cave – the one in which the rabbi hid with his son from Roman persecution for 13 years and discovered the secrets of kabbala, according to popular belief. From a culture identified with folk and marginal movements, the cult of tombs became identified with the Jewish elite of Safed.

Even today, Safed is a center for pilgrimages to the tombs of tzaddikim, and every year hundreds of thousands of believers, most of them ultra-Orthodox, visit the ancient Jewish cemetery nestled atop a steep slope. It sees visits for Rosh Hodesh and its eve – the first day of the lunar month on the Jewish calendar – during the 10 days between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, and during the intermediate days of Sukkot and Passover.

But what was long ago identified with the elite has once again come to represent a folk cult. This time it was the waves of aliyah from Muslim countries in the 1950s and 1960s, which led to a burgeoning pilgrimages to the graves of tzaddikim. In a country that explicitly promoted secular values and whose political and cultural identity was shaped through rituals of celebrating independence and of mourning fallen soldiers, this tradition was seen as an obstacle to the shaping of a Western, modern and rational society.

Years later, at an anti-Netanyahu rally in 2015, the left-wing artist Yair Garbuz expressed amazement at how “amulet-kissers, idol-worshippers and people who prostrate themselves at the graves of saints” were controlling the State of Israel. His speech represented another milestone in the longstanding conflict of identity in Israeli society. It raised an uproar, and only led to an increase in the number of visitors to the tombs of tzaddikim.

The entrance of the men's section at a tomb in Safed.Credit: Avichai Nitzan

This is not the first time this has happened; many years earlier, the alienation felt by many Mizrahim from secular Ashkenazi nationalism encouraged varied expressions of popular ritual, which posited kabbalists, healers and such as intermediaries for requests of healing or salvation. The believers began to develop ritual sites, create new pilgrimage routes and restore others. Their activity went almost undocumented. The effort received no support from the establishment and was cut off from the national agenda and its ceremonies, and for precisely that reason – the emphasis on individual initiative rather than that of the establishment – women were able to demonstrate a significant presence in it.

The Six-Day War precipitated a temporary change. It granted access to historical holy sites, which transformed the ritual into part of the national, rather than individual, culture. the public arrived en masse to sites such as the Western Wall, Rachel’s Tomb in Hebron and the Tomb of Shimon Hatzaddik in East Jerusalem. The need to find new places of ritual declined.

The secular national ethos weakened in the years following the Yom Kippur War. At the same time, Israel experienced renewed Jewish religiosity and spirituality, via religious and other movements, a climate that led to a reawakening of the individual ritual at the tombs of tzaddikim.

I recall the hilulot of the 1980s and the early 1990s. They were more folksy than they are now, less organized, less commercialized. Entire families came with tents and sleeping bags, barbecue grills, and lots of food. But for us, it wasn’t just a fun trip; it was imbued with spiritual significance. The respect for tzaddikim, who succeeded where we failed and could perhaps atone for some sin or another for us, always guided us. When my grandmother wanted something – or simply to complain – she would call out with complete devotion: “Ya Rabbi Meir!” “Ya Rabbi Shimon!” That reassured her that her prayer was on the fast track to God.

Israel's chief rabbis pray at the grave of Honi the Circle Maker in Hatzor Haglilit, in 2010.Credit: Dror Artzi

The early 1980s offered the first recognition of this popular cult by the establishment: The Likud government placed the tombs of tzaddikim under the National Center for the Development of Holy Sites.

A room of one’s own

The 3 million annual visitors to holy sites don’t just visit the tzaddikim’s graves that are on the list. Over the years additional tombs have been added, as well as additional ritual sites for rabbis and kabbalists declared tzaddikim after or before their deaths. This includes Rabbi Israel Abuhatzeira, the Baba Sali, who devoted his life to kabbala, prayer and healing, and whose tomb became a holy site and a place for a famous hilula shortly after his death.

At the same time another phenomenon has taken wing: private initiatives of symbolically transferring tzaddikim who are buried overseas to the Land of Israel, after they appeared in a dream to a man or a woman and asked to reside in their home.

In a small apartment in a housing project in Safed, for example, is the room of Rabbi David Ou Moshe, who lived and was buried in 12th century Morocco. He is considered one of the greatest tzaddikim of the North African Jewish community, with many stories of miracles and magical deeds attributed to him. The book “The Saints’ Impresarios: Dreamers, Healers, and Holy Men in Israel’s Urban Periphery” by Prof. Yoram Bilu, who has studied the cult of the tombs of tzaddikim, includes the story of the Marrakech-born Avraham Ben Haim, who was active in the Jewish National Fund. The tzaddik appeared to Ben Haim in a dream several times. In 1973, shortly after the Yom Kippur War, he issued a notice to the public in which he described the disappointment of Rabbi David Ou Moshe with the Jews of Morocco, who neglected his memory. Shortly afterwards he built a room in the apartment in which he lived with his wife and their 10 children to serve as the tzaddik’s new home.

The structure symbolizing the grave of Rabbi David Ou Moshe, outside of Avraham Ben Haim's home in Safed.Credit: Ariel Palmon

The rumor of the rabbi’s new symbolic resting place quickly reached synagogues throughout the country, and that year, in the square in front of the house, there was a hilula with hundreds of attendees. To this day, on the first of the Hebrew month of Heshvan, thousands of believers come to the house from all over the world in order to celebrate the annual hilula. They pray, light candles and submit requests.

The walls of the small room itself are filled with commemorative tablets and curtains for synagogue Torah arks donated by believers. Along two of the walls stand wooden benches. The small balcony adjacent to the room is illuminated with a weak light, which only adds to the atmosphere of holiness that envelops it. Aside from a library of sacred texts and prayer books and a large picture of the tzaddik’s grave in the Atlas Mountains – which was renovated by Jews and is now occupied by a Muslim family that watches over it – the balcony is nearly empty.

Although Ben Haim died last year, responsibility for the site was handed down to his son Ami, who is now accompanying me to the room of Rabbi David Ou Moshe. He tells me that “60 percent of those who visit are non-Jews. Now, for example, sitting in the other room is an Arab guy, who is at home here, with his wife and his sister, and they’re eating. Before everything he does with his land, with his olives, with his life, he comes here, to the tzaddik.”

Left-wing artist Yair Garbuz gives his controversial speech at an anti-Netanyahu rally in Tel Aviv in 2015.Credit: Moti Milrod

This partnership is no coincidence. “The rabbi was for Jews and for Arabs alike,” says Ben Haim. According to the tradition of Moroccan Jews, on one of his many journeys in the Atlas Mountains to solicit donations for the poor of the Land of Israel, the rabbi arrived at a village after he heard that a deadly plague had broken out there, and he cured both Muslims and Jews. “When Arabs come here,” says Ben Haim, “they remove their shoes at the entrance and pray. The tzaddik helped them, cured them. Along with them the house is regularly visited by ultra-Orthodox Ashkenazim and Hasidim, who believe in the tzaddik’s abilities and have heard about his miracles.

I ask what the everyday life of a family that dedicates itself to this commemorative project looks like. “I live here,” he says. “There’s a telephone on the door, people call at all hours, they wake me up and I open it for them. I do it with great love, because I know that this faith, which has brought them to light a candle and make a request, is more important than the fact that they don’t know who [the rabbi] is and have only heard about him. The faith is what attracts the person. They ask me naïve questions sometimes, such as whether to light the candles on Shabbat. I don’t get upset because I know that it’s because they want their request to be granted.”

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