Related: The Grateful and the Dead. It’s easier than ever to visit the gravesites of beloved rabbis and sages (Rishe Groner, Tablet Magazine).
Lag Ba’Omer is this Wednesday evening and Thursday, and on a mountaintop in northern Israel, pilgrims will congregate on a color-coded parking lot swarmed with endless rows of buses. Hikers will set up tents, and teenagers in long skirts or knitted kippot will disembark alongside Hasidic families. In a tradition that dates back to the 16th century, they will be converging on the sacred mountain of Har Meron in the Galilee to pray at the gravesite of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, purported author of the Zohar.Some Lag B'Omer-related posts over the last Jewish-calendar year are here, here, here, and here – with lots of links to earlier posts.
While visiting graves is nothing new in Judaism—in the Torah, Caleb split from the other spies to visit the patriarchs in Hebron after scoping out the land—it’s seen a recent explosion thanks to opened borders, reduced cost of travel, and the burgeoning kosher tourism industry. What was once the inspired side trip of a college student is becoming a growing movement, filled with highly professionalized travel agencies and increasingly routinized tour routes.
Welcome to Jewish grave tourism.
Rabbi Henoch Dov Hoffman of Denver is a grave-spotter who has been taking students with him to visit graves in Israel for over 25 years. Inspired by a statement in the Talmud Yevamot—“When you study the works of a Torah scholar at the gravesite, his lips move in the grave”—Hoffman’s annual grave tours take his students all over the Galilee, from hidden caves to Arab villages, and has included occasional side tours to Eastern Europe. At each grave, the scholar or rebbe’s texts are studied while tapping into the divine energy of that soul’s presence at the physical burial site.
Hoffman visits a “mixed bag” of gravesites, teaching the Torah of each sage at their gravesite in order to connect with their soul on an existential level. “The idea is to study there,” Hoffman said. “You don’t just go in. We dance around seven times, sing a niggun, and then sit down and learn.” Hoffman’s list of gravesites is impressive: From Talmudic sages such as Chanina ben Dosa and Nachum Ish Gam Zu; to biblical heroes such as King Solomon’s chief of staff Benayahu ben Yehoyada; Kabbalists like the Arizal; and in Europe, Rabbi Nathan of Breslov, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, the Apter Rav, and the Ba’al Shem Tov.