Sages´ tombs in Israel draw hundreds of thousands of Jews seeking miracles (AP) Associated Press) By Tia Goldenberg NETIVOT, Israel 02/21/12)
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NETIVOT, Israel - One man prays to heal the legs he broke in a car
accident. An older woman pleads for grandchildren. Another visitor
has come to see "God´s secretary."
These believers are part of a growing phenomenon in Israel, where
hundreds of thousands of people from starkly different backgrounds
flock to the tombs of ancient Biblical figures or modern-day rabbis,
seeking blessings and claiming they´ve witnessed miracles.
At many of these sites there is scant proof that any sage is actually
buried there. Some are even believed to be co-opted Ottoman or Muslim
burial places. But to the faithful, the lack of hard evidence is
irrelevant. It´s the deep spiritual experience or, for some, the
desperate desire to be blessed, that matters.
"Coming here is being able to speak to God´s secretary. It´s the
closest you can get," said Suzy Shaked, a 55-year-old teacher from
central Israel who visited the tomb of Rabbi Yisrael Abuhatzeira, one
of the most popular pilgrimage sites.
Shaked said she sees Abuhatzeira, better known as the Baba Sali, as
God´s envoy. A visit to his tomb puts her requests in God´s earshot.
She was praying at the Baba Sali´s tomb for her son to marry.
While there are no firm statistics on how many Israelis visit sites
like the Baba Sali´s tomb, researchers say the number is growing.
They cite the rising power of religious political parties, the
influence of Israelis of north African descent who traditionally
practiced these kinds of pilgrimages, and a growing desire by even
secular Jews to find meaning in their lives through a spiritual act.
Prominent businessmen and politicians are known to make appearances
at the sites.
"It´s hard for (people) to be satisfied with prayer in a synagogue to
a God who is very abstract, who is unclear, who is not accessible,"
said Doron Bar, a historical geographer who studies the sites. "I
think visiting a grave like this gives believers a line through which
demands can be made."
Bar believes that the number of pilgrimage sites has grown into the
The phenomenon has spawned a tourist trade, where busloads of
faithful are ferried from one burial site to another to make a
variety of wishes.
"People see results," said Benny Barzilai, who runs monthly trips to
tombs. "That´s why this tour succeeds."
Morroccan-born Abuhatzeira was revered even in life as a mystic and
performer of miracles. After he died in January 1984, he gained rock
Today, his tomb in the blue-collar town of Netivot in southern Israel
draws an estimated hundreds of thousands of pilgrims. The anniversary
of his death is especially popular, a time that is believed to grant
the worshipper a heightened closeness to God.
It´s the second-most visited tomb in Israel, after that of Yonatan
ben Uziel in northern Israel. That site, which reportedly draws half
a million people a year, is believed to answer prayers for marriage.
At the Baba Sali compound, believers of all stripes could be seen
during the recent anniversary commemorations— mildly religious young
women in tight jeans and red nails, pious elderly women in long
floral skirts and head coverings, silver-haired politicians in
pinstriped suits. The tomb was packed with a mass of wailing
worshippers, which swelled gradually into the evening.
The day was joyful and festive, with barbecues, picnics and vendors
selling candles and clocks bearing the Baba Sali´s image. The
faithful hurled candles into a large furnace, a ritual with pagan
tinges meant to immortalize the sage´s soul.
"I take advantage of any opportunity to go see a sage," said Shimon
Kaslessi, a truck driver, who walks with crutches but was told he
likely wouldn´t walk at all after a car crash two years ago.
"When you´ve seen miracles, when the sage makes a handicapped person
walk, you believe," he added, a tear streaming down his face.
Although the burial place of modern rabbis like Abuhatzeira are not
questioned, those of more ancient sages are not always investigated
or recognized by any official body, meaning anyone can theoretically
designate a place as holy and spark a following.
A site near the central town of Modiin is believed by some to be the
tomb of the Jewish priest Matityahu ben Yohanan, one of the heroes of
the Hasmonean Revolt against the Greeks more than 2,000 years ago.
While not officially recognized, the site draws hundreds of pilgrims
Similarly, a tomb in a Jerusalem mosque is sacred to Jews, Muslims
and Christians, yet each claims a different holy woman is buried
Researchers believe the grave of the prophet Havakuk in northern
Israel was possibly deemed to be there because the prophet´s name
rhymed with a nearby village, Yakuk.
It´s unclear how the phenomenon took root. Traditionally in Judaism,
prostrating oneself at graves was forbidden, as it was likened to the
prohibited custom of idol worship.
Some studies believe that after Israel gained independence in 1948,
many important Jewish sites beyond Israel´s boundaries were out of
reach. Jews in turn assigned greater importance to less significant
sites inside Israel or co-opted what was known to be, until then, an
Ottoman or Muslim tomb.
Over time, myths surrounding the different graves emerged, and Jews
began making pilgrimages to these sites. The custom is practiced at
tombs of Jewish sages around the world as well, including a massive
yearly pilgrimage to Ukraine.
Many are nondescript tombstones while some are grand domed
mausoleums. Each sage is typically associated with different
requests, whether for health, wealth, love or fertility.
More than 100 such sites are considered official holy places by
Israel´s Tourism Ministry, meaning they are maintained with
government funds. New sites are rarely added to the ministry´s list
because they "lack proof" that anyone of importance is interred
there, said Mina Genem, a ministry official.
Nonetheless, these tombs attract Jews from all backgrounds who return
year after year because they say their prayers have been answered.
Sarah Cohen, 69, said her daughter became pregnant after she prayed
for her at the Baba Sali´s tomb.
"I´ve been coming here for 20 years," she said, after flinging a
candle into the red furnace. "My daughter came too because she saw
that my prayers were answered." (© 2012 The Associated Press
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