Rabbis with Special Powers

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vendors near a sage's tomb

In the ultra-Orthodox community there are holy men and faith healers. Among some Jewish groups you can find gatherings of worshipers, chanting, singing, thumping finger tambourines and lighting candles waiting to touch revered rabbis who claim to cure people of cancer and raised crippled people from their wheelchairs.

Miracles have been attributed to Jewish saints, whose intensive study of the Torah gave them special powers. In the 18th century rebels known as “tzaddik ha-dor” emerged from Jewish mysticism that were regarded as so holy it was believed they could transport themselves to a higher plane, where God used them to bring blessings and miracles to ordinary Jews.

Many ultra-Orthodox Jews believe that some rabbis have mystical powers. Rebbes are rabbis regarded as saints with special powers. They have been credited with curing cancer and making their followers wealthy by giving them shrewd investment advice. After death their grave sites become shrines. Some sects believe that rebbes have the power to see illnesses and other’s misfortunes. In cases, where illnesses believed to be the will of God they can change them.

Many of Lubavitchers — a Hasidic Branch of Judaism with Kabbalist roots — believe that Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who died in Brooklyn in 1994 and was the seventh and last leader of the group, was the Messiah or kind of pre-Messiah. A number of miracles have been attributed to Schneerson. In July 1992, for example, the daughter of a woman diagnosed with stomach cancer asked Schneerson for a blessing and was told to put mezuzas through her house, light Shabbis candles and perform good deeds. The mother did all things. Three days later when a biopsy was performed no cancer was found. Her doctor said, “Someone’s prayers were answered.” Schneerson’s office receives more than 1,000 letters day requesting blessings.

Websites and Resources: Virtual Jewish Library jewishvirtuallibrary.org/index ; Judaism101 jewfaq.org ; torah.org torah.org ; Chabad,org chabad.org/library/bible ; BBC - Religion: Judaism bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/judaism ; Encyclopædia Britannica, britannica.com/topic/Judaism; Yivo Institute of Jewish Research yivoinstitute.org ; Internet Jewish History Sourcebook sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Aish.com aish.com ; Jewish Museum London jewishmuseum.org.uk

Fertility and the Rabbi Chair

In efforts to get pregnant childless women, tie red cloths around their waist, light candles with olive oil, and pray at the graves of well known rabbis. In the mid 1990s, a supermarket run by ultra-Orthodox Jews in the town of Ashdod drew long lines of women anxious to sit on a chair that was said to bring babies and deliver the “best sex in the world.” The chair was blessed by a Rabbi Yitzhak Kaduri, a Moroccan-born mystical rabbi believed to have mystical powers, during the grand opening ceremony for the supermarket. After that four cashiers in the supermarket got suddenly got pregnant, one of them who had failed to give birth after 12 years of fertility treatments.

When the four cashiers took maternity leave, the manager of the supermarket hired six new cashiers. Within a few months they were all pregnant too. Looking for a common link the manager discovered that all ten of the cashiers had sat in the chair blessed by the rabbi. Soon word got out and 100 or so women showed up at the store every day to sit in the chair. Hundreds of births then occurred.

Before using the chair women were lectured on sexual relations and Jewish law, they placed three coins in a special box, recited a prayer calling for God’s mercy three times, lit a candle and asked for a blessing to get impregnated. The women then sat on on the chair and read a psalm in accordance with that day on the Hebrew calendar. Often the line of women waiting to sit on the chair was so long women were not allowed to sit for more than ten minutes.

Lubavitchers and Rabbi Schneerson

Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson
Chabad-Lubavitch is a Hasidic Branch of Judaism with Kabbalist roots. Founded in Belarus in the 18th century and is now based in Brooklyn, it has 3,000 organizations in 75 countries whose goal is to prepare their host cities for the coming of the Messiah. In the meantime Chabad Houses provide religious support and community services for Jewish expats. Members of sect are active in the former Soviet Union, setting up Jewish schools, community centers and orphanages.

Lubavitchers are named after Lubavichy, a town near Smolensk, Russia, where the movement was based from 1813 to 1915. Many of its followers believe that Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who died in Brooklyn in 1994 and was the seventh and last leader of the group, was the Messiah or kind of pre-Messiah. Among other things Schneerson encouraged parents to put blessings such as psalms in the cribs of newborn infants.

A number of miracles have been attributed to Schneerson. In July 1992, for example, the daughter of a woman diagnosed with stomach cancer asked Schneerson for a blessing and was told to put mezuzas through her house, light Shabbis candles and perform good deeds. The mother did all things. Three days later when a biopsy was performed no cancer was found. Her doctor said, “Someone’s prayers were answered.” Schneerson’s office receives more than 1,000 letters day requesting blessings.

Chabad-Lubavitch stresses an inclusive approach to religion. A Chabad-Lubavitch rabbi in Tokyo told the Japanese Times, “Chabad is for Jews, but for non-Jews as well. We don’t open solely for Jews, because God created everyone. Most of our friends are Japanese . We’re not trying to covert people. God created many different nations, and they don’t need to bother to change or become kosher.

Chabad-Lubavitch followers are called Chabadnicks, They are regarded as fundamentalists and are much more involved in missionary work, even proselyting, than has traditionally been the norm, among Jewish sects. Chabadnicks have many similar views as fundamentalist Christian and Muslims. They regard homosexuality as a sexual perversion and are anti-abortion. In Israel they support the right-wing Greater Israel party. One of its leaders Rabbi Eliiezer Shach has described Chabad-Lubavitch as the sect closest to true Judaism.

"X-Ray" Rabbi Yaakov Israel Ifargan

In 2002, Time magazine Jerusalem bureau chief Matt Rees went to Netivot in the southern of Israel to check out Rabbi Yaakov Israel Ifargan, who is known to all in Israel by his nickname, Rav ha-Rentgen (the X-Ray) Rabbi. There they observed Rabbi Ifargan perform his special, characteristic “Tikkun” ceremony at the foot of the grave of his father, the late Rabbi Shalom Ifargan. During the ceremony, he throws thousands of packages of candles into a bonfire while praying to the righteous dead and to the Holy One, Blessed be He.

Rentgen.co reported: “ His special qualities are many but the most unique of all, the one which led to the bestowal of the name “X-ray,” is his ability to see and precisely diagnose things. Simply casting an eye on someone enables him to discern everything: the state of his health, his soul, and his business as well as his mission in life. As written in The Marker, “Of all of the rabbis who offer spiritual advice and guidance to Israel’s business people, this year Rabbi Ifargan stands out. The rabbi, who specializes in matters of health and consultation, is known by the nickname the X-ray. People who have consulted with him tell that the rabbi provided them with such a precise diagnosis that many were impressed and adopted him as their rabbi and as the first person with whom they would consult in every aspect of their lives. [Source: rentgen.co.il +]

Breslev synagogue with Rabbi Ifergan inside

“It appears Rabbi Ifargan was born to his spiritual role as an advisor and savior to thousands of Jewish people, ever since his birth to his parents, Rebbetzin Esther and Rabbi Shalom Ifargan of blessed memory. Rabbi Shalom was a well-known mystical figure in the south of Israel as well as in the yeshivas of Bnei Brak, Safed and Jerusalem. He was also the one thousands of people turned to in times of trouble, asking for his blessing. He was known to be a friend of Rabbi Yisrael Abuhatzeira, the Baba Sali of blessed memory, and the tales of his miracles spread throughout the country. +\

“Rabbi Yaakov Ifargan studied in the Ashkenazi Haredi yeshivas of Bnei Brak, and later in a Sephardic Haredi yeshiva in Jerusalem, but mainly he studied with his father, who taught him the secrets of the Kabbala and with him delved deeply into the Zohar. In 1994, while he sat shiva for his righteous father, a visitor entered the house and Rabbi Ifargan discerned a severe form of cancer in the man’s kidneys. He called to the man and revealed what he had seen. From that moment word got out that Rabbi Ifargan would follow in the path of his father. +\

“Since then, the court of Rabbi Ifargan has become a huge empire including yeshiva students who study Torah, nursery schools and Talmud Torah schools which provide a education to children in the south and center of the country, and benevolence centers that aid thousands of families in distress, providing them with food products, hot meals, and basic supplies. Over the years, the name of Rabbi Ifargan has become very well-known, particularly among the community of business people in Israel, as the principal personal advisor of the tycoons in the world of Israeli business. One of the most notable of these is Nochi Dankner, the chairman of the board of IDB Israel, and other leaders in the Israeli economy. In 2003 the economics magazine The Marker crowned Rabbi Ifargan with the title “Spiritual Advisor of the Year,” and named him one of the one hundred most influential people in the Israeli economy. +\

“Along with that, the thing that most characterizes the personality of Rabbi Ifargan is his great love for the Jewish people, his ability to find and devote time to each and every one of the thousands who come to him in Netivot, dedicating to them some of his time and his marvelous abilities. Many people come from the south and the center of Israel, but there are also those who arrive from far-away Safed in the north and even from abroad: the United States, France, Canada and South America. Rabbi Ifargan welcomes them all warmly, with patience and great love. +\

“In 2008, Rabbi Ifargan, seeing the extreme distress of under privileged people in Israel's periphery, established Yad Yehudit. Yad Yehudit, (Hand of Yehudit), is a non-profit organization that creates a safety net for vulnerable families and individuals and gives them hope for a better future. Yad Yehudit, with the assistance of dedicated volunteers, provides comprehensive assistance to families in distress that includes: weekly food packages, holiday food baskets, small appliances, essential medications not covered by medical insurance, immediate assistance in cases of household emergencies, pediatric dental care and mentoring for at-risk youth.” +\

“Flying” Rabbis Fight Swine Flu

In 2009, a group of rabbis and Jewish mystics has taken to the skies over Israel, praying and blowing ceremonial horns in a plane to ward off swine flu. The BBC reported: “About 50 religious leaders circled over the country on Monday, chanting prayers and blowing horns, called shofars. The flight's aim was "to stop the pandemic so people will stop dying from it", Rabbi Yitzhak Batzri was quoted as saying in Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper. The flu is often called simply "H1N1" in Israel, as pigs are seen as unclean. Eating pork is banned under Jewish dietary laws. [Source: BBC, August 12, 2009]

According to Israel's health ministry, there have been more than 2,000 cases of swine flu in the country, with five fatalities so far. "We are certain that, thanks to the prayer, the danger is already behind us," added Mr Batzri was quoted as saying. Television footage showed rabbis in black hats rocking backwards and forwards as they read prayers from Kabbalah, a form of Jewish mysticism which counts the singer Madonna among its devotees.The shofar is the horn of a ram, and is used to mark major religious occasions in Judaism.

Rabbi Yitzhak Kaduri: the Right-Wing Mystic

Rabbi Yitzhak Kaduri

Rabbi Yitzhak Kaduri was a controversial Jewish mystic who began his career sending curses and finished it off deciding elections for right-wing Israeli politicians. Lawrence Joffe wrote in The Guardian, “Few people wait almost a century before joining the political fray, yet the Israeli rabbi and mystic Yitzhak Kaduri, who died at an estimated age of 106, did precisely that. In May 1996 he probably swung the crucial balance of 29,000 voters who ensured that the Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu was elected prime minister of Israel. He did so by distributing thousands of "magic" amulets to his devotees, who were then obliged to vote for Netanyahu in the prime ministerial poll and for the Orthodox Shas party in the simultaneous party elections. Kaduri also bolstered Netanyahu's platform of "restoring Jewish values" by publicly endorsing him before polling day. [Source: Lawrence Joffe, The Guardian, January 31, 2006 ~~]

“Small, bent and wizened, invariably draped in the white robes of an oriental Jewish kabbalist (or purveyor of Jewish mysticism), Kaduri was little known in political circles until May 1996. But images of his benignly smiling face, which dangled from the rear-view mirrors of taxis scuttling between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, indicated his popularity. ~~

Rabbi Kaduri was born around 1900 in Iraq and went to Jerusalem early in the 20th century. He lived in a poor neighbourhood, attended Porat Yosef yeshiva (or rabbinical seminary) and, around 1930, transferred to Beit El (House of God) yeshiva, a centre for studying the mystical tradition in Judaism. ~~

Kaduri had many enemies and critics. The liberal daily, Ha'aretz, sardonically named him Man of the Year in 1998. Former Sephardi chief rabbi Ovadiah Yosef questioned his credentials, highlighting the fact that Kaduri had never written a single religious article, let alone a book. Kaduri, in turn, criticised show-business and other celebrities who claimed to have taken up Judaism's mystical tradition. When Madonna made a midnight visit to the grave of a sage while visiting Israel in 2004, he asserted: "It is forbidden to teach Kabbalah to a non-Jew."

Rabbi Kaduri died in January 2006, An estimated 200,000 people filled the streets of Jerusalem for his funeral. In 2000, Kaduri spoke of a vision in which heaven blessed a little known Israeli presidential candidate, Moshe Katsav. As a result all 17 Shas MPs voted for Katsav, defeating the favourite, Shimon Peres.

Rabbi Kaduri, the Fortuneteller and Curse Sender

Rabbi Kaduri with Netanyahu

Lawrence Joffe wrote in The Guardian, By 1933 Kaduri had his own consulting rooms in the Old City, where he taught clients how to predict the future by divining secret texts hidden in the Psalms, or how to summon angels to help overcome personal problems. He refused money for these services, and worked as a bookbinder to keep body and soul together. The Jerusalem writer Haim Be'er recalled: "His appearance was striking; he radiated a great deal of human warmth. [Whenever he] passed by, people would whisper, 'There goes a truly righteous individual.'" [Source: Lawrence Joffe, The Guardian, January 31, 2006 ~~]

“If dispensing blessings was one of Kaduri's stocks-in-trade, so was sending curses. In 1991 he sought out the name of Saddam Hussein's mother, so that he could send efficacious pulsa denura - Aramaic for "lashings of fire" - against this enemy of the Jews. Kaduri was also implicated in the death curse on Yitzhak Rabin, which was eerily pronounced just a month before the Labour premier's assassination in November 1995. Although he was never proved to be a signatory, in the eyes of secular detractors guilt by association was good enough. ~~

“Conventionally Orthodox Jews, too, lampooned Kaduri's folk customs as foolish and alien to normative Judaism. They enjoyed pointing out that his supposedly divine amulets were marked "Made in Taiwan". To David Levy, Israel's Moroccan-born former foreign minister, the Kaduri roadshow was "surrealistic", an abuse of innocent faith which was "dragging us back to the dark ages [and] leading us towards an abyss, blindness and near civil war". Even fellow mystics, like "Baba Baruch" Abu-Hatzeira, criticised those who "have turned Rabbi Kaduri into a circus, just to make money". ~~

“Shas politicians exploited his reputation, while others literally cashed in on his name. Kaduri was once delivered by helicopter to bless a sausage factory in a development town. Aparatchiks then collected monetary pledges from townsfolk who believed they could purchase heaven's favour via this holy conduit.” ~~

Rabbi Kaduri’s Political Career

Lawrence Joffe wrote in The Guardian, Once Rabbi Kaduri “acquired a taste for politics, it seemed he could not stop. He was soon urging more building at Har Homa, a controversial development south of Jerusalem and something of a rightwing cause célèbre. He also initiated bold personal bids for peace with Israel's arch-enemies, Syria and Iran. At one point he suggested trading the Golan Heights for an accord with Damascus - to the chagrin of Likud and Labour alike - though he subsequently changed his mind and ruled out returning the territory. [Source: Lawrence Joffe, The Guardian, January 31, 2006 ~~]

Rabbi Kaduri's funeral

“Particularly embarrassing for Israel's secular right was the incident in October 1997 when Netanyahu whispered to Kaduri that leftwing Israelis had "forgotten what it means to be Jewish" and were willing to "place our security in Arab hands" - not realising that the television cameras were still rolling at the time. In fairness, Kaduri never asked to be Netanyahu's confidant. Many, in fact, saw the sage as a senile victim of mischievous cohorts - especially his grandson Yossi Kaduri. ~~

“So what transformed the humble saint into a political potentate? The answer partly lies in Israel's recent social changes. Sephardi Jews who came to Israel from the Middle East and north Africa felt ostracised by the secular, socialist establishment. Many expressed their defiance by backing the opposition Likud. Others took solace in traditional modes of worship, such as Kaduri's. ~~

“In March 1997, Kaduri intoned over Netanyahu i: "May the Almighty keep and protect the prime minister; may he live long, defeat all his enemies and win the next elections." Clearly in a generous mood, he got a party of Israeli Arabs to convey goodwill messages to the then Syrian president, Hafez al-Asad. In September 1997 he blessed Asad - albeit by letter - invited him to visit Jerusalem and called for "a historic reconciliation between our two peoples". Three months later, a similar Kaduri missive was dispatched to Iran's Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Apparently peeved by the treatment of his once-imprisoned protege and former Shas leader, Aryeh Deri, Kaduri's family conjured up a new party, Ahavat Yisrael (Love of Israel), but it returned no seats in the 2003 elections.”

Sages' Tombs Attract Miracle-Seekers

Reporting from Netivot, Israel, Tia Goldenberg of Associated Press wrote: “Morroccan-born Abuhatzeira was revered even in life as a mystic and performer of miracles. After he died in January 1984, he gained rock star-like fandom. 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. [Source: Tia Goldenberg, Associated Press, Feb. 21, 2012 **]

Grand Rabbis
“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 a year. Similarly, a tomb in a Jerusalem mosque is sacred to Jews, Muslims and Christians, yet each claims a different holy woman is buried there. **

“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." **

Israelis Flock to Sages' Tombs Seeking Miracles

Reporting from Netivot, Israel, Tia Goldenberg of Associated Press wrote: “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. [Source: Tia Goldenberg, Associated Press, Feb. 21, 2012 **]

tomb of Rabbi Abbaye and Rabbi Rava at Mt Yavnit

“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 hundreds. 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." 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.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons except last picture, Times of Israel

Text Sources: Internet Jewish History Sourcebook sourcebooks.fordham.edu; “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “ Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); “Old Testament Life and Literature” by Gerald A. Larue, New International Version (NIV) of The Bible, biblegateway.com; Wikipedia, National Geographic, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, Library of Congress, The New Yorker, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2024

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