Is this fraud, criminal behavior, or piety?


When I returned a week ago from a two month stay in Israel over the Jewish High Holidays, I found dozens of messages left on my telephone answering machine. Three of them made me wonder whether the callers were committing fraud, a criminal act, or being foolishly pious.

The High Holiday period is a time when we are encouraged to think how we can improve and, among much else, to remember our deceased parents. The callers took this practice as their opportunity to offer to recite a prayer for the soul of my deceased parents, prayers they said would “elevate” my dead parents in heaven, prayers that would have greater impact because they would recite the prayers at the ancient gravesite of the matriarch Rachel. They would only charge “a modest fee.”

Now being a rational person, I am convinced that once a person is dead that person, if it is true that the person is judged for his or her behavior while alive, is just that: judged for “his or her” behavior not mine, behavior that can’t be effected or changed by me or any other person, no matter where the prayer is said, how pious the rabbi is who recites the prayer, and no matter how much I pays for his recital.

I also do not think the mystical concept, invented in the sixteenth century, called in Hebrew ilui neshama, “elevating the soul,” makes no sense. This notion contends that a deceased’s descendant can not only change how their dead relative is treated after death, but even “raise” the deceased, as if the soul is ascending a ladder, each time the descendant gives charity and/or says a prayer. It supposes that there are different levels of existence after death and the dead need their descendants to help them reach to higher and higher levels.

This is outrageous. Suppose a deceased person has no descendants, is he or she doomed to exist in a lower level stage of death because of a failure to procreate!? Or suppose the deceased lived a long life and the descendant only lived a few years after the deceased’s death and couldn’t donate charity and pray for many years, is the deceased doomed to a “lower level”!? Furthermore, if the deceased committed evil acts, why should a descendant’s charity or prayers elevate the deceased to a height the deceased did not merit because of his or her behavior while being alive!? Additionally, if the deceased was a good person, what need is there for elevation!? And the basic question is: what is elevation!? Finally, why does a non-descendant, such as my callers, effect the existence of my dead parents, even if they are rabbis, as they said they were, and if they said a prayer at a significant grave site!?

Since it should be clear that rational people would consider my callers’ offers worthless because their prayers, no matter how passionately recited and no matter how much I pay for the act, will produce no result, is this fraud? Is it criminal because the callers are soliciting money and should have known that their offers will not work? Or should we be kind and say: “Everyone is entitled to their belief even though it may strike me or another person as nonsense” and, after all, they aren’t forcing me to accept their offer, and I can reject their request? On the other hand, aren’t there many people willing to pay the rabbi “just to be safe, for these are my parents” – and this is fraud after all?