Judika Illes remembers being at a bar mitzvah where the singer asked for the “blessings of the saints” on the bar mitzvah boy.
Two minutes later, “someone literally stopped the music and said, ‘You’re wrong; we don’t have saints in Judaism.'”
Not so fast, retorts Illes, a Bergen County resident whose book, “The Encyclopedia of Mystics, Saints & Sages” was published this month by HarperOne and includes several Jewish figures among its 500 entries.
“It’s very traditional to go to the shrines of holy people. They’re perceived as intercessors. It’s not necessarily that they’re doing the miracle for you, but they can cut to the front of the line and deliver prayers straight to Hashem. There’s also an old Jewish folk belief that the prayers of a saint will never be refused,” she says.
She acknowledges that Jews are more comfortable with the Hebrew word “tzaddik,” meaning “righteous one,” than “saint,” with its associations with Christianity and statues. No matter the term – Illes’ book lists half a dozen more saintly equivalents from Buddhist, Hindu, and Muslim traditions – “the belief that you can make contact and request assistance and that assistance will be delivered from beyond the grave is a fairly international belief,” she says.
“Those adamant about not having it are very adamant about not having that belief,” she says, noting that this debate is central to the Catholic-Protestant dispute and the divisions between the Shi’a and Sunni in Islam.
“One of the first thing the Taliban do is they shutter shrines. This is happening now in Somalia and Afghanistan,” she says.
The most ancient figure in her book, she says, is probably the matriarch Rachel – whose shrine, outside the west bank city of Bethlehem, has been a topic of heated, and sometimes violent, conflict with the Palestinian Authority.
“People risk their lives to get to a shrine to pray for their children, to pray for the health of their parents,” she says. “To deprive people of access, to make them have to wear a bulletproof vest, is a terrible thing. It’s not something that should just be discussed as a political thing.”
Appealing to saints “is fairly public among the North African community of Jews. There’s a very strong but quiet tradition of this in the Ashkenazi community that you see in the grave for [the late Chabad-Lubavitch leader Rabbi Menachem Mendel] Schneerson. It’s not just lighting bonfires on the holiday of Lag Ba’omer; people go to the grave of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai for an intercession.”
Her encyclopedia flags perhaps the most ironic target of Jewish devotion: Maimonides, who fought for rationalist interpretations of texts and against kabbalistic encroachments into Judaism.
“In life,” writes Illes, “Maimonides would have been appalled by the cult of saints and even more so to discover that he is considered one.”
The entry continues: “Some claim that he performs miracles. All the legends in which he is a magician may indicate that his attitude toward magic has changed in the after-life, or they may be an attempt at a final victory from his [anti-rationalist] opponents.”
Illes grew up with 14 years of Hebrew school in a variety of synagogues – Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform – but like most American Jews was not raised with prayers to tzaddikim. She first encountered devotion to saints among friends, back in the 1980s, and found the topic fascinating. She incorporated it into her own personal, “esoteric” Judaism.
“This is a real topic for me,” she says. “I have made contributions, when I have requested assistance from [the mishnaic sage] Rabbi Meir Ba’al Ha-nes [the miracle worker] and I feel I have received it.”
Illes’ career as a writer on spiritual matters began with her own struggles with fertility issues, a few decades and two children ago.
“The medical solutions offered then – back in the 1980s – were not very appealing. I knew there were all sorts of fertility stories in the Bible, and that there would be a solution, a spiritual solution, a magical solution,” she says.
Her research into fertility solutions grew into a 1,000-page manuscript which she sent out – and which was rejected. One publisher, however, liked her chapter on magic spells to provide fertility, and asked her to expand it into a general book on spell-casting.
This led to her best-selling title, “The Encyclopedia of 5000 Spells: The Ultimate Reference Book for the Magical Arts,” published in 2004.
The new encyclopedia of saints emphasizes the practical aspect, as well as the historical. It is subtitled “A Guide to Asking for Protection, Wealth, Happiness, and Everything Else!”
To research it, she read travel books and academic treatises. And, every time she took a taxi, she would ask the driver: “Who’s protecting your cab?”
“They would pull over and stop the meter and pull out a talisman that their grandmother gave them,” she says.
“I’m blessed to be writing about something that’s interesting and fun,” she says.
“There are a lot of tragic stories about the saints, about how intolerant people are to other people, how people won’t leave people alone to worship as they please,” she says, noting that many of the saints she chronicles were martyred for their beliefs. “But there’s joy in it as well. Even if you think this is nonsense, these are great stories. These are very interesting, very inspiring, very thought-provoking people.”