The Jewish tradition of marking the final resting place of a deceased loved one originates in the book of Genesis where Jacob erects a pillar on the grave of his wife, Rachel. From Biblical times onward, wherever Jewish communities have existed, Jews have continued this practice of placing a marker at the gravesite of the deceased.
There was a Jewish mystical belief that the soul hovers over the place where the body has been buried. By placing a stonemarker on the burial spot, the soul would be given a place to rest. In fact, Talmudic Rabbis called the gravestone a nefesh (meaning soul.) As Jewish communities shifted away from superstitions, the stone marker came to symbolize a way to show affection and respect to the memory and legacy of the deceased.
We have already explored Christian Colonial grave symbols. For this installment, we will be focusing on Jewish gravestone symbols from European and American history.
A Brief History of Jewish Gravestone Symbols
“Their grave is their eternal home, the dwelling-place for all generations…”
It is no secret that the Jewish people have experienced persecution, oppression, and even genocide in their long history. Though many historical Jewish graveyards have been destroyed or vandalized over the centuries, there are many that still exist today. It is estimated that there are several million Jewish gravestones in Eastern Europe, though many of these gravestones have been moved from their original locations and have suffered damage either from the aforementioned vandalism or environmental erosion (or from full on destruction by the Nazis). Today, in America, there are around 2000 Jewish cemeteries. The oldest surviving Jewish cemetery in America is Chatham Square, which was established in 1682.
Jewish burial practices are influenced by Jewish law (Halacha) that include preparing, burying and honouring the deceased. These practices are heavily influenced by the level of observance for that community, geographic location, time period, familial relationships, and even cost. Jewish people are largely buried in either Jewish cemeteries, or a Jewish section of a larger cemetery, as it is against Jewish law to be buried with Gentiles (people who are not Jewish). The deceased is often buried with their feet facing east, towards Jerusalem. According to some traditions, when the Messiah comes, all the Jewish people will be resurrected and will start walking towards Jerusalem. You gotta make sure they get off on the right foot! Unlike Christian graveyards that can be close to churches, a Jewish cemetery is not often found close to a synagogue since Kohanim (Jewish Priests) are prohibited from coming in close contact with dead people as it is believed it could make them spiritually unclean.
A matzevah (plural matzevot) is Hebrew for gravestone. In a Jewish cemetery, you may find both vertical and horizontal matzevot. These represent the two main cultural Jewish subgroups. One is Sephardic Jews, who originated in Spain, Portugal, North Africa, and the Middle East. The other is Ashkenazi Jews who originated in European countries including France, Germany, Hungary, Poland, and Russia. Horizontal rectangular matzevot come from the Sephardic tradition, and vertical slab matzevot come from the Ashkenazi tradition.
Development of Carvings Over Time and Place
Common engravings on Jewish gravestones include the basic information about the deceased (name, date, relationships) along with an epitaph and possibly a carved image. Not all contemporary Jewish gravestones are carved with images, though Jewish history and cultural development results in a vast and varied practice for gravestone symbols.
In the first century and second centuries CE, inscriptions and ornamental carvings were common on Jewish gravestones. After the fall of Rome, Jewish gravemarkers became more simplistic with maybe only a simple carved symbol. During the Middle Ages, iconography fell out of favour and was replaced with only the carving of Hebrew letters into stone. The Renaissance period witnessed the reintroduction of more ornate carved symbols, though the types of images and levels of intricacy still varied by location. By the 18th century, most Jewish gravestones included common symbols that could be understood by anyone in the community. This included religious symbols, and symbols representing the deceased’s work in life. A writer’s grave could have a parchment and goose-feather, whereas a tailor would have a pair of shears. As time progressed, and the cultures shifted, so did the carving details.
Today, Jewish gravestones tend to be more simplistic and modest. Many modern gravestones will only have Hebrew and English words with maybe a Star of David or a Menorah. There are a few theories on why modest gravestones are more popular. The first is connected to the darker history of prejudice, hatred, oppression and genocide. Jews were careful not to flaunt their successes or riches in public to avoid potentially dangerous conflict, and this was also true of their modest gravestones. Another is linked to the Jewish belief that the rich and the poor are united in death, and therefore gravestones should be similar for all classes of Jewish people. More Orthodox Jews also believe in living a modest life to honor the Messiah and make way for their return.
Unveiling a Jewish Gravestone
The erecting of the gravestone comes with its own rituals. A modern, mostly American, custom is the unveiling. An unveiling is exactly what it sounds like: a cloth is placed over the gravestone and is then ceremoniously removed. Some families have this ceremony after shiva, others choose to wait after the 30-day mourning period known as “shloshim”, or they wait until the one year anniversary of the death according to the Jewish calendar.
This ceremony is more intimate than the initial burial, and is only open to close friends and family. The grave marker is placed at the gravesite during the unveiling ceremony and there are a variety of specific rituals to honor the deceased. These include: readings from the book of Psalms, prayers, eulogies, and reciting the Kaddish. The unveiling reveals the name of the loved one carved in stone as a final reminder that they have passed. It is meant to help remind the bereaved of the finality of death and give a final act of honouring their memory.
Why do Jews Put Stones on Graves?
Have you ever seen pebbles or rocks on gravestones? It is a Jewish custom to leave pebbles as a way to show that someone has been there. It also is a way for visitors to participate in the mitzvah tradition of commemorating the burial and memorializing the deceased. A mitzvah is an act done out of religious duty as dictated by Jewish law. But why stones and not flowers? Flowers die, but stones do not decay and make for a powerful symbol of the legacy of the love for the deceased.
Rabbis and Scholars believe that this tradition can be traced back to when graves were marked with piles of stones. Others argue that the piles of rocks were a way of warning passing Kohanim that they should stay back to avoid becoming impure. The Hebrew word for pebble is ‘tz’ror’ that translates to bond. When Jews pray at a grave they ask that the deceased be “bound up in the bond of life” (tz-ror haHayyim.) Whatever the reason, a stone placed on a gravestone shows that the person is remembered and loved.
Common (and some not so common) Jewish Grave Symbols
Gravestone symbols are expressions of history, folklore, and religion. This is a brief list of some of the more common symbols that are linked to Jewish culture. For this list we have included contemporary iconography, as well as older symbols that are rarer in modern cemeteries.
Most Jewish epithets begin with the Hebrew abbreviation for “here lies”. The letters are Peh Nun (פנ) and sometimes appear with quotation mark in between each letter (פ”נ). A variation of this can be Peh Tet (פ”ט) which represents the phrase ‘Po Tamun’ which means ‘Here is Hidden’. There is often a closing epithet of “may his/her soul be bound in the bond of everlasting life.” This is a paraphrasing of Abigail’s words to King David in I Samuel 25:29, “But my lord’s soul shall be bound in the bundle of life with the Lord your God…”
Star of David
The Star of David is the most well known symbol in Judaism. It is a six-pointed star made by two equilateral triangles laid over top of one another. The Star of David is a more modern symbol that is commonly found in American cemeteries, and is usually on the graves of men. It is actually rare to find this symbol in older European Cemeteries. The meaning is fairly straight-foreward: the symbol shows that the deceased is Jewish.
Candelabra and Candlesticks
The Menorah, or seven-branched candelabra, is a Jewish symbol that represents the menorah that stood in the Temple in Jerusalem. The nine-candle version is used on Hanukkah each year by Jews worldwide. Though the symbol of the seven-branch candelabra was forbidden on memorials, this was sometimes ignored with some believing the symbol could ward off evil and prevent grave robbers.
Candles are also lit every Friday night by women on the eve of the Sabbath, which has created an association between candles and women. A gravestone with a candle often represents the grave of a woman. It is a symbol that endures today.
“Lift your hands toward the sanctuary and bless the Lord.”
The image of two hands with thumbs touching and fingers paired and split is known as the Kohanim hands. Kohanim are members of the Jewish priest tribe descended from Aaron, the brother of Moses. The Kohanim raise their hands in this gesture over their heads to bless the congregation. It is believed that the radiance of God (Shekhinah) will stream through their fingers. This is a very common symbol on gravestones that can still be found in modern cemeteries!
Fun fact: this gesture is similar to the greeting from the Vulcans in Star Trek! Leonard Nimoy is Jewish, and took inspiration from his heritage to create the now famous sci-fi gesture.
Ewer or Levite Pitcher
“The priests and Levites purified themselves; then they purified the people …”
The Levites are descendants of Levi who was one of Jacob’s twelve sons. They are required to assist in religious duties in the temple including cleaning the Kohanim’s hands with a pitcher (or ewer) of water. This symbol of a hand pouring water into a basin is often seen on the gravestones of a Levite.
Torah or Scroll
The Torah, or scroll, symbolizes learning, growth, and guidance from God. Placing this symbol on a gravestone can also show that the deceased studied the Torah in life. The word ‘Torah’ has two meanings: the first five books of Moses, or the entire body of Jewish scriptures.
The Luchot or Ten Commandments
The Luchot are the two tablets that Moses received at Mount Sinai carved with the 10 Commandments that are to teach the people how to live in accordance with God’s will. This symbol often appears with only the first 10 letters of the Hebrew Alphabet; one for each commandment.
A bookshelf, an ark (chest) full of books, or even a stack of books, is a common symbol and refers to scholarship. The person could have been a rabbi, a teacher, or a scientist. Sometimes the number of books can have a specific meaning. For example, if there are five books it can mean the people knew the Written Torah (the five books of Moses.) If there are six books it could mean they knew the Oral Torah (that has six volumes.)
The alms box is a symbol for a philanthropist or the temple official who collects donations for the temple (a gabbai). The act of charity (tzedakah) is an important aspect of Jewish life.
Ohel or Tent
Ohel is the Hebrew word for Tent. Gravestones shaped as a tent are used for Rabbis and come from Genesis 18:6 where Abraham is visited in a tent by angels.
The ram’s horn (shofar) is one of the earliest symbols found on Jewish gravestones. It is inspired by the biblical story of the sacrifice of a ram instead of Isaac. It is also a symbol of resurrection, and it is believed that Elijah will sound a great blast (tekiah gedolah) before the arrival of the Messiah.
The Tree of Life
“[Wisdom] is the tree of life.”
The Tree of Life is a symbol of the Torah and holds great significance in Judaism. It represents the path in life towards God and also represents the cosmos or a map of the universe. If the tree is cut down, it means the person died young.
A crown can symbolize piety, the law, or the head of a household. It is also a symbol that is often found on Christian gravestones as well.
The fourth son of Jacob was Judah, and it is believed that the Jewish people came from his tribe. The symbol for the tribe of Judah is the lion. The symbol is also sometimes used on the gravestones of Jewish people whose names mean Lion: Ari (Hebrew), Leib (Yiddish), Leon (French), or Loeb (German.)
Jewish law prohibits human imagery on gravestones, but bears can be used to represent humans as a workaround. The bears are often depicted standing upwards. The Hebrew name Dov translates to Bear.
Judengasse Family Symbols
From the 11th to 18th century symbols would adorn the doorways of homes in a town’s Judengasse (Jewish Neighbourhood, often gated from the rest of the city.) These symbols would be associated with the family that lived within and would be carved onto their deceased gravestones. People could identify what family the dead belonged to by matching the symbols on the graves to the household emblems. Symbols such as a horseshoes, wheel, or shoe are examples of family emblems of the time.
“Man then goes out to his work, to his labour until the evening.”
Symbols of a person’s trade would be carved onto their gravestone. Shears for a tailor, scales for a money changer, a plow for a farmer, and so on.
Jewish gravestones are a vibrant and rich resource for learning about those who have come before us. The traditions of gravestone carvings have been directly influenced by historic repression, location, and level of observance in the communities. There is still a lot we can learn from these gravestones, but travellers be weary! Jewish cemeteries can often be closed to the public, mainly to avoid vandalism, but also to adhere to Jewish laws.
You know all of us here at TalkDeath love a good Cemetery Scavenger Hunt! Just remember to respect the cemetery grounds and don’t touch the graves! Graveyard rubbings are bad! Photos are good! Rubbings can damage the gravemarker, especially if they are of a softer substance like sandstone. A safe way to explore is to go on YouTube to see some of the oldest cemeteries in Eastern Europe.
If you want to get more involved in gravestone conservation, then check out our article A Day In the Life of a Gravestone Conservator for more on how to protect, preserve and resurrect gravemarkers.