Why do Jews leave stones on graves?

Why do Jews leave stones on graves?

Explanations range from the practical and mundane to the symbolic and psychological.

“And Jacob erected a monument on her grave; that is the tombstone of Rachel until this day” (Genesis 35:20: וַיַּצֵּב יַעֲקֹב מַצֵּבָה עַל קְבֻרָתָהּ הִוא מַצֶּבֶת קְבֻרַת רָחֵל עַד הַיּוֹם)

The Practical:

  1. Means: “Here lie the remains of a person worth remembering.”
  2. When the tradition started, grave monuments were mounds of stone. Visitors added stones to “the mound” to show we are never finished building the monument to the deceased.
  3. To tell the visitors who followed that others had been there.
  4. To mark it so relatives will find it
  5. To identify it so the kohanim will avoid it as required by Jewish law
  6. To protect the grave from wild animals and grave robbers
  7. Was a substitute for a tombstone in areas where tombstones tended to be desecrated

The Symbolic:

  1. Symbolically suggests the continuing presence of love and memory which are as strong and enduring as a rock.
  2. One name for God is “the Rock of Israel” – so the rock is a reminder of the presence of the Rock, whose love is stronger than death.
  3. It’s the symbol of an altar, which was no more than a pile of stones.
  4. The sacred shrine in Judaism is the pile of stones – the wall of the second Temple.
  5. The stone is the ultimate symbol of something that has no use. The stone teaches us that in the final reckoning the body is as important as a stone. It is adorned by stones. What is left of us is our good name, character and relationship with God.

The Superstitious:

  1. There is a belief, with roots in the Talmud, that souls continue to dwell for a while in graves where they are placed. The grave, called “beyt olam” (a permanent house) was thought to retain some aspect of the departed soul; means by which the living help the dead “stay put.” Even souls that are benign in life can take on a terror in death. The barrier on the grave prevents the kind of haunting that formed an important part of Eastern European lore.

Performing a Mitzvah:

  1. Each mourner coming and adding a stone is effectively taking part in the Mitzvah of MATZEYVAH (setting a stone memorial)
  2. An excommunicated person who died was worthy of stoning. The messenger of the bet din carried the stone and places it on the coffin in order to fulfill the mitzvah of stoning.

The Psychological:

  1. When I pick up the stone, it sends a message to me. I can still feel my loved one. I can still feel and be touched by him/her. I can still feel the impact that has been made on my life. Their life, love, teachings, values and morals still make an impression on me. When I put the stone down, it is a reminder to me that I can no longer take this person with me physically. I can only take hi/her with me in my heart and my mind and the actions I do because s/he taught me to do them. Their values, morals, ideals live on and continue to impress me. Just as the stone has made an impression on my hands, so too their life has made an impression on me that continues.

A Story:

I was once told a story (possibly apocryphal, although I am told that the story exists in print) by a gentleman from Jerusalem who was taking me on a tour of the cemetery on the Mount of Olives, which purports to explain this custom.

Sometime during the Turkish occupation of Israel on a Shabbat, an Arab was murdered in Jerusalem. Quickly the word went out that he was killed by a Jew, and an immediate expulsion order was declared. The Jews of Jerusalem had to pick themselves up and leave or they all would be killed. A noted Kabbalist came upon the scene of the crime, which by then was crowded with Arab onlookers. Because of the danger to the lives of so many Jews, the Kabbalist decided that he was permitted to desecrate the Shabbat. He proceeded to write one of the names of G=d on a piece of paper, and placed it upon the body of the dead man. The dead man rose and pointed to one of the Arabs standing in the crowd who became violently afraid and admitted that he had done the killing. The expulsion order was rescinded. Shortly afterwards the Kabbalist, who was an elderly man, approached the Chevra Kaddisha (the burial society) and asked that his tombstone by pelted with stones after his death. He understood that because of the danger to life he was permitted to desecrate the Sabbath, but still felt that some Teshuva (repentance) was in order. The stoning of his grave would be symbolic of the stoning penalty meted out to desecraters of the Shabbat. At first, the Chevra Kaddisha refused because of the implied dishonor the stoning would represent to so righteous a Jew, but the Kabbalist persisted. Finally, it was agreed that they would place stones on his grave, but only if they would institute the custom that all graves would have stones placed on them in the future. If everyone’s graves had stones placed on them it would not be a dishonor to the Kabbalist. When the Kabbalist died, stones were placed on his grave – and from then on were placed on the graves of all Jews buried in Jerusalem. From Jerusalem the custom spread, and today Jews all over the world place stones on tombstones when visiting a grave.

It may not be the actual source of the custom, but it’s a nice story.

Reproduced here with permission of Nancy Warren; originally composed Sept. 30 2005. Thanks to Ruth Minka for bringing this to my attention.

(Here is this text in a printable Word doc.)

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