Putting Stones on Jewish Graves

Although the custom of placing on a grave probably draws upon pagan customs, the stones also symbolize the permanence of memory.

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Reprinted with permission from Wrestling with the Angel: Jewish Insights on Death and Mourning, edited by Jack Riemer (published by Schocken Books).

The final scene in the movie Schindler’s List is puzzling. Survivors and their cinematic offspring file by the grave of Oskar Schindler. With solemn ceremony, they place stones on the grave. Why should they leave stones rather than flowers? From where does this strange custom come?

The practice of burying the dead with flowers is almost as old as humanity. Even in prehistoric caves some burial sites have been found with evidence that flowers were used in interment. But Jew­ish authorities have often objected to bringing flowers to the grave. There are scattered talmudic mentions of spices and twigs used in burial (Berakhot 43a, Betzah 6a). Yet the prevailing view was that bringing flowers smacks of a pagan custom.

That is why today one rarely sees flowers on the graves in tra­ditional Jewish cemeteries. Instead there are stones, small and large, piled without pattern on the grave, as though a community were being haphazardly built. Walking in the military cemetery of Jerusalem, for example, one can see heaps of stones on the graves of fallen soldiers, like small fortresses.

For most of us, stones conjure a harsh image. It does not seem the appropriate memorial for one who has died. But stones have a special character in Judaism. In the Bible, an altar is no more than a pile of stones, but it is on an altar that one offers to God. The stone upon which Abraham takes his son to be sacrificed is called even hashityah, the foundation stone of the world. The most sacred shrine in Judaism, after all, is a pile of stones–the wall of the Second Temple.

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David Wolpe is the rabbi of Temple Sinai in Los Angeles and the author of several books on Jewish belief.

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