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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All the explanations have one thing in common--the sense of solidity that stones give. Flowers are a good metaphor for life. Life withers; it fades like a flower. As Isaiah says, "All flesh is grass, and all its beauty like the flower of the field; grass withers and flowers fade" (Isaiah 40:6-7). For that reason, flowers are an apt symbol of passing.

But the memory is supposed to be lasting. While flowers may be a good metaphor for the brevity of life, stones seem better suited to the permanence of memory. Stones do not die.

A beautiful answer takes it cue from the inscription on many gravestones. The Hebrew abbreviation taf, nun, tsadi, bet, hey stands for "teheye nishmato tsrurah b'tsror ha- chayyim," a phrase usually trans­lated "May his soul be bound up in the bonds of eternal life."

Yet tsror in Hebrew means a pebble. In ancient times, shepherds needed a system to keep track of their flocks. On some days, they would go out to pasture with a flock of 30; on others, a flock of 10. Memory was an unreliable way of keeping tabs on the number of the flock. As a result, the shepherd would carry a sling over his shoulder, and in it he would keep the number of pebbles that cor­responded to the number in his flock. That way he could at all times have an accurate daily count.

When we place stones on the grave and inscribe the motto above on the stone, we are asking God to keep the departed's soul in His sling. Among all the souls whom God has to watch over, we wish to add the name--the "pebble"--of the soul of our departed.

There is something suiting the antiquity and solidity of Judaism in the symbol of a stone. In moments when we are faced with the fragility of life, Judaism reminds us that there is permanence amidst the pain. While other things fade, stones and souls endure.

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Rabbi David Wolpe

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