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Reading a Jewish Tombstone

In the years prior the the World Wars, it was common practice to engrave a great deal of information on many monuments; they were like open books depicting out past generations. Typical information found on Jewish tombstones were the deceased's birthplace, occupation, names of many relatives, his or her claim to fame - all were "carved in stone" for the ages. The causes of death sometimes was given, for example, "accidentally killed at work," "electrocuted", "died on board a ship near Brisbane, ", "drowned", "killed in a fall", "thrown from his horse." Additionally, if the deceased was the descendent of a great luminary or rabbi, that would also be placed on the tombstone. In the immediate aftermath of World War II, it was not uncommon for mention to be made of relatives who died in the Holocaust since they had no graves to call their own.

Such details have been of great value and interest to those seeking their roots, to historians and genealogists. Even in litigation, headstone inscriptions have proven useful. In many cemeteries, much of that detail has no longer been recorded by recent generations. Much is lost simply because it is not reorded.

Oddball Inscriptions
Considerable use is made of traditional groups of Hebrew initials and acronyms-words made up of a group of initials. Their purpose is to convey complimentary remarks and other relevant details. The book A Treasury of Hebrew Acronyms helps in understanding the inscriptions. Some of the most common encountered are:

  • If the letters pay, nun are not inscribed at the top of the monument, the words ani tza-akti ("I mourn/grieve/weep for�") may precede the name
  • The words haver sheli (my friend) may precede the name; they indicate that the deceased may have left no close family to mourn his or her passing and that the monument was erected by a friend
  • Is tam is a straightforward to uncomplicated man
  • Ish yasher rachamin is a reliable and merciful man
  • Koved ha-reb means an honored man.
  • Ish ne-eman v'yasher is a trustworthy and reliable man
  • Shin"koof indicates that the death occurred on "the Holy Sabbath." The apostrophes between the letters indicated that this is an abbreviation
  • B'yoker means dear
  • Ahavas Tzion is a lover of Zion.
  • Baal ha-tsedokah is a philanthropist.
  • The obligatory initials at the bottom of the Hebrew inscription, tov, nun, tsadik, beth, hay are the initials of the words signifying "May he/she be bound up in the bond of eternal life." (See Samuel I, ch. XXV, verse 29.)

The meaning of this last expression becomes obvious when one pictures a bundle of wheat tied into a sheaf. Each nefesh (soul) is one of the stalks, and we hope that the soul of the deceased is worthy of eternal existence. This refers only to the soul, for the other component of the human being, the material body, "returneth to the earth from whence it came, but the spirit returned unto G-d who gave it." Occassionally, a sheaf of wheat is embossed on a tombstone, apparently to illustrate this allegory.

In some Gentile cemeteries, we occassionally see Jewish and Christian symbols mixed on a tombstone. This may indicate a mixed marriage, either of the couple buried below the tombstone or of the parents of the deceased. In more recent tombstones, it may indicate that the deceased was an apostate Jew or simply that the decedent was a Christian with an affinity for Jewish symbology (more common in the United States than any other country).Such iconography is not acceptable in a Jewish cemetery, however.

Some common symbols on Jewish tombstones are are the Menorah, the Star of David, ceramic cameos with photos of the deceased (popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries), the hands of the Levite (common on the graves of Levites and Cohenim), the Eagle badge of the United States Armed Forces, and/or unit badges.

Determining a Year of Death
Close examination of some inscriptions helps to decipher puzzling elements. It is regarded as propitious if a person dies on a holy day, in which case the Hebrew may include, before the date of death, such words as "who was gathered to his Maker upon the festival of Pesach" or "on Rosh Chodesh" (the new moon.) This is regarded as an indication that the departed was a godly person.

Occasionally, one will encounter the phrase, "A son (i.e., a man or a person) of 53 years." This is a formal way of saying, "age 53."

Sometimes biblical passages relating to the deceased's name are included. Other, less common, inscriptions may include gematric (numerological) allusions to the year the person died or their age at their time of death.

The last item on that line is reproduced below. It is a logogram (symbol for frequent word) formed from the initial letters of the words l'perek katan; the letters lamed, pay, and koof can be discerned. It means "by the abbreviated count." Alternatively, it can mean lifrat kahn or "following local custom." The logogram tells us that the thousands digit has been left out. It seems to be that, long ago, the stonemasons decided that there was no point in including the letters hay yad, which indicate that the year was in the 5,000-6,000 millennium, as they would be in that millennium for a long time to come. So they dropped the 5,000 unit and added the logogram to indicate what had been done.

More Biblical Quotations
It is regarded as meritorious if a person's memorial bears an appropriate Biblical passage. Some examples are:

  • On the stone of a man who died at the age of 20 is a passage from Genesis 37:30: "and the young lad is not with us."
  • On the stone of a man who occupied the president's seat in the synagogue for some years, is a passage from Samuel I, 20:18: "� thou shalt be missed, because thy seat will be empty."
  • On a striking monument is engraved part of the beautiful verse, "A woman of worth who can find" from the Book of Proverbs.

Date of Death and Other Problems
If a person has died after sunset, the Hebrew and Civil dates may not line up exactly. For example, Nancy Gelbman died on 30 October 1980 but the Hebrew date on her tombstone is 21 Cheshvan 5741. If one looks it up, the 21st of Cheshvan 5741 corresponds to 31 Oct 1980. The reason for the difference is that she died after sundown on the 30 Oct 1980, however, since the Hebrew day begins and ends at sundown rather than midnight, the Hebrew calendar had already advance to the 21st of Cheshvan.

It is a Jewish tradition that a burial has not been entirely completed until the person's name is permanently inscribed above his or her last resting place. How soon after a burial may a monument be erected and when may it be consecrated is a question that is often asked. There isn't any definite ruling; the matter is governed by local minhag (custom.) In many communities in the United States, the tradition is that eleven months after the interment, a headstone may be erected. It is consecrated, as nearly as possible, on the anniversary of the death, but whatever suits the convenience of the mourners is acceptable. If you have questions regarding this, you such seek out the advice of an orthodox Rabbi.

A historian or genealogist has a problem when the date of death differs from the date of burial. This sometimes occurs when a non-Jewish spouse has interred the deceased in a non-Jewish cemetery, but the Jewish family has subsequently transferred the body. Transfer may occur for other reasons as well, such as a soldier returned to the United States after being buried abroad.

A difference between the dates may be due to the time of the death certificate, delay until relatives arrive from afar, the fact that burial cannot occur on Shabbat or during the High Holy Days, nor (in some jurisdictions) on Sundays. Of course, errors also occur in death certificates. Another problem arises when the funeral director, and/or stone mason is given a name or nickname that is not the same as the original given name. We occassionally see this among Holocaust survivors, the name on the tombstone being a non de guerre they after they escaped from a Nazi concentration camp or to evade capture or execution. As they are no longer in danger from the Gestapo, many chose to have their true name inscribed. Sometimes we see either the psuedonym or the true name in brackets.

It is Jewish custom, to place a pebble or small stone on a grave when one visits a cemetery. This is intended to convey a three-fold message. "You are not forgotten." "See-I have been here." "I have added to your monument."