Grave Markers in Jewish Tradition
The Hebrew word for a gravestone is “matzevah” meaning to guard or bear witness. Setting up a matzevah is a longstanding Jewish tradition. In the Bible, Jacob set a marker at the grave of his wife Rachel.
Tradition called for simple grave markers in contrast to the elaborate tombs of other nations. Long inscriptions were popular on some graves, especially those who had lived remarkable lives or died significant deaths.
A tombstone on the Mount of Olives’ ancient cemetery reads:
Here is buried the great, famous, holy Rabbi who sacrificed himself, his body and his soul and publicly sanctified the name of heaven and suffered immeasurable difficult, bitter afflictions, and troubles for the infamous libel…And he publicly sanctified God’s name in the year 5600 while he served as rabbi and teacher in the city of Damascus. May his memory protect us, the holy, honorable Yaakov Entebbe.
(Rabbi Entebbe was instrumental in saving Damascus’s Jewish population from an 1840 blood libel. He was detained by the authorities as a supposed confessor to the crime. Notable Jews around the world, including the Rothschild family and Sir Moses Montefiore, worked to clear the community from the accusations.)
In the same cemetery, other important Jews are remembered simply. Israel’s Prime Minister Menachem Begin’s marker reads: “Menachem Begin, son of Chasia and Zeev Dov 5672-5752.”
Engravings and Epitaphs
Before settling on a particular type of monument and engraving, contact the monument maker. He or she will want to know the name of the cemetery and the exact location of the plot. Cemeteries have guidelines regarding the style, size and shape of the markers.
Arranging for a monument can be an emotionally jarring experience. To keep things simple and clear, jot down the deceased’s full English name, birth date and date of death. If it is desired, include the full Hebrew name, his mother’s and father’s names. A rabbi can look up the Jewish date of birth and death for the inscription.
Inscriptions vary by custom and preference. The secular name, dates of birth and death are standard. Hebrew name inscriptions vary. The Ashkenzaic custom had been to add both parents’ names or just the father’s name on the stone. Some Sephardic Jews had the custom of only writing the deceased’s mother’s name on the marker.
Important relationships: mother, father, teacher, great-grandmother have found their way onto Jewish gravestones. Words like “Forever in our memory” and fond phrases like “beloved” appear frequently, as in the general culture.
Hebrew acronyms of the letters Pay and Nun stand for poh nikvar, or poh nitman - literally “here is buried,” the Jewish version of “here lies.” The longer acronym Taf, Nun,Tzadi, Vet, Hey expresses t’bey nishmato tzerurah bitzror ha-hayyim, “May his/her soul be bound up in bonds of eternal life.”
Six-pointed Stars of David are common features on Jewish stones. Hands spread in blessing signaled the presence of a Kohen, a member of the ancient priestly class. A pitcher, symbolizing the water a Levite would pour over the hands of the Kohen, was often chosen to mark a Levite’s grave.
American custom puts the unveiling date at least 30 days after the burial and usually closer to the first anniversary of the death, the yahrzeit. Sephardim customarily marked the grave much sooner. In Israel the unveiling generally coincides with the end of the 30-day period of mourning, the shloshim.
Dedicating the grave marker requires no formal service. There is no set time for the unveiling. Though a short service is standard, the set words don’t have to be said. The cemetery will often supply the unveiling cloth. If not a simple piece of fabric or even a handkerchief can be used. (An unveiling doesn’t necessary have to include a formal removal of a cloth.)
Most of the time a smaller group of people attend the unveiling than the funeral, usually just close relatives and friends. Kaddish may be recited at the gravesite with or without a minyan.