Jewish Graves: Stones of Remembrance

Jewish Graves: Stones of Remembrance

Have you ever wondered how the ancient Jewish tradition of placing pebbles or stones of remembrance at the place of burial when visiting a loved one came about? Is it a custom, a ritual, or maybe even a superstition?
Be it at an in-ground cemetery or a mausoleum, the time-honored practice is the same. Like many customs that evolve over generations, the reason for leaving a stone at a Jewish grave has many different narratives, some of which may be lost to time. This symbolic gesture is certainly a means for the visitor to indicate that they were there and that they remember their loved one. However, there is much more to the ancient ritual, and we are delving into it to shed light on its likely origins.

The History of Visitation Stones

There are many interpretations offered about the Jewish burial practice of leaving visitation stones, and all of them share many common elements. 

Ancient Jewish Burials

With Jews being a nomadic people often traveling through arid terrain, visitors to Jewish gravesites may have chosen to leave stones, which were more readily at hand than flowers and plants in rocky or desert regions. In ancient times long before caskets were in common use, the body was prepared, washed and wrapped in a burial shroud. For a male, it was common to wrap him in his tallis (prayer shawl). Due to this type of environment, most burials were in shallow graves that necessitated covering the deceased with dirt, then stones and rocks in order to complete the process and to prevent animals from preying on the body. In all likelihood, this was the precursor to the practice of placing stones at graves as a Jewish burial ritual.
Over time, mourners would return to the gravesite as a means of remembering the loved one. They would continue to place stones, ensuring the security of the site, and tidying it up by adding more stones if necessary. Eventually as carved monuments became the preferred memorial, commonly just a few stones or even a larger pile of stones indicated previous visits to honor the deceased.

A Warning to Kohanim

Another theory is that during the First Temple period (1200-586 BC), Jews began marking graves with piles of rocks as a way of warning passing Jewish priests known as “Kohanim” that they should stay back. The reason for this is that they would become ritually impure if they came within 4-feet of a corpse.

Souls, Demons & Golems

Depending upon interpretation, the Talmud suggests that after a person dies, his or her soul continues to dwell in their grave. Ancient Jews believed that placing the stone on a grave would keep the soul down in this world. Some people find comfort in this. Another interpretation leaning more toward superstition, suggests the opposite, that the stones can keep evil spirits, demons and golems from getting into the graves.

Twelve Stones & The Children of Israel

Some think that the origin of this practice could also correlate to the story in the Bible where God commands Joshua to create a memorial in Jordan comprising of 12 stones that would represent the children of Israel forever. Perhaps this symbolic stone representation may have been later associated with the practice of leaving pebbles and rocks on the headstones of the dead.

The Meaning of the Hebrew Word Tz'ror

The Hebrew word for “pebble” is tz’ror – and it happens that this Hebrew word also means “bond.” When we pray, we often ask that the deceased be “bound up in the bond of life.” By putting a stone on a gravesite, we not only indicate our visit to that grave, but that the deceased’s memory continues to live on through us. 

Leaving Stones of Remembrance at the Beth El Mausoleum

“Although in a Mausoleum we can’t leave stones on top of a loved one’s crypt front, people like to follow tradition by leaving stones of remembrance on the ground below.  To make it easier for visitors to the Beth El Mausoleum, we provide a collection of stones located at each of the entrances,” says Beth El Mausoleum director, Mike Sirowitz.

He continues, “Leaving stones of remembrance on a grave is an ancient Jewish tradition with several interpretations. The one I like most is that it represents putting down or removing the burden of mourning so that when one leaves the cemetery or in our case, the Mausoleum, one can go on with their life feeling a little lighter, stronger and happier for having visited their loved one.”

How to Choose a Stone of Remembrance

The stones can be as small as a pebble…as large as a golf ball…or even larger. Sometimes cemeteries provide them – but not always. It is best to be prepared and bring your stone or stones along for your visit. As to where to get them….anywhere you can find them from your garden to possibly somewhere significant to you or to the deceased. Commercially manufactured or personalized stones, as well as Jerusalem stones from Israel are also available for purchase.
No matter the stone you choose to leave at the site of your loved one’s final resting place, the fact that you have visited and keep their memory in your heart and mind is most meaningful. 

Here at the Beth EL Mausoleum and Temple Beth El of Boca Raton in addition to upholding this long-standing tradition, we offer many other ways to continue to honor your loved one’s memory. Contact Mike Sirowitz, our Mausoleum Director at 561-391-8901, to learn more about benches in the interior and exterior of the mausoleum, each with an inscription, Bronze vases, personalized with the person’s name and a memorial phrase and personalized leaves on our Tree of Remembrance at the Mausoleum. For leaves on the Tree of Life in the Temple’s grand hallway or Yahrzeit Plaques in the Merle E. Singer Sanctuary, contact the temple at 561-391-8900. 

Couple walking with Rabbi Greg Weisman from Temple Beth El Schaefer Family Campus to the Beth El Mausoleum

Plan Ahead

Planning ahead is the greatest gift you can give your loved ones.

Couple meeting with the Beth El Mausoleum Director

Immediate Need

A sudden passing can be overwhelming if plans have not been made in advance. There are many decisions and arrangements that must be made.

Bench in the Breezeways of the Beth El Mausoleum

Sacred Spaces

Gated, private and semi-private spaces are available in many locations at the Beth El Mausoleum.