The Significance and Origins of the Tradition
It’s a custom that many people have seen. In the closing moments of the Academy Award winning film Schindler’s List, some of those who survived the Holocaust because of Oskar Schindler file past his grave, leaving stones on the monument. The placement of stones on a grave or monument is an ancient tradition in the Jewish faith. In fact, in most Jewish cemeteries, you won’t see flowers, but it’s not uncommon to see lots of stones, large and small, placed without apparent pattern on most graves.
For those who are not of the Jewish faith, this tradition is very unfamiliar. But even for members of the Jewish faith, there may be questions about this custom. How did it start and what is the significance of the placement of stones.
The first thing to understand is that the placement of a stone at a grave or monument is not a commandment of any kind—it is simply a tradition or custom that has evolved. As with many traditions that originated thousands of years ago and have been carried into modern times, both the origins and the symbolism of the act are subject to different interpretations. Among the most widely accepted are:
- The stones evolved as a way to warn Jewish priests—When the Temple was in Jerusalem, a Jewish priest (known as a kohanim) was believed to be made ritually impure if he came within four feet of a corpse. As many graves were essentially unmarked, mourners developed the tradition of placing rocks at the grave to warn any priests who might pass by.
- The stone signifies that the deceased continues to live on in our memory—Jewish scholars point out that the Hebrew word for pebble is tz’ror, which can also be translated to mean “bond.” When people of the Jewish faith recite the El Maleh Rahamim prayer (the prayer for the departed), they pray “tz’ror haHayyim,” asking the decedent to be “bound up in the bonds of life.” The placement of the stone both signifies that the mourner has been to the gravesite to pay respects and that the deceased will continue to live on in the mourner’s memory.
- The stone keeps the decedent’s soul where it belongs—According to the Talmud, when a person is buried, his or her soul continues to stay in the grave for a while. There’s also a rich Jewish literary tradition with stories of souls that attempted to return to the living, often with undesirable consequences. Many believe that the stones weigh down the soul, helping it stay where it belongs. Closely tied to this belief is the idea that the stones also keep otherworldly beings, such as golems and demons, from entering the grave.
- The stones signify the permanence of the soul, as opposed to the impermanence of life—You don’t see flowers at a Jewish funeral and you don’t see flowers placed at a Jewish grave. Many believe that’s because flowers are symbolic of life—they are born, they blossom, they wither and die. Stones, however, exemplify the permanence of the soul, and of our memory of the departed.
- The stone symbolizes communication with the departed—Those who ascribe to this interpretation point to the tradition of leaving handwritten notes at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. When those seeking to leave a note could not find a cubby hole or space in the wall to place the note, they would leave it at the base of the wall, weighted down by a stone or pebble. The same tradition was followed at graves and monuments, but the tradition of leaving a note has died out, so that the placement of the pebble signifies the communication.
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