In Jewish culture, a gravestone is known as a matzeivah ("monument"). The practice of raising stone monuments over graves has deep roots in Judaism, going back to the Book of Genesis, in which the patriarch Jacob buries his wife Rachel and raises a tombstone over her grave (Genesis 35:19-20). Jewish tombstones come in many different styles, but there are some common features.
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Important religious principles underlie Jewish funerary customs. Orthodox Judaism requires that the deceased be promptly buried, not cremated, and that the location of the grave be clearly marked in order to avoid the ritual pollution which comes from contact with the dead. Judaism also has strong prohibitions against idolatry, and even actions which might be perceived as idolatry are to be avoided. Thus, with a few exceptions, the design of traditional Jewish tombstones has focused mainly on text rather than on decoration.
Form of Jewish Headstones
Throughout history, Jewish communities have tried to maintain their own cemeteries where possible. Although they influenced and were influenced by the customs of their non-Jewish neighbours, some continuity in the style of headstone exists. Headstones are usually simple, upright rectangular slabs. In many cases, the top of the slab is gently curved rather than perfectly rectangular. In some cases it may even be curved into an arch. In Central Europe, Jewish headstones sometimes come to a point. In American military cemeteries, Jewish veterans are commemorated by a simple white column surmounted by a Star of David.
Jewish memorials are meant to demonstrate respect for the deceased through their quiet, modest dignity. Elaborate decoration of headstones is rare, although some stones will have carved decoration such as mouldings, wreaths or columns. A Star of David is a common symbol. Traditionally, this was used for men, but it can now be found on the headstones of both sexes. Similarly, a candle menorah sometimes denotes a female burial. A carving of a pair of hands with the fingers separated into two groups of two means that the deceased was a Kohen, while the image of a pitcher means a Levite is buried beneath the stone.
Jewish tombstones almost always bear inscriptions, often in Hebrew, or in both Hebrew and the local language. These often begin with the Hebrew words "po nikbar" ("here lies"), then the name of the deceased and information about his or her family and dates of birth and death, using both the local and Jewish calendars. The inscription may be concluded with a prayer, often "may his/her soul be bound up in the bond of life," which comes from I Samuel 25:29. Longer inscriptions praising the deceased can be found, but they are usually frowned on.
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