Why Do Jewish People Leave Stones at Grave Sites?

Posted on:

(Photo courtesy of Ramstein Air Force Base)

If you’ve ever been to a Jewish cemetery or grave site, you may have seen stones of all sizes piled on the grave, creating haphazard piles.

Or, if you’ve ever seen “Schindler’s List,” you surely remember the final scene where lines of mourners file past Oskar Schindler’s grave, each person leaving a stone behind.

Why do Jewish people leave stones behind at grave sites instead of flowers or other remembrances?

The Roots of Stones in Judaism

Stones have long been a part of Jewish worship and custom, with many important references to stones or rocks in the Bible.

Biblical altars, for example, are just piles of stones, but they serve the important purpose of being the place where the faithful go to offer their sacrifice to God. It was, after all, an altar of stone on which Abraham was prepared to sacrifice his son, Isaac, to God.

And the most sacred shrine in all of Judaism, the Western Wall, is made of stone.

Why Not Flowers?

The practice of putting flowers or other plants on the graves of the deceased is ancient.

Jewish leaders, however, have long resisted the bringing of flowers and herbs to graves, as the tradition is considered a pagan custom. Evidence in prehistoric caves of burials with flowers, along with various mentions throughout historical and religious literature to burial with flowers backs up this belief.

To separate the Jewish people from this pagan tradition, the bringing of flowers to Jewish graves has been discouraged.

Why Stones?

There are a variety of potential explanations for why the Jewish custom evolved to leaving stones at grave sites instead of another item.

For the superstitious, stones are believed to anchor the soul to their place.

In the Talmud, there is a belief that souls continue to occupy the graves for a while after burial. This belief has persisted throughout Jewish stories and lore, and some believe that souls – even of people who were good in death – “rise up” from their graves come back to the world and haunt the living.

The stones, then, are to create a barrier or a weight to hold the soul in its place in the grave, preventing its ability to return to the realm of the living.

Another potential explanation is that, in ancient times, shepherds carried slings with pebbles in them when they took their flocks out. Each stone represented one of their sheep, so they always had a way to keep count of how many they had each day.

The Hebrew abbreviations on many headstones – taf, nun, tsadi, bet, hey – translates to “May his soul be bound up in the bonds of eternal life.”

By placing this inscription on the headstone and leaving small stones at the grave site, it is the living’s way of showing they hope that their deceased loved one will become one of the stones in God’s sling and be counted among the blessed.

Custom Headstones for Lasting Memories

For more than 85 years, the family at Merkle Monuments has provided exceptional-quality headstones, memorial markers, and other remembrances to cemeteries across Maryland. Whether you’re looking for a fairly traditional granite headstone or want something unique in bronze or another material, we have the experience and skill to craft something that will capture your remembrances of your loved one. Contact us today to discuss your project.