Rocks on Jewish Graves

Why Do People Place Rocks -- Not Flowers -- on Jewish Graves?

Small stones, a Jewish tradition, are left on top of a headstone at Tyne Cot cemetery on March 26, 2014 near Passchendaele, Belgium.
Small stones, a Jewish tradition, are left on top of a headstone at Tyne Cot cemetery on March 26, 2014 near Passchendaele, Belgium. Peter Macdiarmid / Getty Images

If you’ve ever visited a cemetery and noticed rocks placed atop headstones, you might have been left puzzled. Why would someone visiting a gravesite leave hard, cold rocks instead of flowers abundant with life? 

Although flowers and vegetable life have played a major role in burial rites for many cultures since the dawn of man, flowers have never been a part of the traditional Jewish burial process.

 

Origins

Throughout the Talmud (Brachot 43a and Betzah 6a, for example) there are references to the use of small twigs or spices used in burial, but the consensus of the rabbis is that this is a tradition of pagan peoples — not the Israelite nation. 

In the Torah, altars are merely piles of stones, and yet these altars are incredibly important points of references in the history of the Jewish people and Israel. Flowers, according to Isaiah 40:6-7, are an excellent metaphor for life.

“All flesh is grass, and all its beauty like the flower of the field; grass withers and flowers fade.” 

Rocks, on the other hand, are forever; they do not die, and they serve as a striking metaphor for the permanence of memory. 

Ultimately, however, the origins for this tradition are incredibly obscure and many different meanings are offered.

Meanings

There are countless deeper meanings behind why rocks are placed on Jewish headstones.

In fact, many Jewish headstones have written in Hebrew an acronym ת.נ.צ.ב.ה.

  • For a man, the phrase in Hebrew is: תהא נשמתו צרורה בצרור החיים
  • For a woman, the phrase in Hebrew is: תהא נשמתה צרורה בצרור החיים

This translates as “May his/her soul be bound in life” (the transliteration is Te’he nishmato/nishmatah tzrurah b’tzror ha’chayim), with tzror being a package or bundle.

The words originate in I Samuel 25:29, when Abigail says to King David,

“But my lord’s soul shall be bound in the bond of life with the Lord your God.” 

The idea behind this concept is based on how Israelite shepherds would keep tabs on their flock. Because shepherds didn’t always have the same number of sheep to look after, each day they’d care a bundle or package and place a single pebble inside for each live sheep they were caring for that day. This allowed the shepherd to make sure he always had the accurate number of sheep in his flock, the bundle was a tzar ha’chayim. 

Furthermore, an obscure translation of “pebble” in Hebrew is actually a tzror even (צרור אבן), making the ties between the pebbles placed on headstones and the eternal nature of the soul even stronger. 

A more colorful (and superstitious) reason for placing stones on the graves of the deceased are that stones keep the soul buried. With roots in the Talmud, this thought arises from the belief that the soul of the deceased continues to dwell within the body while in the grave. Some even believe that some aspect of the deceased’s soul actually continues to dwell in the grave, also called the beit olam (permanent home, or home forever).

 

This theme of the deceased’s soul needing to be kept down plays a role in several Yiddish folktales, including the stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer, who wrote about souls that returned to the world of the living. The stones, then, played a vital role in keeping the souls in their place so they wouldn’t return to take part in any “haunting” or other nefarious activities. 

Other explanations suggest that placing a rock on a headstone honors the deceased because it shows others that the individual buried there is cared for and remembered, with each stone serving as a “someone was here” nod. This might inspire a passerby to investigate who is buried there, which could lead to new honors for the departed’s soul. 

Bonus Fact

In recent years, several companies have popped up offering customized stones or stones from Israel for placement on Jewish graves.

If this sounds like something that interests you, check them out online

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Gordon-Bennett, Chaviva. "Rocks on Jewish Graves." ThoughtCo, Feb. 29, 2016, thoughtco.com/rocks-on-jewish-graves-3956777. Gordon-Bennett, Chaviva. (2016, February 29). Rocks on Jewish Graves. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/rocks-on-jewish-graves-3956777 Gordon-Bennett, Chaviva. "Rocks on Jewish Graves." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/rocks-on-jewish-graves-3956777 (accessed November 18, 2017).