| Magazine Feature |

Stones That Speak

Gravestone markings are also a testimony to the enduring values that have continued to keep us alive

“Who will live and who will die?”

During the Days of Awe, this question draws a shudder as we stand in shul and recite Unesaneh Tokef.

If we stand in a beis hachayim and gaze across the field of headstones, we reflect that for those buried here, that searing question has been answered.

Yet a closer examination of individual matzeivos answers other questions posed in this powerful prayer: Who will live to old age, and who will die young? Who will enjoy tranquility, and who will suffer? Who will be impoverished, and who will become rich? It’s all recorded — in the epitaphs carved into these stones, found in cemeteries around the world in the many places Jews have temporarily called home.

That is, when we can read them.

Many gravestones have disappeared over the years. Others still stand, but their inscriptions have been worn down by the snows and sandstorms of time. For professional historians, deciphering these sometimes cryptic and often incomplete messages from the past is part of a day’s work. For the amateur genealogist, restoring the memory of our long-gone ancestors for future generations is a labor of love that is its own reward.

Inscribed and Sealed

We don’t know details about the matzeivah Yaakov Avinu set up to mark the grave of his beloved wife Rachel. But we do know this is the first mention of marking an individual grave in the Torah. The Gemara gives a few reasons why this has since become a universal custom in the Jewish world. First, a gravestone alerts Kohanim that the resting place of a deceased person is nearby. A gravestone is also a way to honor and prolong the memory of those who have passed away.

During the time of the Second Beis Hamikdash, wealthy people began to be buried in sarcophagi (stone coffins) or ossuaries (chests where bones were reburied 12 months after the initial burial). Both were usually inscribed with the name of the deceased and engraved with floral or architectural designs, such as a vine or pillar. Sometimes the family or social status of the person was mentioned, such as “Dostos our father. Do not open,” found on an ossuary located on Har Hazeisim, or “Bones of the family of Nicanor the Alexandrian who made the gates [of the second Beis Hamikdash],” also found on Har Hazeisim and now part of the collection of the British Museum.

Of course, the more important or the wealthier the family was, the more elaborate the epitaphs and inscriptions. This prompted Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel to comment, “One does not build such in memory of the righteous, for their words are their memorial.”

Who Will Rest, Who Will Wander

Although Jews were living outside of Eretz Yisrael even before the destruction of the second Beis Hamikdash, after the Roman conquest the Diaspora expanded even more. One of the ways historians can chart the course of our nation’s travels is through the epitaphs found on gravestones. For instance, even when there is no mention of a Jewish community in a country’s historical record, ancient Jewish gravestones from the 3rd and 4th centuries CE tell us that Jews had already settled in far-flung lands such as Morocco, Germany, the Crimea, and Spain.

An example from Spain is a gravestone from the 3rd century belonging to a Jewish girl named Annia Salomonula (the little one of Solomon). The epitaph is written in Latin, which, along with Greek, was the lingua franca of the Roman Empire. It tells us the girl passed away at the age of just one year, four months, and one day. The epitaph ends with the word Judaea, proudly informing us of her Jewish heritage.

The many Jewish epitaphs written in Greek or Latin may imply that Jews were beginning to take on the trappings of their new homes. Some epitaphs even refer to pagan deities. Yet many others show that Jews clung to the Torah and memories of the Land of Israel. The epitaph of Annia Salomonula is one example. Other epitaphs include a few words written in Hebrew at the end of the text, such as the phrase “shalom al Yisrael.”

The names of the deceased provide further insight. Giving a child a Latin or Greek name that had a connection to Shabbos or a Jewish holiday — such as Sabbataios (Shabbos), Paschasios (Pesach), or Noumenios (Rosh Chodesh) — was one way a new generation born in exile could preserve Jewish identity. Certain decorative elements engraved on headstones also show a family’s loyalty to their heritage: Seven-branched menorahs, shofars, and oil lamps are some of the symbols that were popular during this time.

Epitaphs from this period sometimes included a deceased person’s profession. The fact that they run the gamut from rag-picker to financier and donkey driver to president of the city council — along with more typical “middle class” occupations, such as baker, butcher, moneylender, silversmith, and doctor — shows that most professions were open to Jews.

Still, synagogue-related positions were more common. If someone had been a teacher of Torah, a scribe, or a synagogue’s patron, this was proudly included in the epitaph. But not everyone could be a scholar or a patron. People showed the centrality of Torah in their lives by including in epitaphs such descriptions as “loving the Torah” and “loving the commandments.” “Loving the poor” and “loving the community” attested to a person’s love of chesed.

Who in Harmony, Who in Agitation

By the Middle Ages, the gravestones of Sephardim and Ashkenazim began to show noticeable differences. In the Sephardic world, gravestones were flat and often covered the entire grave, leaving space for an epitaph large enough to accommodate intricately composed acrostic poems spelling out the person’s name, and prayers for the deceased.

Jewish communities in Europe, who suffered greater persecution and instability during this era, were forced to make do with simple rectangular, vertical markers. A gravestone usually just recorded the person’s name, date of death, and family relationship — without visual embellishments of any kind. The Middle Ages also saw a return to the use of Hebrew for the epitaph.

In some places it was customary to tell a little more about the person. In the medieval cemeteries in Worms and Wurzburg, rabbinic and communal titles appear, such as rabbeinu and parnas. Midwives and prayer leaders for women (mispalelles hanashim) also had their titles engraved.

Occasionally, an adjective or phrase reveals more about the mitzvos and values the person held dear. We learn that Yitzchak ben Eleazar from Worms (d. 1242) was “a true and honest man in his deeds and thought. He walked in the path of G-d with love. He worshipped G-d with a heart full of adoration, held the hand of the poor, went to synagogue morning and night with a full soul.” A woman named Rivka (d. 1143) is described as “pious and quick to observe commandments, to welcome guests, and to do good deeds.”

The European Renaissance, which saw growth in trade and a blossoming of the arts and lasted roughly from the 14th to the 17th century, influenced Jewish gravestones as well, especially wherever local communities enjoyed prosperity and stability. As stonemasons became more skilled, they were able to produce a wider variety of ornamental and symbolic images, as well as a higher quality of Hebrew lettering, usually written in a square script.

In Prague we see for the first time the Magen David used to indicate a person’s Jewishness, a symbol that remained unique to Prague gravestones for many years. However, matzeivos made from stone were usually reserved for the wealthy, while poorer folk had to make do with wooden ones that most likely had epitaphs painted on. Because very few of those have survived, we don’t know much about them.

By the 1600s, the Ashkenazi gravestone had developed into a three-tiered model, whose use continued into the 1900s. On top was a pediment filled with carved symbolic imagery. The framed middle section held the epitaph, and the gravestone’s base was at the bottom. During the period between the two world wars, modern technology caught up with this ancient craft, resulting in gravestones that were prefabricated and less elaborate, a trend that continues until this day.

Galicia’s Bolekhiv cemetery. A prayer that the blood of the righteous rabbi be avenged

Who By Sword, Who By Plague

While most epitaphs briefly sum up the normal lives of beloved parents or elderly communal leaders, others tell tales of suffering that still move us, despite the centuries that have passed. Here is the epitaph of a Jewish woman who lived in Egypt during the 2nd century BCE:

This is the tomb of Horaia. Wayfarer, shed a tear. The daughter of Nikolaos, who was unfortunate in all things in her thirty years. Three of us are here: husband, daughter, and I, whom they struck down with grief. My husband died on the third, then on the fifth my daughter Eirene, to whom marriage was not granted. I, then, with no place or joy, was laid here after them under the earth on the 7th of Choiak. But stranger, you have already all there is to know from us to tell all men of the swiftness of death.

Choiak is a month in the Egyptian calendar roughly corresponding to Kislev. We don’t know what tragedy claimed this entire small family within a week — most likely a devastating illness sweeping through their city — but sometimes epitaphs give historical testimony.

On a mid-18th-century gravestone found in Galicia’s Bolekhiv Cemetery we can still read these chilling words:

Avenge blood spilled as flowing waters. Here rest the righteous; woe to those who remain. The saintly and learned one, our rabbi and teacher Dov Ber, son of… our teacher Aryeh Leib.

A memoir written by a contemporary of Rabbi Dov Ber, a wine merchant named Dov Ber Birkenthal, describes the terrifying attack on Bolekhiv’s Jewish community that led to the rabbi’s murder. It occurred during a time when the Kingdom of Poland was disintegrating and bands of Ukrainian rebels, the Haydamaks, were roaming the countryside, spreading fear and havoc wherever they went.

On the 13th of Tammuz, 1759, a group of these bandits arrived in Bolekhiv. While they were trying to break into a Jew’s house, the owner, Nachman, fired his gun at them and wounded their leader. This only infuriated them more, and they vented their rage on Rabbi Dov Ber, whom they had taken captive. They murdered Rabbi Dov Ber and two Jewish women. The rest of the community managed to flee across the river, where they waited until the bandits finished looting their homes and left. According to Birkenthal, Rabbi Dov Ber was only 36 at the time, and “since his death, there has been none like him.”

Who Will Be Poor, Who will be Rich

Such testimonies have led communities to undertake projects to document the gravestones in their cemeteries. An effort similar to the one in Bolekhiv is underway in England.

Jewish history in England can be divided into two distinct eras. It’s thought that Jews first arrived at the invitation of William the Conqueror, who invaded from Normandy and took control of England in 1066. At first Jews flourished there. But over time England became less hospitable; the community suffered blood libels and pogroms, and became impoverished through a series of cruel laws. By the time the Jews were expelled in 1290, those who survived the crossing of the English Channel arrived in Europe as penniless refugees.

When Jews were allowed to come back to England in 1656, the first to arrive were mainly successful merchants from Amsterdam who had their roots in Spain and Portugal. The community prospered, and, as often happened, over time began to assimilate.

Fast-forward a few hundred years.

Imogen Rush, a non-Jewish British archivist and genealogist, had grown up hearing rumors that her family tree included Jewish ancestors. Online research turned speculation into fact. Eventually her search led her to the Velho Cemetery, located near London’s Mile End Road. Established in 1657, the Velho Cemetery of the Spanish and Portuguese Jewish Congregation of London, as it’s officially known, is the UK’s oldest surviving Jewish cemetery. It reached full capacity in the 1750s, and since then many of the flat tombstones have become nearly illegible.

That didn’t deter Rush. Working with members of the Spanish and Portuguese (S&P) Sephardi Community — an umbrella organization that oversees synagogues, a beit din, a kashrut organization, and several chesed organizations — Rush spent two years going through archival records and matching names with those on the gravestones. Adding to Rush’s challenge was the fact that many of the epitaphs were written in Portuguese, Spanish, or Hebrew.

But her persistence paid off. During one of her visits, she found the grave of her eighth great-grandmother: Sarah, wife of Avraham Paz Morano, who died in 1717.

Conversations with Barry Musikant, the S&P official responsible for disused cemeteries, led to a joint goal of creating a map showing where each of the approximately 1,500 souls is buried. According to Rush, she’s grateful to members of the genealogy community, who published their findings online and thereby helped her locate the graves of her family members. Helping others who have ancestors buried at the Velho Cemetery is her way of paying it forward.

Yet another restoration project has taken place at the Old Jewish Cemetery in Plymouth, England. Informally established in 1740, it was in use until the mid-1800s, primarily serving new immigrants from Amsterdam and their descendants. By 2016, the walled and gated cemetery had mostly been forgotten — until a neighbor lodged a complaint with Jerry Sibley, caretaker of the Plymouth Synagogue, the oldest extant Ashkenazi synagogue in the English-speaking world. The neighbor told Sibley the old cemetery’s overgrown trees were interfering with the area’s telephone lines and his phone calls.

Sibley went to look for the problem in a cemetery that dated from the 1850s — but it wasn’t the “old” one the neighbor was referring to. With the help of Google Maps, he finally found the location of another old Jewish cemetery in an area of Plymouth called Hoe. The Plymouth Synagogue’s treasurer gave him a box of old keys, one of which turned out to fit the lock of this old Jewish cemetery. Once inside, he realized the neighbor was right — the place was more like a wildlife park than a cemetery. With the help of friends, Sibley began to chop down trees and clear the undergrowth.

In the meantime, news about the “new-old” cemetery began to spark the interest of a few genealogists, who thought they might have ancestors buried there. Sibley had even bigger plans. Hoping the cemetery wouldn’t once again slip into oblivion, he joined forces with a local theatre company to produce an audio guide. While the goal is to eventually document the life of everyone buried there, the project started small, telling the story of just a few souls.

For instance, we learn that Isaiah Falk Valentine, the community’s shochet, was murdered at age 26 in 1811 by an unscrupulous innkeeper, who robbed him and threw his body into the dockyard. The innkeeper was tried and hanged.

Rachel Bellem, who was born in Plymouth in 1783 and died there 70 years later, had a quieter life. But from her story, we get a sense of how Jews lived during this period. Her husband Aaron was a lens grinder, a craft his family had been engaged in back in Amsterdam. They had seven children. One daughter was disabled. One son left the fold and married a non-Jew. One daughter remained single and helped her mother with her younger siblings. The other four children married and raised Torah families.

In other words, Rachel lived a full life, experiencing both joys and sorrows. Perhaps not too different from the stories many of us today would tell.

Life in a Tombstone Image

By the 18th century, it was increasingly common for gravestones to provide pictorial clues about the deceased, enabling us to learn something about their lives at a glance. While it was rare to have a sculpted image in human form, due to the back-to-back prohibitions against making graven images and worshipping idols, images with no connection to idol worship were often allowed. Below are some of the more common symbols:

KOHEIN: Two hands arranged for the Priestly Blessing.

LEVI: A hand pouring water from a pitcher into a basin, or just a pitcher.

RABBI AND/OR TORAH SCHOLAR: A Torah scroll, a bookshelf or ark filled with books, or a stack of books; sometimes also a crown, representing the crown of Torah.

RIGHTEOUS WOMAN: A candelabrum, representing the Shabbos or Yom Tov candles.

PHILANTHROPIST OR GABBAI: A hand dropping a coin into a tzedakah box, or just the box.

PARENT: A crown may be a symbol for a head of the family, or it can symbolize piety and love of Torah.

PERSON WHO DIED YOUNG: A felled tree (for a man), a broken candle (for a woman), or a lamb (for a young child).

PERSON’S NAME: Animals were often used as symbols for people’s names, such as lions (Yehuda, Leib, Leon, Loeb), bears (Dov Ber), deer (Tzvi or Hersh), fish (Ephraim or Fischel), wolves (Ze’ev), birds (Yonah or Feigel — or a bird can represent the soul, especially when paired with the Tree of Life).

PERSON’S PROFESSION: Common ones are pen and parchment (scribe), shears (tailor), a mortar and pestle (apothecary), a circumcision knife (a mohel).

One of the most interesting gravestones for a mohel is that of Rav Koppel Vitalzohn, who passed away in 1924, after serving as Warsaw’s chief mohel for more than 60 years. His gravestone, which is located in Warsaw’s Jewish cemetery, has a depiction of hands holding the mohel’s knife at the top, and at the bottom is a kisei shel Eliyahu. Until World War II, barren women would sit on the stone bench as a segulah for giving birth to healthy children.

OTHER COMMON SYMBOLS: An eagle represents Hashem, Who carries us on eagle’s wings. The Tree of Life can symbolize commitment to Torah throughout a person’s life. Mythical creatures, such as a griffin, symbolize the time of Mashiach. Fruit might symbolize spiritual or material wealth, while short-lived flowers might be a symbol of mortality.

NOT-SO-COMMON SYMBOLS: From the 11th to the 18th century, Jewish homes sometimes had a symbol above the door indicating who owned them. For instance, in Frankfurt-am-Main, the Schuh family had a shoe as their emblem, and a replica of this shoe is on the matzeivah of a member of this family. Family symbols found in the Worms cemetery include a wheel and a bellows.

ANUSIM IMAGES: Converso refugees from the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions may have found physical safety in the Netherlands, Eastern European countries, England, and elsewhere, but after so many years of leading dual lives, they often found it hard to let go of foreign influences. This can be seen especially in cemeteries in Amsterdam and the Americas, where Anusim gravestones sometimes have Biblical scenes that include depictions of humans, such as Akeidas Yitzchak, Yosef’s dreams, and Daniel in the lion’s den. Some also have depictions of cherubs and even the Hand of Hashem. In Muslim countries, where anthropomorphic images were forbidden by Islam, such images don’t appear. With time, the practice faded away elsewhere, as well.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 929)

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