For the week ending 21 September 2019 / 21 Elul 5779

Placing Stones on Graves

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Eytan M. Rodin from St. Louis, MO wrote:

Dear Rabbi,

What is the significance behind the fact that we put stones on graves that we visit? I've always done it, but have never understood what this represents. I know that rather than flowers we are supposed to give money to tzedaka (charity), which makes sense. It's the stones that puzzle me.

Cosette Sullivan from San Angelo, TX wrote:

Dear Rabbi,

Shalom. I've been asked why Jews place rocks on graves...I don't know! Will you please give me the answer?

Dear Eytan M. Rodin and Cosette Sullivan,

A very early reference to this custom is found in a commentary to the Shulchan Aruch, written by Rav Yehuda Ashkenazi (early 18th century) called the Be'er Heitev. He quotes the Maharash who explains that the custom of placing stones or tufts of grass on the grave is for the honor of the deceased person, by marking the fact that his grave has been visited.

Once, when I was touring the Mount of Olives cemetery, my Yerushalmi tourguide told me the following story, a story that purports to explain this custom:

Sometime during the Turkish occupation of Israel, on a Shabbat, an Arab was murdered in Jerusalem. Quickly, the rumor spread that he was killed by a Jew and an immediate expulsion order was declared. The Jews of Jerusalem had to pick themselves up and leave or be killed. A noted Kabbalist (mystic) came upon the scene of the crime, which was crowded with Arab onlookers. Even though it was Shabbat, the Kabbalist wrote one of G-d's names on a piece of paper and placed it upon the body of the dead man. The dead man rose and pointed to one of the Arabs standing in the crowd, who became violently afraid, and admitted that he had done the killing! The expulsion order was rescinded.

Shortly afterwards, the Kabbalist, who was an elderly man, approached the Chevra Kadisha (burial society) and asked that his own tombstone be pelted with stones after his death because he had written during Shabbat. He understood that due to the danger to life he had been permitted to desecrate the Shabbat, but he felt that some form of repentance was in order nevertheless. Stoning his grave would symbolize the stoning penalty meted out to Shabbat desecraters. At first the Chevra Kadisha refused because of the implied dishonor the stoning would represent to so righteous a Jew, but the Kabbalist persisted. Finally, they agreed to place stones on his grave, but only if they would institute the custom that all graves would have stones placed on them in the future. If stones were placed on everyone's grave, it would not be a dishonor to the Kabbalist. And from then on, stones were placed on the graves of all Jews buried in Jerusalem, and from Jerusalem the custom spread. And so it came to be that nowadays, Jews all over the world place stones on tombstones when visiting a grave.

This may not be the actual source of the custom, but it's an interesting story!

  • Sources: Rabbi Yehuda Ashkenazi, Be'er Heitev; Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 224:8

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