Since Biblical times, Jews have traditionally
been required to mark burial sites. This was due both to the need to
honor the dead, as well as to mark the place so that others would not be
defiled by accidental contact with the dead.
The first grave markers were roadside burial mounds, at which each
passerby was required to place a stone. Today's tradition of placing
small stones on graves comes from this early custom.
With time, three types of sepulchral architecture developed: the
ohel, or "tent", which was a small wooden or masonry building, inside
which one or more graves were located; the sarcophagus, semi-spherical,
or similar to a peaked-roof in shape. The most common form of Jewish
gravestones, however, is the matseva: a flat stone slab erected at
perpendicularly to the ground, which may be rectangular or with a
rounded or triangular top.
The space at the end of these gravestones is usually very richly
ornamented with reliefs, which describe the traits of the deceased
person through symbols, and sometimes his or her name or profession.
Because of the strict Biblical ban on portraying human figures,
Jewish art developed a system of metaphorical signs that allow us to
understand the allusions contained in the ornaments, including the
reliefs on gravestones. The most frequently used symbols are those
referring to the deceased person's religiosity and to his place in the
Such themes include:
- Hands depicted in the gesture of a priest's blessing. These are
found on the gravestones of people from the priestly family (koheins),
who at the time of the Temple were offering sacrifices there. After the
fall of the Temple, this symbol was carved on the gravestones of those
carrying the name that originates with this function, e.g., Kohen,
Kagan, Cohen, Kaganowicz and Kon.
- A hand with a jug, or a jug and a bowl. This symbol signified the
grave of one generation of Levites, who were responsible for washing the
hands of the priests.
- A hand throwing money into a collection tin, or a collection box
with a coin being inserted are motifs on the grave of philanthropists
who helped both the Community and the poor, generously distributing
- A hand with a pen may symbolize a sofer�a writer engaged in the
copying of Torah scrolls, preparation of mezuzot, tefillin or ketubot
- Instruments for circumcision are seen on the gravestones of
mohelim (circumcisers) who conduct the ritual of Brit Milah, introducing
the child into the Jewish community.
- An open cabinet filled with books is the symbol of a rabbi, a learned man or author of religious tracts.
- A frequent ornament on gravestones is a crown, which has many
meanings. Since it can also signify the Torah, it can be found on graves
of pious wise men or rabbis. It can also be the Crown of Good Name,
which would attest to the exceptionally noble character of the deceased.
It can also be an allusion to the father of a family-to the head
(crown) of a household.
- Bunch of grapes, grape vine: like the Star of David (Magen David),
this is a symbol of Israel, but also of wealth (including spiritual
wealth) of the person buried there.
- Candles most often are seen on women's graves, since their
religious duties include lighting and blessing the Sabbath evening
candles. Broken candles or torches tipped downwards are a symbol of
death, of the light of life being extinguished.
Symbols of death may also be a sinking ship, broken tree or cracked column.
Animals are frequently seen as an element in
funerary motifs. They have many meanings, since they can be related to
the Biblical symbols of the tribes of Israel, and can also refer to the
name of the deceased. Most frequent are:
- lion (Leyb, Arie, Yehuda and Leon)
- bear (Hebrew, Dov, Yiddish, Ber, Bernard)
- bird (Hebrew, Zipporah, Yiddish, Feiga)
- sheep (Rachela)
Along with these real animals also there appear mythical or
legendary ones, or those whose significance is tied to Kabbalah
mysticism and esoterics.
These include the image of Leviathan, the sea monster whose meat
will be eaten by the Righteous after the coming of the Messiah. He is
most often depicted as a snake twisted into a loop, swallowing his own
tail. According to Jewish tradition, it symbolizes eternity and the
immortality of the human soul.
Winged griffons and eagles are connected with God's power, and are
often depicted in a heraldic position, leaning on open books, crowns,
Torah scrolls or tablets with inscriptions.
Birds, in addition to the meaning given above, symbolize the soul flying up to heaven; a butterfly can also represent this.
Lions and lambs lying next to each other allude to a passage from
Isaiah about the heavenly peace that will follow the coming of the
Because the traditional ornamental symbolism developed on the basis
of the same sources, the Bible and Talmud, similar elements occur in all
countries that have been home to the Jewish Diaspora. The same
ornaments, though they are depicted in various ways, in keeping with the
local styles where they were created, have the same meanings and may be
interpreted in a similar way.