Ask The Rabbi

Placing Stones on Graves

The Color of HeavenArtscroll
Topic: Graves, Stones

Professor David Orzech of San Francisco University asks:

Can somebody explain where the tradition of placing little stones on graves started? (Schindler's List has that towards the end of the Movie.) Thanks.


A very early reference to this custom is found in a commentary to the Shulchan Aruch, written by Rav Yehuda Ashkenazi (early 1700's) called the B'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 had been visited.

I was once told a story (possibly apocryphal, although I am told that the story exists in print) by a Yerushalmi gentleman who was taking me on a tour of the cemetery on the Mount of Olives, which purports to explain this custom.

Sometime during the Turkish occupation of Israel on a Shabbat, an Arab was murdered in Jerusalem. Quickly the word went out 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 they all would be killed. A noted Kabbalist came upon the seen of the crime, which by then was crowded with Arab onlookers. Because of the danger to the lives of so many Jews, the Kabbalist decided that he was permitted to desecrate the Shabbat. He proceeded to write one of the names of G-d 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 The expulsion order was rescinded.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 Kaddisha (the burial society) and asked that his tombstone be pelted with stones after his death, He understood that because of the danger to life he was permitted to desecrate the Shabbat, but still felt that some Teshuva (repentance) was in order. The stoning of his grave would be symbolic of the stoning penalty meted out to desecraters of the Shabbat. At first the Chevra Kaddisha refused because of the implied dishonor the stoning would represent to so righteous a Jew, but the Kabbalist persisted. Finally, it was agreed that they would 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 everyone's graves had stones placed on them it would not be a dishonor to the Kabbalist. When the Kabbalist died, stones were placed on his grave -- and from then on were placed on the graves of all Jews buried in Jerusalem. From Jerusalem the custom spread, and today Jews all over the world place stones on tombstones when visiting a grave.

It may not be the actual source of the custom but it's a nice story.

Sources:

  • Rabbi Yehuda Ashkenazi - The B'er Heitev
  • Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim, section 224, note 8
  • Yerushalmi Jew


 
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