Placing a Stone

Within the Jewish faith, it is customary to leave a small stone on the grave. The visitor positions the stone on the grave using his or her left hand. Placing a stone on the grave serves as a sign to others that someone has visited the grave. It also enables visitors to partake in the mitzvah tradition of commemorating the burial and the deceased. Stones are fitting symbols of the lasting presence of the deceased’s life and memory.

There are many different stories cited as the historical origin of this tradition. It may trace back to the Biblical times when graves were simply marked with small stone mounds. Since gravestones were not utilized during this period, the mounds helped mark the location of the grave. In essence, the act of placing small stones on graves served as a way to preserve the gravesite so that as time passed, it could be found again.

 


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Rabbi’s and Scholars have provided us with various viewpoints and stories surrounding the traditions and customs of leaving a stone:

Rabbi Nathan Glick. Founder and Teacher at Or Hahechal Center for Jewish Spirituality
The story I heard is that in ancient times it was not common to mark graves with any kind of structure. Jews did it, but not for the reason of having a location at which to commune with the departed. The purpose of marking graves is so that Kohanim should not become imbued with corpse impurity by inadvertently stepping or bending over a grave. Thus marking graves is a mitzva. The mitzva is to raise a pile of rocks over the grave. Every person who walks by helps maintain the marker by replacing or adding rocks, so the marker is stable across time. Eventually someone thought of adding a big rock with the personal information of the deceased. A further idea proposed cementing the rocks together which made the whole marker much more solid. So by today you have the common monument and headstone you see in Israeli cemeteries. In any event, if you go wandering around the older parts of the cemeteries in Jerusalem, Tiberius of Tzefat, where people were buried hundreds of years ago you will actually see piles of rocks, with perhaps a prominent carved rock bearing an inscription. So to summarize the whole thing, maintaining grave markers is considered a mitzva and adding a rock is the way that mitzva is done.

 

Rabbi Goldie Milgram. Facilitator, author, meaningful Jewish learning at Reclaiming Judaism.
Many trace the origins of leaving a stone to earlier sources given that stone is one of the metaphors for G*d in Torah and Jewish prayer. Moses sits on "the Rock," hits it in frustration and loss (Miriam the waterfinder his sister had just died), carves the tablets from It and is sheltered in It's womb-with-a-view cleft; Jacob's ladder arises from It, stoning was used for capital punishment, and bodies were covered with stones (a "gal," reveal(ation) for the bones to be later collected; and In the introduction to the Zohar we learn that a soul is cleaved from the Mountain; we have maoz tzur, tzur yisrael, and gorgeously tzur hevli b'eit tzara (G*d as our umblical tether) and much more. The Tzur Hei HaOlamim is where the soul arises after having its embodied nutrients returned to the earth to nurture the cycle of life. The headstoe symbolized that soul and the stone we leave is the stone symbolizing our own soul - all tethered together in mitzvah and metaphor.

 

Shui Haber. Halachic Researcher at Mir.
A story that happened in Jerusalem, retold in Sefer Ha’Todaah (Book of Our Heritage) by Rabbi Eliyahu Kitov:

“Rabbi Kalonymus Baal Haness, who is buried at the foot of the Mount of Olives… was instrumental in saving the Jews of Jerusalem from the effects of a blood libel. The Ishmaelites had killed one of their own children and thrown him by night into the courtyard of the synagogue in an attempt to destroy their enemies the Jews. Although it was Shabbat, Rabbi Kalonymus wrote one of the sacred names of G-d on a piece of parchment and placed this on the forehead of the murdered child. Immediately the latter stood up and pointed an accusing finger at the true murderer. But Rabbi Kalonymus passed judgment on himself for having desecrated the Shabbat and commanded that after his death whoever passed by his grave should throw a stone thereon. The people of Jerusalem carried out his wishes, and it became the custom that whoever passed there added a stone to the heap on his grave.”

 

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