The First Tombstone
The Halakah in the Parashah
At 52 years old, I, unfortunately, attend a lot more funerals than I used to. I am at the age when many of my friends’ parents are passing away, and even more sadly, my peers are at the age when death is more present. It’s sad, but that is the nature of the world. We’ve known this since parashat Bereshit–death is a part of life. We all know that we are here in this world only for a relatively short time, and while none of us know how long that will be, we know our time will come.
One of the most human of impulses is to hope that after our death, we will be remembered. Perhaps more than death itself, we fear that we did not do enough in this world for the living to remember us. And this translates, of course, into a mandate upon the living–we are directed to remember our family and loved ones when they die. In our parashah, we encounter the most concrete way of doing so when Jacob erects the first tombstone, matzevah, (at least in Jewish history) upon the death of his wife, Rachel (Genesis 35:20). While Abraham bought a cave in which to bury his wife, and in which he, Isaac and Jacob will later be buried (and according to tradition, Leah and Rebekah), these stories do not tell of any tombstone. Only Rachel, not buried in the family cave, gets a tombstone.
Truth be told, Jacob’s matzevah is almost certainly not a tombstone such as we are familiar with today. Jacob erected a few other matzevot (some sort of stone memorial) but these are to remember important events, particularly meetings with God (see Genesis 28:18, 22; 31:13, 45; 35:14). And nowhere else in the Torah do we read of a matzevah being erected for the dead. Nor is the practice found explicitly in the Talmud. Graves are marked so that priests can avoid being defiled (see Mishnah Maaser Sheni 5:1) but the practice of erecting a tombstone is not found. The Bible mentions noting graves (see II Kings 23:17; Ezekiel 39:15). Mishnah Shekalim 2:5 mentions building a “nefesh” over a grave, where the word probably means monument. But tombstones as we know them do not yet exist. However, by the medieval period we begin to find rabbis discussing laws related to stones, which they call matzevot, after the word used in our parashah, over people’s graves. Rabbis ask halakhic questions about these stones, wanting to know if one can sit on such stones (it’s debated), sell or use them for other purposes (not allowed).
In the 13-14th century R. Asher is asked whether or not the family of the deceased is required to make a stone for the grave and he answers in the affirmative. The Rashba, writing at a similar time, seems to believe that this is dependent on custom. He writes that if a wife dies and it is the custom of the family to place a stone on the graveyard, then the husband must erect one for his wife. Today, since it is the universal custom to mark graves with stones, the family is financially responsible to ensure that this is done.
The custom to write the name and the date of death on the tombstone seems to be of more recent origin. According to historians, engraved tombstones became more popular in the 1600’s and today are, of course, common in all cemeteries. While it is a near universal Jewish custom to write something on the stone, the Jews in Hebron, at least until 1929, maintained the ancient custom to leave the gravestone blank. Traditionally, only the Hebrew date is written, somewhat ironic considering the custom was almost certainly borrowed from the Christians.
Finally, due to the late origins of this practice, there developed varying customs as to when to erect this engraved tombstone. Some held that at least a rudimentary stone should be put up immediately after the shivah. In Israel the practice is for the stone to be put up by the end of shloshim (the thirty day period of mourning) and outside of Israel (at least in the US and England) the stone is not erected until after twelve months, the time when all mourning practices are ceased.
I will close with a personal note. Over the past month or so I have been to two funerals in my hometown of Modiin. Modiin is a new city, and our cemetery is only about twenty years old. Nevertheless, it is filling up quite quickly. One of the most striking features of this cemetery is the differently shaped, colored and worded tombstones. Musical instruments, sporting goods (particularly bicycles) and other such individualized features are etched into the stone and some stones are even shaped to look like items particular to the deceased’s life. There are photographs embedded in some of the stones. In our modern world, we tend more to individualism, to wanting to differentiate ourselves from other people, and it seems that this desire to stand out as an individual is now carrying on into the way in which we want to be buried.