Stones on tombstones at the Baron de Hirsch—and at any Jewish cemetery, for that matter (although it is not customary among ultra-Orthodox Jews)—are a familiar sight. It is not uncommon to see people at the Cemetery looking as if they’re digging for gold, but actually engaged in serious hunts for pebbles, so that they can put stones on loved ones’ graves.
So why do people place pebbles on tombstones? The answers are many as to how the custom originated.
According to Rabbi Maurice Lamm in The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning, it “probably serves as a reminder of the family’s presence.” The stones are a sign of respect for the deceased and act as evidence that the grave is visited and cared for.
The custom may hearken to biblical days when the monument was a heap of stones. The stones were often dispersed by weather or vandals, so visitors would place additional stones to assure the grave remained marked.
Others say it could be the end result of the custom of writing notes to the deceased and pushing them into crevices in the headstone in the way notes are pushed into the Western Wall in Jerusalem. When no crevice could be found, the note was weighted down with a stone. Eventually the paper would blow away or disintegrate leaving only the stone. That led people to think it was the leaving of a stone that was the custom.
Some believe the practice has superstitious origins and is akin to leaving a calling card for the dead. In the mythology of Eastern European Jewry, souls could take on a certain terror in death and return for whatever reason to the world of the living. The “barrier” on the grave was to ensure that souls remain where they belong.
In ancient times, shepherds needed a system to keep track of their changing numbers of flocks that went out to pasture. Since memory was an unreliable way of keeping tabs on them, the shepherd would carry a sling over his shoulder, and keep inside it the number of pebbles that corresponded to the number in his flock. That way he could always have an accurate daily count and verify that the same number returned at night.
The stones, therefore, may symbolize how precious each soul is to God, who, as it were, “counts” each person in the world. Although stones conjure a harsh image, they have a special character in Judaism. After all, the sacred shrine of Judaism, the wall of the second Temple, is considered “the foundation stone of the world,” while one name for God is “The Rock of Israel.”
Just as flowers that wilt may be a good metaphor for the brevity of life, stones serve as a good symbol of the permanence of memory. The pebble lets others know that someone did come and remember. Symbolically, it suggests the permanence of love and memory which are as strong and as enduring as a rock. Stones do not die, just as memories and souls are meant to endure.
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