Graves and tombstones

Sefiras Ha’Omer, the season when  thousands of Rabbi Akiva’s talmidim  tragically passed away, is an opportune  time to discuss various aspects of  interring the deceased. The practice of  burying the dead has been customary  since time immemorial not only among  Jews but also among the nations of the  world, expressing mankind’s traditional  reverence for the human body and firm  belief in the afterlife.

Grave Robbers  of Two Types 
Many ancient peoples believed that  besides interring their beloved ones,  it was necessary to supply them with  worldly goods in order to sustain them  in the next world. Because of this,  they sometimes included a vast variety  of worldly implements that would  hopefully be of use in the afterlife. This  practice has left its traces worldwide,  from Denmark where Viking chiefs were  interred in huge barrows that included  anything from knives and jewelry to full-sized  sailing ships, to the more modest  graves of the early Canaanites who had  a propensity to bury noblemen together  with horses and chariots.

Of course, these buried treasures  were a great temptation to grave robbers  hoping to make an easy killing. This can  be amply testified by any tourist visiting  the Kidron Valley of Yerushalayim and  viewing the huge hole that erstwhile  grave robbers once bored into the side  of the Yad Avshalom in the hope of  extracting its non-existent treasures. To  fight off such predators, many tombs  were carefully sealed and often inscribed  with dire curses threatening whoever  dared open them up.

One example of this is found in the  Kidron Valley where a Jewish grave  dating back to the time of the Melachim  bears the inscription, “Cursed be he who  opens this,” and many tombs dating  from the time of the second Temple have  similar warnings. Of course, these pleas  are ignored by modern day archeologists,  who condone grave robbing so long as  it is done for the sake of increasing the  fund of human knowledge and not for  other people’s financial gain.

The most famous of these grave curses  involves one of the most famous tombs  in the world, buried in the heart of an  Egyptian pyramid. This was the tomb of  the boy king Tutankhamun discovered in  Egypt’s Valley of the Kings in 5682/1922.  From the beginning, its violators  seemed doomed. On the very day that  archeologist Howard Carter opened the  sensational tomb a cobra devoured his  pet canary, and if you argue that this  was because Egypt is a snake hotbed,  a few months later, Lord Carnarvon  who had financed the expedition, died  of pneumonia. Newspapers raved that  this was the fulfillment of an ancient  Mummy’s curse inscribed in the tomb:

“They who enter this tomb shall be  visited by wings of death.” As time rolled  on, papers reported that up to twenty-six  people connected with the tomb’s exhumation had died within the decade.

Actually, all this was nonsense.  The curse was a literary invention  and twenty of the reported  deaths were figments of the  imagination. After all, even  archeologist Howard  Carter, the greatest  culprit of all who had  opened the tomb, survived seventeen years after the  expedition, while Adamson Richard, the  guard who slept every night in the tomb  during Carter’s depredations, survived  for sixty more years and died at a ripe  old age in 5740/1980. In fact, many of  the key people involved survived for  decades afterwards.

In more modern times, graves suffered  not from thieves attempting to steal  hidden treasures, but from people trying  to snatch the bodies themselves. This was  due to the advance of modern medicine  and the thirst to study the human body  up close.

An earlier article discussed how the  basic Jewish definition of the moment  of death came into conflict with that of  the non-Jews who sometimes waited for  days to ensure that a person had expired.  In 5532/1772 the Duke of Mecklenburg-  Schwerin issued a decree forbidding  the interring of a corpse for three days.  Moses Mendolsohn supported his  decree, making the erroneous claim that  the idea of delaying burial is actually  supported by Chazal (Semachos 8:1),  who mention that some people had the  custom of visiting the cemetery for three days after interment as, “It once  happened that they watched  someone who continued  living for twenty-five  years, and another who  still had five children  before dying.”

The Perisha  explains that  this was  o n l y possible in times when people were  interred in easily opened kuchin (stone  chambers inside burial caves).

Rav Yaakov Emden (cited in Teshuvos  Chasam Sofer Y.D. 338) violently  disagreed, explaining that incidents such  as happened there “are remote incidents  that may happen once in a thousand  years.” The Chasam Sofer concludes his  discussion of the matter by declaring,  “All the winds of the world… will not  dislodge us from the position of our  holy law” regarding the establishment of  death through the cessation of breathing.  Tragically, the Jews’ staunch adherence  to halachah and early establishment of  death led to giant problems. In seventeenth  century Padua, Italy, Jews had to fight  demands of its university medical students  who preferred Jewish bodies for their  studies, and the problem persisted until  the nineteenth century when we find Rav  Yitzchok Elchonon of Kovno writing to  an American kehillah and advising them  how to deal with a similar problem (Shu”t  Ein Yitzchok Y.D. 33).

Double Duty 
When did Jewish tombs begin?  Although the first explicit mention  of burial in the Torah is when  Avrohom inters Sarah in the Ma’aras  Hamachpeila, the first instance of setting  up a tombstone is when Yaakov erects a  matzeivah as an everlasting memorial to  Rochel (Bereishis 35:20). After that, the  subject of marking graves is mentioned a  few times in Nach such as in the unusual  episode of a prophet who was eaten by a  lion (2 Melachim 23:17).

It appears that the tombstone is not  only in order to warn Kohanim to steer  clear from graves, because for this a less  significant marking would be sufficient.  Due to this distinction between simple  markings and tombstones, Raban  Shimon ben Gamliel famously declares  (Shekalim, end chapt. 2), “We do not  erect nefashos for tzaddikim for their  words are their remembrance.” The  Rambam (Hilchos Avel 4:4) rules as a definitive halachah: “We mark  the whole cemetery and build a nefesh  (tombstone) on the grave. But regarding  righteous people, one does not build a  nefesh on their grave for their words are  their remembrance. And a person should  not turn aside to visit graves.”

The Igros Moshe (Y.D. volume 3,  154) wonders why this ruling is ignored  nowadays – after all, Jews have been  erecting headstones on tzaddikim’s  graves for centuries! He answers that,  “Perhaps this is because there a number  of laws applying to talmidei chachomim  that are not customary nowadays.”

From the above Chazal that states,  “We do not erect nefashos for tzaddikim  for their words are their remembrance,”  we can infer that a major purpose of the  matzeiva is to act as a memorial for the  deceased and perpetuate his memory,  something the righteous person does not  need because people remember his wise  teachings and great deeds. However, the  Taamei Haminhagim mentions another  reason for the tombstone based on the  fact that the matzeiva is sometimes called  a nefesh – that its purpose is to provide  a clearly defined resting place for the  nefesh of a person, which, unlike the  ruach and neshamah that rise to higher  realms, hovers around the kever and only  leaves on Shabbos and Yom Tov.

Tombs of all Trades 
The tombstones of Torah observant  Jews are generally without much  ostentation and ornamentation. Rav  Moshe Feinstein (ibid) explains that  this is in accordance with the decree  of Raban Gamliel (Kesuvos 8b) that  deceased people should be buried in  plain tachrichin – the same applies to  matzeivos. Nonetheless many old time  stones added a carving or two to depict a  person’s name or occupation.

Besides the customary motif of  raised hands for Kohanim or a pitcher  and washbasin for Levi’im, stones had  depictions of scissors for a tailor, lions  for people named Yehuda (as on the  Maharal’s kever), deer for the name  Hirsch (deer), a tzeddakah box for a  gabai tzeddakah, chains for a goldsmith,  a goose feather pen and klaf for a sofer,  a bird if someone’s name was Yonah  and a fish if his name was Fischel. One  fourteenth century stone in Speyer,  Germany, has a flower in memory of  a woman named Blume bas YaakovGeneric engravings included two  candlesticks for women and a broken  candlestick for women who had died in  their youth.

Family names were commemorated in  similar fashion, such as the goose on the  tombstone of Dovid Gans (the Tzemach  Dovid of Prague), a mouse for members  of the Maisl family, and for the deceased  of the Karpelis family – a fish.  According to legend, a well known  fish monument in Vienna is in memory  not of any human being but of a finned  and scaled creature of the depths. Near  the stairs leading to a Jewish old age  home in Vienna stands a stone monument  topped with an inverted fish. The story  goes that a Jew once caught a large fish  in the Danube that flows through Vienna  and was about to decapitate it when it  suddenly pronounced the words Shema  Yisroel. Puzzled, the Jew hurried to the  local Rav where he received the pesak  that rather than eat the fish, it should  be interred and its burial place marked  forevermore with a fishy engraving in  commemoration of the unusual event.

In one famous cemetery, most of  the graves have no tombstones at all  and are completely invisible. This is  the Old Jewish Cemetery of Prague  where the local authorities gave the  Jewish community a relatively tiny plot  of land to bury their dead. Realizing  that the cemetery would soon be full  to overflowing, the Jews deliberately  excavated the cemetery to a great depth  in order to add new layers every time  it filled up, and over the centuries,  most of the interred were lost to view.

It is estimated that the 12,000 visible  tombstones on its surface are the  legendary tip of the iceberg and that it  actually contains about 100,000 graves  buried in twelve layers.

As for the forgotten generations  buried beneath, their memorials are the  words of the verse of Mishlei (17:6)“Children’s children are the crown of the  old, and the glory of children are their  fathers.”

(Sources include: Jakobovits, Rabbi  Immanuel. Jewish Medical Ethics. New  York: Bloch Publishing Company, 1967.)

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