Funerary Symbolism

Since Biblical times, Jews have traditionally been required to mark burial sites. This was due both to the need to honor the dead, as well as to mark the place so that others would not be defiled by accidental contact with the dead. 

The first grave markers were roadside burial mounds, at which each passerby was required to place a stone. Today's tradition of placing small stones on graves comes from this early custom.

With time, three types of sepulchral architecture developed: the ohel, or "tent", which was a small wooden or masonry building, inside which one or more graves were located; the sarcophagus, semi-spherical, or similar to a peaked-roof in shape. The most common form of Jewish gravestones, however, is the matseva: a flat stone slab erected at perpendicularly to the ground, which may be rectangular or with a rounded or triangular top.

The space at the end of these gravestones is usually very richly ornamented with reliefs, which describe the traits of the deceased person through symbols, and sometimes his or her name or profession.

Because of the strict Biblical ban on portraying human figures, Jewish art developed a system of metaphorical signs that allow us to understand the allusions contained in the ornaments, including the reliefs on gravestones. The most frequently used symbols are those referring to the deceased person's religiosity and to his place in the community.
Such themes include:

- Hands depicted in the gesture of a priest's blessing. These are found on the gravestones of people from the priestly family (koheins), who at the time of the Temple were offering sacrifices there. After the fall of the Temple, this symbol was carved on the gravestones of those carrying the name that originates with this function, e.g., Kohen, Kagan, Cohen, Kaganowicz and Kon.

- A hand with a jug, or a jug and a bowl. This symbol signified the grave of one generation of Levites, who were responsible for washing the hands of the priests.

- A hand throwing money into a collection tin, or a collection box with a coin being inserted are motifs on the grave of philanthropists who helped both the Community and the poor, generously distributing alms.

- A hand with a pen may symbolize a sofer–a writer engaged in the copying of Torah scrolls, preparation of mezuzot, tefillin or ketubot (marriage documents).

- Instruments for circumcision are seen on the gravestones of mohelim (circumcisers) who conduct the ritual of Brit Milah, introducing the child into the Jewish community.

- An open cabinet filled with books is the symbol of a rabbi, a learned man or author of religious tracts.

- A frequent ornament on gravestones is a crown, which has many meanings. Since it can also signify the Torah, it can be found on graves of pious wise men or rabbis. It can also be the Crown of Good Name, which would attest to the exceptionally noble character of the deceased. It can also be an allusion to the father of a family-to the head (crown) of a household.

- Bunch of grapes, grape vine: like the Star of David (Magen David), this is a symbol of Israel, but also of wealth (including spiritual wealth) of the person buried there.

- Candles most often are seen on women's graves, since their religious duties include lighting and blessing the Sabbath evening candles. Broken candles or torches tipped downwards are a symbol of death, of the light of life being extinguished.

Symbols of death may also be a sinking ship, broken tree or cracked column.
Animals are frequently seen as an element in funerary motifs. They have many meanings, since they can be related to the Biblical symbols of the tribes of Israel, and can also refer to the name of the deceased. Most frequent are:

- lion (Leyb, Arie, Yehuda and Leon)

- bear (Hebrew, Dov, Yiddish, Ber, Bernard)

- bird (Hebrew, Zipporah, Yiddish, Feiga)

- sheep (Rachela)

Along with these real animals also there appear mythical or legendary ones, or those whose significance is tied to Kabbalah mysticism and esoterics.

These include the image of Leviathan, the sea monster whose meat will be eaten by the Righteous after the coming of the Messiah. He is most often depicted as a snake twisted into a loop, swallowing his own tail. According to Jewish tradition, it symbolizes eternity and the immortality of the human soul.

Winged griffons and eagles are connected with God's power, and are often depicted in a heraldic position, leaning on open books, crowns, Torah scrolls or tablets with inscriptions.

Birds, in addition to the meaning given above, symbolize the soul flying up to heaven; a butterfly can also represent this.

Lions and lambs lying next to each other allude to a passage from Isaiah about the heavenly peace that will follow the coming of the Messiah.

Because the traditional ornamental symbolism developed on the basis of the same sources, the Bible and Talmud, similar elements occur in all countries that have been home to the Jewish Diaspora. The same ornaments, though they are depicted in various ways, in keeping with the local styles where they were created, have the same meanings and may be interpreted in a similar way.

The text comes from the Diapozytyw Portal, formerly owned by the Instytutu Adama Mickiewicza.

The following text comes from the book entitled "Historia i kultura Żydów polskich. Słownik", by Alina Cała, Hanna Węgrzynek and Gabriela Zalewska, published by WSiP

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