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Bible Encyclopedias

The 1901 Jewish Encyclopedia


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None in Palestine in Biblical or Talmudic Times.

Cemetery at Rome .
(From a photograph.)

The custom of marking a grave by a stone which bore an inscription describing the qualities of the deceased and giving his age and the date of his death was foreign to the ancient Hebrews. Stones were indeed used to mark the sites of graves, such as the pillar ("maẓ ẓ ebah") placed by Jacob on the tomb of Rachel (Genesis 35:20 ), and the sign ("ẓ iyyun") set up according to Ezekiel (xxxix:16) but they were not intended as monuments and bore no inscriptions. Even in the geonic period the custom seems to have been unknown to the Jews of the East, and it can not, therefore, have been current in Talmudic times. The stone termed "golel" in the Mishnah (Oh. 2:1), which, according to Hai Gaon, was laid up on the side-walls (dofeḳ in), served only to protect the grave from jackals, while that called "ẓ iyyun" was merely a mark to warn passers-by against Levitical impurity. Graves in Palestine were not devoid of monumental ornamentations, however, for "nefashot," or stone buildings in the shape of houses or cupolas, were erected, in Phenician fashion, over them (' Er. 5:1 Sheḳ . 2:5). On the tomb of his father and brothers at Modin, Simon Maccabeus erected a monument consisting of seven pyramids on which were carved armor and ships (I Macc. 13:27-29). Such monuments became the fashion in the first centuries of the common era, while the rivalries which arose between families, and the love of ostentation, led to the spending of great sums for the adornment of graves. To put an end to this extravagance Simeon ben Gamaliel declared that the pious were remembered by their words, and that it was an insult to their memory to put monuments on their graves as though they would have been forgotten without them (Yer. Sheḳ . 2:7,47a). It was only outside Palestine that some Jews, adopting the custom of the Greeks and the Romans, began to use tombstones with inscriptions commemorating the status of the deceased. These epitaphs were written in Greek or Latin in the first centuries of the common era, and began with the name of the deceased or with the introductory phrase Ἐ ν θ ά δ ε κ α ῖ τ α ι (κ ε ὶ τ α ι ) or "Hic j a c e t" (= "Here lies"), while eulogies recalling Biblical verses and idioms were used as final formulas, as, for instance, Isaiah 57:2 or Psalm 4:9 . The stones were adorned with a variety of symbols in addition to the epitaphs themselves, the most common being a seven-branched candlestick (in allusion to Proverbs 20:27 , "The spirit of man is the candle of the Lord"), a fruit from which sprang an ear of grain (probably an allusion to the resurrection of the dead), an oil-vessel, a palm-branch, or a curved horn representing the Shofar which will be blown by the Messiah to announce the resurrection of the dead. Except for the presence of these symbols, the Jewish tombstones of the first centuries of the common era could not be distinguished from those of the Christians. Later gravestones, however, bore, in addition to the Greek or Latin inscription, the Hebrew formula , as does the tombstone of Narbonne of 688 or else they had a Hebrew translation of the Greek or Latin inscription, as does that of Tortosa.

Earliest in Europe.
It can not be determined with certainty when the custom of inscribing Hebrew epitaphs on tombstones first became general among the Jews in Europe. The oldest example known is a gravestone of Brindisi dated 832. It is true that Jacob Mö lln (MaHaRIL) asserts that in his lifetime a gravestone was discovered in the cemetery of Mayence bearing a Hebrew epitaph which was eleven hundred years old, but as he does not state that he himself deciphered the inscription, no credence can be given to his assertion ("Liḳ ḳ uṭ e Maharil," ed. Warsaw, p. 86b). A characteristic feature of the epitaphs of the early Middle Ages was the simplicity of their style. They usually began with the words , , or , and closed with one of the usual eulogies (see Invocation ).

Section of the Old Chatham Square Cemetery, New York.
(From a photograph.)
In the later medieval period epitaphs became more detailed and bombastic, and in some German cemeteries various emblems representing the profession of the deceased were added to the inscriptions. Thus, for instance, a tailor had a pair of shears on his tombstone a musician, a violin or a harp a goldsmith, a crown and two chains a physician, a lion holding a sword and an apothecary, a mortar. In some places in Germany the tombstones bore the emblems of the houses in which the deceased had lived, thus showing figures of dragons, bears, lions, or stars. The tombs of kohanim are distinguished by two open hands as placed during the priestly benediction, while a Levite's gravestone often bears a ewer. Names, especially those derived from plants or from animal life, are frequently represented pictorially and reliefs of the whole human body are found.

The form of the tombstone was generally very simple and the material varied considerably in different countries. In Frankfort-on-the-Main gravestones were generally made of red sandstone, rarely of white sandstone or granite. The Ashkenazim usually placed the tombstones upright, while the Sephardim laid them horizontally on the graves. The custom of carving Hebrew inscriptions on gravestones seems to have developed much later in the East than in Europe, since there is no mention of it in geonic literature. Although Benjamin of Tudela attributes the dearth of very ancient tomb-stones in Palestine to the fact that the Christians destroyed the Jewish graves and used the stones for building-material, this is a mere supposition, and there is no proof whatever that the use of tombstones with Hebrew inscriptions became general in Palestine much earlier than the twelfth century. It is true, on the other hand, that both in the lifetime of Benjamin of Tudela and for several centuries afterward Jewish graves were often destroyed and the stones were used for building purposes in Christian and Mohammedan countries alike. Thus, when the Jews were banished from Fü rth, the gravestones of the community were used to erect walls around the city and David ibn Abi Zimra (sixteenth century) relates that in his lifetime the Egyptian Mohammedans used to steal Jewish tombstones and resell them to Jews after having obliterated the inscriptions. To put an end to this traffic, the local rabbis allowed their congregations to use only newly quarried stones for monuments to the dead (Radbaz, 1:741, quoted by Abrahams, "Jewish Life in the Middle Ages," p. 78). Although tombstones became customary, they were not obligatory (Shulḥ an ' Aruk, Yoreh De' ah, 364), and every Jewish cemetery contains some graves without them. The stone was seldom set up before the expiration of a year after the date of death, since the departed soul required that lapse of time before it could be purified. Inscriptions are generally dated according to the era of creation and the year is preceded by the day of the month, or the Sabbatical section, or both. In some cases the numerical value of a Scriptural phrase is used to mark the date, and there are also instances in which the Christian date is given side by side with the year of creation.

The following are specimens of Hebrew inscriptions found on the tombstones of prominent men. The gravestone of Elijah Levita reads:

"The stone crieth from the wall, and mourneth before every passer-by over the grave— over our rabbi who hath departed and ascended into heaven. Elijah is gone to the Lord in a whirlwind [comp. 2 Kings 2:11]— he who shed light on the darkness of grammar and turned it into light. He ascended Shebaṭ toward the end, in the year 309 [ = 1549], and his soul is bound up in the bundle of life."
The following epitaph is found on the tombstone of Leon of Modena:

Cemetery of the White Jews of Cochin.
(From a photograph.)
"Four yards of ground in this graveyard, ' by purchase by kerchief,' were from eternity transferred from above to Judah Aryeh of Modena. In these he hid himself and disappeared."
Manasseh ben Israel's tombstone bears the words:

Examples of Inscription.

"The rabbi did not die his light is not yet extinguished he liveth still in the heights of the Terrible. By his pen and the sweetness of his speech his remembrance will be eternal like the days of the earth."
On the tombstone of Joseph Delmedigo is found the following inscription:
"Take up weeping, wailing, and lamenting, howl in mourning and desolation, suffer bitterness like wormwood, for a chief and a great man is fallen in the camp, one who was the crown of the inherited [sciences, i.e. , Jewish learning] and astronomy. Wisdom was lost [with him] and understanding disappeared. Is there one like him in clime or country— west, east, south, north— to whom the spirit of God hath been given? His wisdom singeth in the streets, while his soul, under the wings of the Shekinah, is hidden and preserved. Hasten, break out in lamentations and howlings over the man, the pride of Israel who hath passed away [the phrase is merely a rhetorical figure in imitation of Genesis 15:17 ]. For he is the Joseph who sold corn [i.e. , propagated learning comp. Genesis 42:6 ], whose reputation spread everywhere, who tore up mountains and broke rocks. Nothing was hidden from him. In a tongue that speaketh proud things he composed works. In the ' Noblot Ḥ okmah' he creditably speaketh of astronomy and ' ' ibbur.' To compose many works was his intention and desire. In all the seven sciences he was very efficient. He omitted nothing, small or great he collected and thesaurized everything."
The tombstone of Moses Ḥ agiz bears the epitaph: Copyright Statement
These files are public domain.

Bibliography Information
Singer, Isidore, Ph.D, Projector and Managing Editor. Entry for 'Tombstones'. 1901 The Jewish Encyclopedia. 1901.

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