Ask the Expert: Stones on Graves

What do the stones symbolize? Where does the custom come from?

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Question: Why do Jews put stones on graves instead of leaving flowers? Is there a ritual or blessing that goes along with this practice?
--Anna, New York

Answer:
The Jewish tradition of leaving stones or pebbles on a grave is an ancient one, and its origins are unclear. It is a custom or tradition, rather than a commandment, and over time many interpretations have been offered for this practice. Here are some of my favorite explanations:

--During the times of the Temple in Jerusalem, Jewish priests (kohanim) became ritually impure if they came within four feet of a corpse. As a result, Jews began marking graves with piles of rocks in order to indicate to passing kohanim that they should stay back.

--The Talmud mentions that after a person dies her soul con­tinues to dwell for a while in the grave where she was buried. Putting stones on a grave keeps the soul down in this world, which some people find comforting. Another related interpretation suggests that the stones keep demons and golems from getting into the graves.

--Flowers, though beautiful, will eventually die. A stone will not die, and can symbolize the permanence of memory and legacy.

--Rabbi Simkha Weintraub, Rabbinic director of the New York Jewish Healing Center offered another traditional interpretation: "The Hebrew word for ‘pebble’ is tz’ror – and it happens that this Hebrew word also means ‘bond.’ When we pray the memorial El Maleh Rahamim prayer (and at other times) we ask that the deceased be ‘bound up in the bond of life’ – tz’ror haHayyim.  By placing the stone, we show that we have been there, and that the individual’s memory continues to live on in and through us."

Many people take special care in choosing a stone to put on the grave of a loved one. It may be a stone from a place that was significant to the deceased, a stone that was chosen at an event during which the deceased was especially missed, or simply an interesting or attractive rock. Because there is no commandment to fulfill here, placing a stone on a grave is an opportunity for you to create your own ritual, or do things in the way that feels most meaningful to you.