Hebrew headstones are talking. As the Jewish new year approaches, we have a good chance to listen – an opportunity, really, to honor lives lived, and to deepen our understanding of Jewish time and place by visiting a Jewish cemetery.
Before Rosh HaShanah, during the month of Elul, and during the Ten Days of Repentance, the period between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, are two times when it is customary for Jews to visit the cemetery.
For those who would like community support after Rosh HaShanah, there’s kind of a group visit called Kever Avot, which literally means “graves of the fathers.” In many communities, a service led by a community rabbi is offered at the cemetery. We have just finished wishing each other “le shanah tovah tikatevu,” “may you be inscribed (in the Book of Life) for a good year,” when we are off to visit the graves of parents, relatives, or other loved ones.
The prayers of the Days of Awe are filled with imagery of who shall live and die. A visit to the cemetery during this period of self-examination, to touch base, so to speak, with the lives and influence of those who have gone before us, seems enlightening.
My family has found that a graveside visit is also an opportunity for our children to hear about and recall the good qualities and mitzvot of departed family members.
It’s a complex pull of tradition, respect, grief, honor, and memory that draws us to the graveyard. What blocks our steps?
Clinking around in many of our heads, I suspect, is the perceived gloom of a musty graveyard visit complete with “Twilight Zone” flashbacks.
Let all that mumbo jumbo rest in peace. The thought behind a cemetery visit is to give respect to friends and loved ones – not to take a one-wayer to Hotel California.
As you walk between the orderly rows of headstones or plaques, there is a whole world of Jewish essence chiseled perfectly before your eyes, if you only knew how to read it.
On my visit to the cemetery, especially the historic Home of Peace in Los Angeles – my grandmother, my wife’s grandmother, and many family members, neighbors, and friends are buried there – I began to notice the images and abbreviations carved into the headstones.
I remember puzzling over a lengthy abbreviation at the bottom of a headstone. What did it mean?
After each visit, I began to look up this form of cemetery shorthand, born out of the necessities of limited writing space and its expense. Visit by visit, the stones began to speak.
At the top of many headstones I saw the abbreviation n"p which stands for “Po nikbar” or “po nikb’ra” and means “here lies.”
On many headstones you may also see a single letter reish "r, meaning “reb.” It’s a sign of respect, like mister – it does not mean rabbi. On several woman’s headstones I found a "m or "rm, meaning Mrs., or Miss, a traditional Ashkenazi form of address for a woman.
Chiseled into many markers is the abbreviation l"z – for “zichrono” or “zichrona leveracha,” meaning “may his or her soul be a blessing.”
At the bottom of many headstones and plaques is the abbreviation 'h 'b 'x 'n 't – for “te’hi nafsho, or nafsha, tsarurah b’tsror ha’chayim,” meaning “let his or her soul be bound up in the bonds of life.”
It is a verse adapted from Samuel also found in El Molei Rachamin, the traditional memorial prayer recited at funerals.
The symbols on markers have always caught my eye, especially the hands. They motion semiotically for you to come closer to discover more about the person’s life.
An image of hands with fingers parted as if giving the priestly blessing means the person was a Kohen. A water pitcher designates a Levite. A women’s marker is sometimes inscribed with a Shabbat candelabrum, as lighting the Shabbat candles is a mitzvah performed by women.
Occasionally, in older cemeteries, you will see a marker in the shape of a tree stump, representing a young life cut short.
To decipher many other headstone abbreviations, let me suggest “A Field Guide to Visiting a Jewish Cemetery” by Rabbi Joshua Segal.
When it’s time to leave the grave, Jews have a custom of leaving behind a pebble. One interpretation is that leaving a stone dates to a time when the dead were buried beneath a pile of stones.
At an unveiling this year for my wife’s grandmother and family matriarch, Grace Hasson, Los Angeles Rabbi Sheldon Pennes in a moving interpretation explained that the word “b’tsror” in the phrase “Let his soul be bound up in the bonds of the living” is a play on the ancient Hebrew word “tsror” for “pebble” (see Amos 9:9).
The rabbi related that in ancient Israel, as a shepherd would use pebbles to count sheep, the leaving of a pebble could be a reminder of our desires that God, like a shepherd, count and care for our friends and mishpacha.
So when you visit, place a stone. All would agree that leaving one shows others that someone has visited and that a life has been remembered.