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Reasons and Customs of Erecting Matzeivot

Parshat VaYishlach

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Parsha Halacha is underwritten by a grant from Dr. Stephen and Bella Brenner in loving memory of Stephen’s father, Shmuel Tzvi ben Pinchas, and Bella’s parents, Avraham ben Yitzchak and Leah bas HaRav Sholom Zev HaCohen
The Torah portion of VaYishlach tells the story of the passing of our Matriarch Rachel.[1] According to some of the commentaries she was only 36 years old.[2] Others say she was 44.[3]
The Torah says, “And Yaakov erected a monument on her grave; that is the tombstone of Rachel until this day.”[4]
Why a Monument?
The commentaries offer several reasons as to why Yaakov erected a monument on Rachel’s grave, especially since there is no mention that Avraham erected a monument when he buried Sarah[5] or that Yitzchak erected a monument for Avraham.[6]
No Monuments for the Righteous?
The question is strengthened in light of the teaching of Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel[7] who said, “One need not make a monument for the righteous as their words are their memorials.” This means that since the purpose of a monument is to memorialize the dead, this is not necessary for the righteous who are memorialized by their teachings and good deeds. If this is so, why did Yaakov make a monument for Rachel?
·        To Protect from Graverobbers
The Seforno writes that since this grave was on the side of the road, Yaakov protected it from graverobbers by covering it with heavy stones.
·        So the Jewish Exiles Would be Able to Pray at her Grave
According to the Midrash[8] the Jews who were being exiled to Babylonia stopped to pray at the grave of Rachel. She then prayed to the Almighty that they be redeemed. G-d accepted her prayer and promised to do so. The exiles were able to recognize her grave due to the monument that was placed on it.[9]
This explains why it is customary to make tombstones for righteous people[10]despite the abovementioned teaching of Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel. The righteous are not memorialized by their tombstones as it is their Torah and Mitzvot that memorialize them. The purpose of the tombstone is for the public to know the location of the grave so they can pray there.
·        Rachel Represents the Jewish People
Although Rachel was the mother of only two of the twelve tribes, since she would pray for all of them (see above), she is considered the matriarch of all Israel. Thus, the monument was appropriate as it was in honor of the Jewish people whom she represents.[11] Just as beautiful monuments are erected for kings.[12]
What Did the Monument Look Like?
According to the Midrash[13] each one of Yaakov’s 11 sons placed a stone on Rachel’s grave while Yaakov placed a stone on top of these. The stones were piled like a heap. The word מצבה alludes to this as it contains the word צבwhich means a dome (see Numbers 7:3).
The rest of this article will focus on the reasons, halachot and customs of erecting tombstones (matzeivot) at gravesites.
There are three reasons as to why we erect matzeivot.[14]
·        To protect from impurity
A kohen is forbidden to come in contact with the dead. In addition, ordinary Jews who have no such prohibition, would need to know (in ancient times) if they had come into contact with the dead as they would, subsequently, have to purify themselves before they could enter the Bait HaMikdash (Holy Temple) or partake of sacrificial foods. Erecting a matzeivah above the grave would alert people as to its existence so that they could remain ritually pure by not approaching it and/or so that they could purify themselves after approaching it.
This idea is mentioned in the book of Ezekiel when he describes the burial of those who will be killed in the war of Gog and Magog. “Men… who pass through the land, burying those… who are left on the surface of the land, in order to purify it… And when they… see a human bone, they shall build a sign next to it until the buriers bury it.”[15]
The Mishnah mentions this concept when it says that the court would send out messengers to mark the graves.[16] In ancient times they would do this by pouring plaster over the graves.[17]
·        To publicize the good deeds of the deceased
The verse says, “The mention of a righteous man is for a blessing.”[18] By erecting a matzeiva and writing the person’s name and something about them on it, his or her memory is perceptualized. This is why one opinion in the Mishnah says that if money is collected for the purpose of burying someone and after the burial expenses are covered some of the money is left over, it is used to erect a matzeivah.[19]
·        So that people can pray at the grave
It is customary to pray at the graves of righteous people. The Talmud says[20]that Kalev went to pray at the Cave of Machpeila when he was spying out the land of Israel. Also, as mentioned above, the Jewish exiles prayed at the tomb of Rachel when they were being exiled to Babylonia.
When praying at a gravesite one should also pray that the deceased’s soul experience an elevation in the next world. This is greatly beneficial for that soul and in this merit the soul beseeches G-d to assist the one who prayed with what he needs.[21]
Beneficial for the Soul
The term that our sages use for a tombstone[22] is “nefesh” which also means soul. This is because, according to the kabbalists, there are five levels of the soul, the lowest of which is called nefesh. This level of the soul remains hovering over the grave except on Shabbat, holidays and special times when it ascends to delight in the realm of the souls. The tombstone was called nefeshas it is built to honor this level of the soul and to define its space. The higher level of the soul, known as ru’ach (spirit) is garbed in the Torah and mitzvot that the person did while alive and it hovers in the area where these were accomplished. While the third level of the soul, called neshama ascends to Heaven to experience Divine revelation and to ascend from level to level.[23]
What to Write
It is customary to write the name of the deceased on the matzeiva. Ashkenazim also include the father’s name (i.e., “son or daughter of so and so”) while Sefardim include the mother’s name.[24]
It is customary to include the (Hebrew[25]) date of passing.[26]
It is also customary to include the Hebrew letters.ת נַ צְ בִּ הַ This stands for the words תהֵא נַפְשׁוֹ/נַפְשָׁהּ צְרוּרָה בִּצְרוֹר הַחַיִּים which means “May his or her soul be bound in the bundle of (eternal) life.” This paraphrases a verse spoken by King David’s righteous wife Avigail[27] who was also a prophetess.[28]
The reason these words are included is that they express our belief in the following five fundamental principles of our faith.[29]
1.     The coming of Moshiach
2.     The restoration of the Davidic Dynasty
3.     The resurrection of the dead
4.     That G-d rewards those who do His will
5.     That G-d rewards one even for good thoughts[30]
Don’t Exaggerate
One should not write and exaggerated titles or praises on a matzaiva. This can have negative consequences. If one omits a true title that the person deserves, the eternal G-d knows that person’s worth and the fact that it is not written in stone does not affect the person negatively at all. Whereas if an underserved title is given to a person, it is a blemish to them rather than a praise. Therefore, if one is in doubt about a particular expression etc., one should simply leave it out.[31]
In fact, the renowned sage Rabbi Akiva Eiger requested that his tombstone say simply, “Here is buried Rabbi Akiva Eiger.”[32]
G-d willing, I will discuss the other customs associated with erecting a matzeivah, in another article.
May we soon experience the resurrection, the coming of Moshiach and the restoration of the Davidic Dynasty!
[1] Gen. 35:16-20
[2] Seder Olam Rabbah, 2 according to the version of the Vilna Gaon. She was a twin of Leah’s. They were both born just as Yaakov was leaving Charan. He married them when they were 21. (He spent 14 years in the Yeshivah of Shem and Ever and seven years working for the right to marry Rachel.) He then stayed with Lavan for another 13 years. (Seven for the right to marry Rachel after he was tricked into marrying Leah and six for sheep.) And two years journeying to Canaan. (18 months in Sukkot and 6 months in Bait El.) 21+13+2=36
[3] Yalkut Me’Am Loez. I’m not sure as to the basis of this opinion.
[4] Gen. ibid 20
[5] See Ibid. 23
[6] Ibid 25:8-10
[7] Talmud Yerushalmi, Shekalim 2:5 and Bereishit Rabbah 82:10
[8] Petichta on Eicha Rabbah 24 cited in Rashi on Gen. 48:7. A shorter version of this is recorded in Bereishit Rabbah 82:10
[9] Yalkut Meam Loez
[10] See Kings II 23:17 “And he (King Yoshiyahu) said, “What is this marker that I see?” And the people of the city said to him, “The grave of the man of God…” (This was the grave of the prophet Ido.)
[11] Bereishit Rabbah ibid, as explained by the Etz Yosef
[12] Yefeh To’ar in Berieshit Rabah
[13] Lekach Tov on the verse
[14] Pardes Yosef on the verse
[15] Ezekiel 39:14 and 15
[16] Moed Kattan 1:2, see also Niddah 7:5
[17] Pirush Rabbi Ovadiah of Bartenura
[18] Mishlei 10:7
[19] This is the opinion of Rabbi Natan. The first opinion in the Mishnah is that the money should be given to his heirs. While Rabbi Meir says that it should be put aside until Elijah the Prophet returns and instructs us as to what to do with it. The halacha follows the first opinion – that it be given to the heirs (Y.D. 356). The Radvaz adds (quoted in the Pit’chei Teshuvah) that if the heirs do not plan to erect a matzeivah and the general custom in that family is to do so, the funds should not be given to the heirs but should rather be used for the matzeivah.
[20] Sotah 34b. See Numbers 13:22
[21] Rabbi Chaim Vital quoted in Responsa Chedvat Yaakov Tinyana, 141 (by Rabbi Yaakov Meizlish of Lask), cited in the Pardes Yosef
[22] See Ezekiel ibid, Shekalim ibid and Niddah ibid
[23] Ta’amei HaMinhagim, page 476 quoting the Holy Zohar and the writings of our teacher the Arizal
[24] Gesher HaChaim 28:3
[25] See Responsa of Maharam Shik in the name of the Chatam Sofer who bemoans the fact that some started to use the secular date which is based on the birth of the founder of Christianity.
[26] Gesher HaChaim ibid
[27] Shmuel I, 25:29. At the time, Avigail was married to her first husband, Naval.
[28] Megillah 14a
[29] Otzar Kol Minhagei Yeshurun by Rabbi Avraham Eliezer Hirshovitz (printed in Pittsburg 1918), pg. 288
[30] I’m not sure how points 1, 2 and 5 are alluded to in this verse. A.C.
[31] Ta’amei HaMinhagim pg. 477 quoting the last will and testament of the “Holy sage Rabbi Naftali Katz.”
[32] Penei Baruch 36, note 12 citing the Chessed LeAvraham
Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom Umevorach!

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