Why is it customary to place a stone on a grave? (Yoreh Deah 376:4) Volume 11, Number 3


 In memory of Prof. Andre Hajdu z”l
and Rabbi Dr. Aaron Singer z”l,
disciples of Aaron (Avot 1:12),
who taught at the Schechter Institute for many years.


Question from Marty Cohn, Florida: Why is it customary to place a stone on a grave at the end of the burial service or at after visiting a grave?

Responsum: After checking dozens of books we have learned that there are three customs related to dirt, grass and stones at the end of the burial service or after visiting a grave. We shall present them in chronological order with the sources and explanations we have found for each custom:

  1. to cleanse the hands with dirt after a burial;
  2. to throw dirt and grass behind one’s back while reciting certain verses after a burial;
  3. to place grass or a small stone on the grave at the end of the burial service or after visiting a grave.


I) To cleanse the hands with dirt after a burial

This is the oldest of the three customs we shall discuss. It is mentioned by a number of Geonim and by the Ramban (and from there by the Ritva and the Tur) and then it disappeared, apparently because the Geonim did not support it but preferred to cleanse the hands with water after the burial.

And that which you asked that they cleanse their hands with dirt after they bury the dead  — this thing we do not do here, but perhaps they were accustomed [to do it] there in order to make a separation from something related to death. (1)

This responsum is attributed to Rav Sar Shalom Gaon (d. 859 or 864) in Sha’arei Tzedek and to Rav Natronai Gaon (d. 858) in Hemdah Genuzah and scholars have not found a way to determine which attribution is correct. In any case, this Gaon is familiar with a custom of cleansing the hands with dirt, states that that they do not do it “here”, and suggests an explanation that perhaps they do so in order to make a separation from something related to death.

The same custom is reflected in a responsum of Rav Hai Gaon (939-1038):

And Rav Hai said: and after [burying] a dead person, they never had the custom in Babylon to cleanse their hands with dirt. And so we see that that whoever does this, it is nothing, but it is permissible to do so.(2)

Here too, the Gaon is not enthusiastic about this custom. He says that it is not the custom of Babylon, that it is nothing, but it is nonetheless permissible.

Finally, the Ramban (Spain, d. 1270), who quoted the responsum of Rav Hai, reacted as follows: “And in these places our custom is: to cleanse with dirt, to pluck grass from the ground after Kaddish, and to wash the hands with water”, and then he quotes two homiletic explanations in order to explain the custom of dirt, grass and water. (Rabbi Moshe ben Nahman, Torat Ha’adam, ed. Chavel, Kitvei Rabbeinu Moshe ben Nahman, Vol. 2, Jerusalem, 1964, p. 156, which was quoted by the Ritva in his Hidushim to Megillah 29a and Rabbi Ya’akov ben Asher in Tur Yoreh Deah 376)

It might seem that all of this is only of historical interest since this custom disappeared, but we shall see below that the Kol Bo (Provence ca. 1300) maintains that the custom of throwing pebbles after a burial is a mistaken custom which evolved from the custom of cleansing the hands with dirt.

II) To throw dirt and grass behind one’s back while reciting certain verses after a burial

This is a widespread custom that is first mentioned in the 11th century, and afterwards in dozens if not hundreds of books until today. Due to the large number of sources, I will present primarily the sources until the 18th century and the explanations that have been given for the custom. The rest of the sources will be listed at the end of the responsum.

1a. Rabbeinu Kalonymus (Mainz and Speyer, d. 1126) is quoted by a number of important Ashkenazic poskim in our context. Here is a brief version of his words:

Customs, Rabbi Kalonymus… After reciting Tzidduk Hadin [= a prayer recited after an interment] in the cemetery, they take dirt and grass with it and they throw it behind their backs and they say “and they will sprout up in towns like the grass of the field” (Psalms 72:16), it refers to the resurrection of the dead. (3)

1b. Here is a longer version of his words:

I found in the name of Rabbeinu Kalonymus z”l:
After finishing Tziduk Hadin and Kaddish, they take dirt and with it grass and they throw it behind their backs, and the reason is to make a separation between them and death.
And the grass that they take with the dirt, as we say “”and they will sprout up in towns like the grass of the field” (Psalms 72:16), and this verse is referring to the Resurrection of the Dead, and they take dirt since it reminds that you are dirt, as it is written “for dust you are and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19), and they thereby mention the day of death and accept upon themselves the judgment of Heaven. (4)

1c. The very same longer version is quoted “in the name of Rabbeinu Elyakim zatzal“,  a contemporary of Rabbeinu Kalonymus, who lived in Speyer, Worms and Mainz, ca. 1030-1100. (5)

2. This custom also appears in “Peirush Magentza” to Bava Batra 100b, which is attributed to Rabbeinu Gershom in the Vilna edition of the Talmud: (6)

Thus said The Teacher… and why do they take dirt and smell it and then throw it on their heads and behind them? So that we may remember that we are dirt.

3. In an addition to Mahzor Vitry (France, ca. 1150), it says immediately after the Burial Kaddish:

And every single person takes dirt and pebbles and smells them, and says: “He is mindful that we are dust” (Psalms 103:14). And they throw it behind them and they do this three times to separate between them and the dead person. And some pluck grass from the ground and say “and they will sprout up in towns like the grass of the field” (Psalms 72:16), and so do they do in [Germany]. T’ [=Tosefet, Addition]. (Mahzor Vitry, ed. Horwitz, Berlin, 1889, p. 247)

After this, there is a lengthy story of Yitzhak ben Dorbello (a disciple of Rabbeinu Tam, Northern France, ca. 1150) about apostates who slandered the entire Jewish people to the King that they throw dirt after a burial “in order to cast a spell on the Gentiles in order to kill them”. And the King called Rabbi Moshe ben Yehiel ben Rabbi Matityahu the Great from Paris who explained according to the verse “”and they will sprout up in towns like the grass of the field” (Psalms 72:16) that this custom symbolizes that we believe in the Resurrection of the Dead. The King praised him and the Jewish people. Yitzhak ben Dorbello concludes by saying  that he added this story to Mahzor Vitry “because many avoid doing the custom due to the fear of the Gentiles that they should not suspect them of witchcraft, and if they will know what to reply – ‘a wise man’s talk brings him favor’ ” (Kohelet 10:12) (ibid., pp. 247-248).

4. The Ra’avan (Mainz, 1090-1170) also discusses this custom (Sefer Ra’avan, Samloi, 1926, paragraph 11, fol. 9b; ed. Shalom Albeck, Warsaw, 1905, paragraph 11, p. 10):

I was asked why they pluck dirt and grass after the Burial Kaddish? And it seems to me dirt, according to the verse “He is mindful that we are dust” (Psalms 103:14); grass according to the verse “”and they will sprout up in towns like the grass of the field” etc. (ibid., 72:16).
And regarding the fact that they throw it behind their backs [as a sign of] mourning and sorrow, like the verse “and they threw dirt into the air onto their heads” (Job 2:12).

5. As mentioned above (paragraph I), Ramban (Spain and Israel, 1194-1270) wrote that in these places, i.e., Spain, our custom is “to cleanse with dirt, to pluck grass from the ground after Kaddish, and to wash the hands with water”. In other words, this is a combination of the customs of the Geonic period to cleanse with dirt or with water and the Ashkenazic custom to pluck grass from the ground. As mentioned, he gives two homiletic explanations for the three customs, including that grass is a hint at the Resurrection of the Dead as in the verse “and they will sprout up in towns like the grass of the field” (Psalms 72:16).

6. Rabbi Ya’akov Hazzan of London related to this custom in his Eitz Hayyim, written there in 1287 (ed. Brody, Vol. 1, Jerusalem, 1962, p. 394):

And everyone takes dirt or a pebble and says “He is mindful that we are dust” (Psalms 103:14), and throws it behind him, and they do so three times.

7. Rabbi Shimshon bar Tzadok, a disciple of Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg (ca. 1290), discusses this custom at length (Sefer Tashbatz, ed. Machon Yerushalayim, 2011, p. 250 = ed. Lemberg, 1858, fol. 42a):

When the deceased is buried, then they should pluck grass and say “and they will sprout up in towns like the grass of the field”  (Psalms 72:16). And some take and throw dirt and say “He is mindful that we are dust” (ibid., 103:14).
[The reason for plucking grass is] that the dead shall sprout up like grass at the Resurrection of the Dead, and since the dead were compared to grass, they pluck grass.
And that they throw it behind them and not in front of them, in accordance with what I saw in a midrash that the soul accompanies the body of a dead person until the grave and is not allowed to return until the congregation gives it permission, and the throwing behind them is a sign of permission, as [if to say]: “go to your rest”.

8. In Sefer Kol Bo (ed. David Avraham, part 7, Jerusalem, 2002, cols. 107-109 = ed. Lvov, 1860, fols. 86a-b) and in its “sister” Orhot Hayyim by Rabbi Aaron Hacohen of Lunel (Part II, Berlin, 1899, p. 575) which were written in Provence ca. 1300, there is a lengthy description of the two customs we have seen thus far – cleansing with dirt and plucking grass with its surrounding dirt and throwing it above the head. The Kol Bo says that they throw the dirt above the head, according to the verse “and they threw dirt into the air onto their heads” (Job 2:12). And then they wash hands. And they pluck the grass and the dirt and they wash hands “in memory of the purification from the impurity of the dead, which was done with hyssop, ashes and water” – this explanation was already given by the above-mentioned Ramban. But then he quotes Rabbi Yitzhak ibn Ghiyyat who quoted Rav Hai Gaon regarding cleansing the hands with dirt and he says that the custom of throwing pebbles after the Kaddish is a mistake because they got confused with cleansing the hands with dirt.

9. Rabbeinu Bahya ben Asher (1255-1340) discussed this custom in his commentary to Numbers 19:11-12 (ed. Chavel, Vol. 3, Jerusalem, 1972, p. 139) which was written in Saragosa in 1291:

“He who touches a dead body… he shall cleanse himself with it [=the ashes]…”: And from here stems our custom of washing the hands after coming from the dead, a hint at the water which contains the ashes of the red heifer. And it is also a hint at the Resurrection of the Dead… also plucking the grass is a hint at this, because the grass at the evening withers and dries out and in the morning sprouts up, according to the verse “and they will sprout up in towns like the grass of the field” (Psalms 72:16).

10. The Ritva (Seville, ca. 1250-1330) quotes the Ramban (in his Hiddushim to Megillah, ed. Stern, Jerusalem, 1976, cols. 211-212) and adds that one does not pluck the grass from the cemetery, but four cubits outside the cemetery.

11. Rabbi David Abudraham (Seville, wrote his book in 1340) discussed our subject in his chapter on Birkat Hamazon in the house of a mourner (Sefer Abudraham Hashalem, Jerusalem, 1963, p. 371):

And what they are accustomed to throw dirt and pebbles in the grave from every direction after the burial, some say that the earth should not say to the deceased “the dirt of your body does not belong to me”… as it is written “for dust you are and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19).
And the correct [reason] that they did this in order to show that all [have merited] to take part in his burial, as our Sages z”l said: “Just as God buries the dead… so should you” (Sotah 14a and parallels).

This custom is different than what we have seen until now – that they throw dirt and pebbles from every direction in the grave and not above the head or behind one’s back. The explanations are also new – that the earth should not say to the deceased “the dirt of your body does not belong to me”, and to show that all have merited to take part in his burial.

The Abudraham then quotes the custom of washing the hands, Rav Hai regarding washing the hands, a long quote from Ramban, and the Geonic responsum about cleansing the hands with dirt.

12. Rabbi Yozl Hoechstadt, Rabbi Yosef ben Moshe, quotes the custom of his teacher Rabbi Yisrael Isserlein (Austria, 1390-1460; Leket Yosher, ed, Freimann, Part II, Berlin, 1904, p. 92; the book was written ca. 1475):

“He will destroy death forever. My Lord God will wipe the tears away from all faces and will put an end to the reproach of His people over all the earth – for it is the Lord who has spoken”. This verse is written in Isaiah (25:8), and [Rabbi Yisrael] said it when they uproot grass after the deceased is buried.

13. Rabbi Yisrael of Bruna (1400-1480, a disciple of Rabbi Yisrael Isserlein) discusses our topic tangentially in a responsum (No. 181) about burial customs on Hol Hamoed Sukkot. They did not recite Tzidduk Hadin and Kaddish.

And when they returned from the grave, some plucked grass and threw it above their heads since it is hint at the Resurrection of the Dead as it is written “and they will sprout up in towns like the grass of the field” (Psalms 72:16), i.e., just as the grass returns and grows, so do the dead return and live, and so it is in [Tur] Yoreh Deah and in [Hagahot] Asheri, and some prevent this [custom on Hol Hamoed] and say that is a custom of mourning and sorrow…

14. Shlomo ibn Verga (1460-ca. 1530) was born in Spain and expelled to Lisbon in 1492, where he became a Converso in 1497, He fled to Italy in 1506 where he wrote his book Shevet Yehudah ca. 1525. Scholars surmise that he invented some of the stories in his book, but that does not alter the importance of his discussion of our topic. He relates to this custom as part of a dispute between a priest and some “emissaries” of the Jewish community (ed. Shochat, Jerusalem, 1947, pp. 112-113):

The priest replied… Second, I saw that when they return from the cemetery they uproot grass and dirt and throw it on their heads, and they say that it is to chase away the Angel of Death…
The reply of the important [Jewish] emissary… regarding the second question that they are accustomed to uproot the grass and in some places to lift the dirt –
It is to comfort mourners, for they hint at the time of Resurrection, about which it is said “awake and shout for joy, you who dwell in the dust” (Isaiah 26:19) and it is said “and they will sprout up in towns like the grass of the field” (Psalms 72:16).
A second reason: to awaken the heart and to break the pride of man, and he lifts up the dirt as if to say “for dust you are and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19). And the grass is a hint, as our ancestors said, that people are like the grass of the field, some sprout up and some wither (Eruvin 54a).
And the third is that we have a tradition that the soul does not return to its place in the Heavens until the body is buried…

15. Rabbi Yosef Karo (Safed, 1488-1575) discusses this custom at length in his Bet Yosef to Tur Yoreh Deah 376. In Shulhan Arukh Yoreh Deah 376:4 he rules that one says the Burial Kaddish “and after that they pluck dirt and grass and throw it behind their backs and they wash their hands with water”.

16. Rabbi Moshe of Trani, the Mabit (Safed, 1500-1580) permitted plucking grass with dirt on Hol Hamoed according to this custom, even though there is a general opinion of Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg which prohibits plucking grass and dirt in a cemetery on Hol Hamoed (Part I, No. 250).

17. Rabbi Mordechai Yaffe (1535-1612) quotes this custom in his Levush to Yoreh Deah 376:4, but it is actually an unattributed quotation from the Ra’avan (above, no. 4).

18. Rabbi Moshe Matt (Przemysl, Poland, 1551-1606) completed his book in 1584. He discussed this custom at length and quoted the Rokeah, Tahsbatz, Tur, and Kol Bo (Part 5, 1, 5, ed. London, 1958, pp. 360-361).

19. Rabbi Aaron Berekhiah of Modena (d. 1639) discusses this custom in his classic work on mourning (Ma’avar Yabok, Vilna, 1896, Sefat Emet, Chapter 30, p. 196 and Siftei Renanot, Chapter 20, p. 218). He quotes a number of the classic explanations which we have seen above and adds a number of Kabbalistic explanations according to his usual practice.

20. Rabbi Yudah Low Kirchheim wrote his book Minhagot Wermeize in Worms before 1615 (ed. Peles, Jerusalem, 1987, p. 311):

And after that the congregation, men and women, pluck grass and throw it behind them three times and say: “and they will sprout up in towns like the grass of the field” (Psalms 72:16) or pluck dirt if there is no grass there and say “He is mindful that we are dust” (ibid., 103:14).

21. Rabbi Yuzpe Shamesh quotes this custom in his Minhagim dk”k Wermeize (ed. Hamburger-Zimmer-Peles, Part II, Jerusalem, 1992, p. 95), written in Worms beginning in 1648: “And they uproot grass, and throw it above their heads, and they say: ‘and they will sprout up’ etc.”.

22. The non-Jewish scholar Johann Bodenschatz included an engraving of this custom by G.P. Nusbiegel in his Kirchliche Verfassung (Frankfurt and Leipzig, 1749). The men in the engraving are plucking grass in the cemetery and throwing it behind their backs. (7)

23. From the 19th century until today this custom in mentioned in many books devoted to Jewish customs or to the laws of mourning (see a list of 24 such books at the end of this responsum).

Personally, I have never seen this custom since it is not practiced in the Conservative movement in the United States. In Israel, too, I have not seen it from 1972 until today, but this is not surprising since there is no grass in most Israeli cemeteries and on Har Hamenuhot, the main cemetery in Jerusalem, there is almost no dirt that could be thrown.

24. However, there is some poignant testimony that this was the custom in Eastern Europe until the Holocaust. In 1996, a German journalist named Paul Badde traveled to the shtetl of Alytus in Lithuania in order to research the background of Zvi Kolitz, author of the classic story “Yosl Rakover Talks to God”. An elderly non-Jewish woman told him: “The Jews always throw small pebbles or grass over their shoulders as they leave the graveyard”.(8) In other words, this was the practice of Lithuanian Jews until the Holocaust and this elderly woman remembered the custom 55 years after the murder of the Jews of Alytus.

Explanations for the custom of throwing grass and dirt over the shoulder or in the air or in the grave.

We have already seen above many explanations for these customs, including:

  1. A hint at the Resurrection of the Dead according to the verse “and they will sprout up in towns like the grass of the field” (Psalms 72:16), as explained in Ketubot This explanation explains the grass but not the dirt.
  2. As a sign of mourning and sorrow, according to the verse “and they threw dirt into the air onto their heads” (Job 2:12). This verse does not fit most of the descriptions above since Job’s friends threw dirt up in the air so that it would land on their heads, not behind their backs.
  3. To remember that we are dirt and will return to dirt, according to the verses “for dust you are and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19) and “He is mindful that we are dust” (Psalms 103:14).
  4. A combination of water and dirt [=ashes] and grass [=hyssop] to hint at purification from impurity. This homiletic explanation is not convincing.
  5. “That the soul accompanies the body of a dead person until the grave and is not allowed to return until the congregation gives it permission, and the throwing behind them is a sign of permission, as [if to say]: ‘go to your rest’.” This explanation of the Tashbatz ca. 1300 resembles in general the following explanation of the modern scholars, and this was stressed by Joshua Trachtenberg in 1939.
  6. Indeed, modern scholars beginning in 1880 (see the list at the end of this responsum) say that Ashkenazic Jews used to throw grass and dirt behind their backs after a burial in order to chase away demons, evil spirits or the soul of the deceased who chased after or followed them home after the burial. Indeed, medieval German sources mention the use of grass for this very purpose, specifically at funerals. This explanation is similar to what Rabbeinu Kalonymus/Elyakim and others said in their own fashion: “and the reason is to make a separation between them and death”. It is also similar to the explanation which Shlomo ibn Verga placed in the mouth of the priest, ca. 1525: “and they say that it is to chase away the Angel of Death…”.

 III) To place grass or a small stone on the grave at the end of the burial service or after visiting a grave.

  1. This custom is mentioned by Rabbi Elya Shapira of Prague (1660-1712) in his Sefer Elya Rabbah (to Orah Hayyim 224, subparagraph 7) which was printed in Sulzbach in 1757:

Derashot Maharash wrote…
He also wrote regarding that which they pluck grass from a grave or they take a pebble and put it on the grave, it is because of kevod hamet [respect for the deceased] to show him that he had visited his grave.

Maharash is Rabbeinu Shalom of Neustadt who died in Neustadt after 1413. If so, the widespread custom today in Israel and the Diaspora as well as its explanation stem from Ashkenaz in the early 15th century. On the other hand, perhaps this is not certain because Halakhot Uminhagei Maharash were first published by Shlomo Shpitzer in Jerusalem, 1977 on the basis of Ms. Ginzberg-Moscow 85. There on page 124 (paragraph 368:2) it says: “I saw Our Teacher Rabbeinu Shalom… used to pluck grass in the cemetery, and he washed his hands and sat as he was leaving the cemetery…”. Since this testimony is not identical to the quote from Elya Rabbah, maybe Elya Rabbah was quoting a different rabbi?

However, at the end Shpitzer’s book he appended 118 laws and customs of Maharash quoted by his contemporaries that are not in the Ginzberg manuscript. Therefore, the quote from Maharash in Elya Rabbah could be authentic even though it is missing in the Ginzberg manuscript.

Furthermore, the above quotation from Maharash was copied independently by Rabbi Yehudah Ashkenazi, the Dayan of Ticktin, in his popular commentary Ba’er Heiteiv to Orah Hayyim 224, subparagraph 8, which was first printed in Amsterdam in 1742 before the printing of Elya Rabbah. That quotation is similar but not identical to the text in Elya Rabbah. In other words, he too copied the text directly from Derashot Maharash.

  1. This custom also appears in the above-mentioned engraving by Nusbiegel in the book by Bodenschatz (Frankfurt and Leipzig, 1749). On the left side of the engraving, one can see piles of stones on two of the graves. In other words, this custom is documented in an engraving in Ashkenaz seven years after the printing of Ba’er Heiteiv and eight years before the printing of Elya Rabbah.
  1. Until today some of the books which mention this custom quote Elya Rabbah and some of them quote Ba’er Heiteiv, but no one seems to have noticed that both of them quoted directly from Derashot Maharash.(9)

Explanations for today’s widespread custom  

  1. I could be that today’s widespread custom is simply a later permutation of custom number II above. In other words, originally, beginning in the 11th century, they used to pluck grass and dirt and throw them backwards over their shoulder at the end of the burial service. Later on, as described in Derashot Maharash in the 15th century: “they pluck grass from a grave or they take a pebble and put it on the grave” without throwing it.
  2. The Maharash himself explains simply “it is because of kevod hamet [respect for the deceased] to show him that he had visited his grave”.
  3. Joachim Schoenfeld in his book on Jewish life in Galicia before the Holocaust maintains that the goal was “to notify the person buried [there] that he might rest in peace, wherever he was”.(10)
  4. Rabbi Gavriel Goldman (Mei’olam Ve’ad Olam… Likhlal Edot Yisrael, Jerusalem, 2006, p. 217) suggests an additional explanation: “… In the past, when there were no stone monuments, they used to erect piles of stones on the grave. The piles would scatter over the course of time. Part of visiting a grave is also to mark the grave by adding stones to the grave”. This is a clever explanation, but it is not hinted at nor mentioned in any ancient source.
  5. Rabbi Abner Weiss (11) suggests that this is reminiscent of the ancient practice of “setimat hagollel“, that they would block the burial cave with a huge stone to prevent animals and robbers from entering. Indeed, I too thought of this explanation, but there is no hint in the sources at a connection between the Talmudic practice and the custom of Maharash in the 15th century.
  6. Finally, Rabbi Abner Weiss and Rabbi Maurice Lamm (12) mention a custom that Jews place a small stone on the grave after the burial and they ask forgiveness from the deceased for any injustice they may have committed against the deceased. Rabbi Lamm also maintains that this is an Israeli custom, but I have never seen a combination of these two things in Israel since making Aliyah in 1972. According to Minhag Yerushalayim [the custom of Jerusalem], after the burial, the head of the Hevra Kadisha asks forgiveness from the deceased, lest they showed disrespect to him during the Tohorah [washing of the body], funeral or burial. After that, all those present place a small stone on the grave. But there is no connection between the two customs.(13)

Summary and Conclusions

In this responsum we have seen three customs related to dirt, grass and stones at the end of the burial service and after visiting a cemetery:

  1. To cleanse the hands with dirt after burying the dead.. This custom is mentioned by the Geonim, but they preferred to wash the hands with water. As a result, this custom is mentioned by the Ramban, Ritva and Tur and then it disappeared. The original reason was probably to symbolically clean the hands from tumat hamet, from the impurity of the dead.
  1. To throw grass and dirt over the shoulder while reciting certain verses after the burial. This custom in mentioned in dozens if not hundreds of sources from the 11th century until today, even though it is little-known today. The original reason was to chase away demons or evil spirits or the soul of the deceased upon leaving the grave or the cemetery. Later on, many explanations were given in connection with the different verses that were recited as the grass and dirt were thrown.
  1. To place grass or pebbles on the grave after the burial or after visiting a grave. This custom is first mentioned by Rabbi Shalom of Neustadt at the beginning of the 15th century and is practiced by many Jews, especially Ashkenazim, until today. On the one hand, it may be a later permutation of the second custom, without throwing the grass and dirt. On the other hand, Rabbi Shalom himself maintained that “it is because of kevod hamet [respect for the deceased] to show him that he had visited his grave”. This is a beautiful and simple explanation to which any modern Jew can relate.

David Golinkin
Jerusalem
19 Tevet 5777


Notes

  1.  B”M Lewin, Otzar Hageonim, Volume 4, Massekhet… Mashkin, Jerusalem, 1932, paragraph 119, p. 41; Sha’arei Tzedek, fol. 21b, paragraph 19 = ed. Jerusalem, 1966, p. 48 in the name of Sar Shalom;, Teshuvot Rav Sar Shalom Gaon, ed. Weinberg, Jerusalem, 1976, p. 122, paragraph 107; Hemdah Genuzah, paragraph 94 among the responsa of Rav Natronai Gaon; Teshuvot Rav Natronai bar Hilai Gaon, ed. Y. Brody, Jerusalem, 1994, Vol. 2, Chapter 5, paragraph 292, pp. 436-437; Sefer Abudraham Hashalem, Jerusalem, 1963, p. 371 in the name of Teshuvot Hageonim.
  2. Otzar Hageonim, paragraph 120, pp. 41-42; Rabbi Yitzhak ibn Ghiyyat, Sha’arei Simhah, Part II, Furth, 1862, pp. 42-43; Shibolei Haleket Hashalem, ed. Buber, Hilkhot Semahot, paragraph 14, fol. 173a; Tanya Rabbati, ed. Yisrael Baron, Jerusalem, 2011, paragraph 66, p. 268; Torat Ha’adam of the Ramban, ed. Chavel, p. 156, which was then copied by Tur Yoreh Deah 376, in the Tur Hashalem, p. 294.
  1. Sefer Harokeah Hagadol, Jerusalem, 1967, paragraph 316, p. 193. The short version is also paraphrased in Sefer Ra’aviyah, ed. Aptowitzer, end of paragraph 841, Part II, Volume 3, p. 568.
  1. Shibolei Haleket Hashalem, ed. Buber, Hilkhot Semahot, paragraph 14, fol. 173a = Ma’asei Hageonim, ed. Freimann, Berlin, 1910, p. 51 = Sefer Hapardess, ed. Ehrenreich, Budapest, 1924, p. 265.
  1. Rabbi Yitzhak ben Moshe of Vienna, Sefer Or Zarua, ed. Zhitomir, 1862, Part II, end of the first paragraph 422, fol. 86b = ed. Machon Yerushalayim, Vol. II, Jerusalem, 2010, p. 492. The first sentence is quoted by Hagahot Asheri to the Rosh, Mo’ed Kattan, Chapter 3, paragraph 86.
  1. Regarding this commentary, see Avraham Grossman, Hakhmei Ashkenaz Harishonim, Jerusalem, 1981, pp. 165 ff. He quotes there the opinion of Avraham Epstein that the commentary to Bava Batra was written by the Rabbeinu Elyakim b”r Meshulam Halevi – the same rabbi whom we quoted in the previous paragraph.
  1. The picture can be found in From This World to the Next, New York, 1999, p. 49, as well as in the articles by Eidelberg and Sperber listed below.
  1. Zvi Kolitz, Yosl Rakover Talks to God, London, 1999, p. 47.
  1. Avraham Yitzhak Sperling, Sefer Ta’amei Haminhagim, Tel Aviv, 1957, paragraph 1069; Yitzhak Ze’ev Wendrovsky, Sefer Minhagei Bet Ya’akov, second edition, New York, 1911, p. 88; Rabbi Aaron Felder, Yesodei Smochos, revised edition, New York, 1976, p. 138; Sperber; and Marcus quote from Ba’er Heiteiv.
    Rabbi Ya’akov Hayyim Sofer, Kaf Hahayyim to Orah Hayyim 224, subparagraph 41; Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, Yabia Omer, Part 4, Jerusalem, 1964, Yoreh Deah, No. 35, paragraph 7; Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, Yalkut Yosef, Hilkhot Bikkur Holim Va’aveilut, Jerusalem, 2004 edition, p. 612, paragraph 40:11 quote from Elya Rabbah.
    The custom is mentioned without a source by Rabbi Reuven Bulka, The RCA Lifecycle Madrikh, New York, 1995, p. 182.
  1. Joachim Schoenfeld, Jewish Life in Galicia… 1898-1939, Hoboken, New Jersey, 1985, p. 41.
  1. Rabbi Abner Weiss, Death and Bereavement: A Halakhic Guide, Hoboken and New York, 1991, p. 88.
  1. Rabbi Maurice Lamm, The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning, New York, 1969, p. 67; revised edition, 2000, p. 64.
  1. Regarding this custom, cf. Frazer, pp. 21-22 for a number of explanations for the custom to place stones on or near the graves of saints.

Halakhic literature regarding plucking grass and dirt from the beginning of the 19th century until today (in chronological order, Hebrew and then English)

ר’ אברהם דנציג, חכמת אדם, כלל קנ”ח:כ”ט
אברהם לעוויזון, מקורי מנהגים, ברלין, 1846, סימן צ”ו, עמ’ 134
ר’ שלמה גנצפריד, קיצור שולחן ערוך, סימן קצ”ט:י’
אליעזר לאנדסהוטה, סדר בקור חולים מעבר יבק וספר החיים, ברלין, 1867, עמ’ LXIX
ר’ יחיאל מיכל עפשטיין, ערוך השלחן, יורה דעה, שע”ו:י’
י”ד אייזנשטיין, אוצר דינים ומנהגים, ניו יורק, 1917, ערך “קבורה”, עמ’ 354
ר’ אברהם אליעזר הירשאוויץ, אוצר כל מנהגי ישרון, מהד’ לבוב, תר”ץ, עמ’ 318-319
ר’ יקותיאל גרינוואלד, כל בו על אבלות, חלק א’, ירושלים-ניו יורק, תשל”ג, עמ’ 216
ר’ יחיאל מיכל טוקצ’ינסקי, גשר החיים, מהדורה ב’, חלק א’, ירושלים, תש”ך, עמ’ קנ”ג
ר’ חיים דוד הלוי, מקור חיים השלם, רפ”ב:ט”ז, חלק חמישי, עמ’ 375
ר’ אהרן לעווין, זכרון מאיר על אבילות, חלק א’, טורונטו, תשמ”ה, עמ’ 448-447
(הוא מסכם ששה הסברים שניתנו למנהג)
ר’ חיים בנימין גולדברג, ספר פני ברוך: אבלות בהלכה, ירושלים, תשמ”ו, עמ’ ס”ה
שאול מייזליש, חיי אדם: זכרון לברכה: מנהגי פטירה ואבלות במסורת ישראל, תל אביב, 1987, עמ’ 53
אשר וסרטיל, עורך, ילקוט מנהגים, ממנהגי שבטי ישראל, מהדורה ג’, ירושלים, תשנ”ו, עמ’ 259 (מנהג יהודי גרוזיה)
ר’ גבריאל גולדמן, מעולם ועד עולם… לכלל עדות ישראל, ירושלים, 2006, עמ’ 96 (הוא מסכם ארבעה הסברים שניתנו למנהג)
ר’ עובדיה יוסף, חזון עובדיה, הלכות אבלות, חלק א’, ירושלים, תש”ע, עמ’ ש”ל

Rabbi Joshua Sperka, Eternal Life, New York, 1939, p. 61
Hyman Goldin, Hamadrikh: The Rabbi’s Guide, Hebrew Publishing Company, New York 1939 and 1956, p. 134
Rabbi Aaron Felder, Yesodei Smochos, revised edition, New York, 1976, p. 50
Rabbi Isaac Klein, A Time to Be Born, A Time to Die, United Synagogue Youth, New York 1976, pp. 36-37 = הרב יצחק קליין ודוד גולינקין, עת ללדת ועת למות, ירושלים, תשנ”ב, עמ’ 36 = Rabbi Isaac Klein, A Guide to Jewish Religious Practice, The Jewish Theological Seminary, New York 1979, p. 281
Rabbi Abraham Rosenfeld, סדר תפילת זכרון לבית אבל, Prayer Book for a House of Mourning, second edition, Jerusalem 1981, p. 226
Rabbi Tzvi Rabinowitz, A Guide to Life: Jewish Laws and Customs of Mourning, Northvale, New Jersey and London 1989, p. 42
Dr. Ron Wolfson, A Time to Mourn, A Time to Comfort, New York, 1993, p. 138
Rabbi Reuven Bulka, The RCA Lifecycle Madrikh, New York, 1995, p. 162

Academic literature about the plucking of grass and dirt (in chronological order from 1880 until today)

משה גידעמאנן, ספר התורה והחיים בארצות המערב בימי הביניים, חלק א’, ווארשא, תרנ”ז, עמ’ 169 (המקור הגרמני הופיע בשנת 1880)

Joseph Jacobs, The Jewish Encyclopedia, Vol. XI, New York, 1905, p. 599

James G. Frazer, The Golden Bough, Part VI, The Scapegoat, third edition, London, 1913, pp. 15ff. and especially p. 19

אברהם מרמורשטיין, ציון ב’ (תרפ”ז), עמ’ 27-25 (הוא נותן שם כמה הסברים למנהג)

Joshua Trachtenberg, Jewish Magic and Superstition, New York, 1939, pp. 178-179, 301

Hayyim Schauss, The Lifetime of a Jew, New York, 1950, pp. 267, 288

Theodor Gaster, The Holy and the Profane, New York, 1955, pp. 175-176, 247

שלמה איידלברג, PAAJR LIX (1993) חלק עברי, עמ’ 14-7 עם התמונה של בודנשץ בעמ’ 14 = שלמה איידלברג, בנתיבי אשכנז, ניו יורק, תשס”א, עמ’ 43-36 (בלי תמונה)

דניאל שפרבר, מנהגי ישראל:מקורות ותולדות, חלק ששי, ירושלים, תשנ”ח, עמ’ קט”ז-קי”ז עם התמונה של בודנשץ בעמ’ שמ”ה

Ivan Marcus, The Jewish Life Cycle, Seattle and London, 2004, pp. 213-214, 295

4 thoughts on “Why is it customary to place a stone on a grave? (Yoreh Deah 376:4) Volume 11, Number 3

  1. Is there a relationship between any of these sources and the issue of flowers on a grave or at a funeral? In the States, the custom is generally that flowers are not part of a Jewish funeral. But that custom may be waning. And what about flowers on a grave? I have seen flowers at Israeli funerals/gravesites.

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