Jewish tombstones of Belarus
When visiting Jewish cemeteries in Belarus, their poverty is most often surprising in comparison with Prague or Warsaw. Mostly these are small stones or steles – mazevahs – with inscriptions in Hebrew and almost without symbols. Epitaphs are also rare on mazevahs. Why is this so?
The reasons are: poorer condition of the region (Belarus and Lithuania) in comparison with its western and southern neighbors, and the lack of limestone, a material mainly used for the famous mazevahs, rich in carving and ornamentation, in Ukraine and Poland. In Belarus the local granite was used, a stone quite difficult to process. The comparative conservatism of the region also affected the style of mazevahs.
In addition, our current impression is distorted by the wave of destruction of the twentieth century. If we look at old photos and postcards, we can see that there were examples of cemeteries rich in symbols and setting in Belarus. For example, the Jewish cemetery in Brest (now the stadium is located in its place) is well seen on the postcards of the First World War.
And now let’s dwell on the symbols.
Lions are among the very common symbols. It is known that the Jerusalem Temple was decorated with lions, bulls and cherubs. Therefore, such images were often used in the design of synagogues, and later of tombs as well. Usually, when there is a lion on the tombstone, this indicates that it is a grave of a person with a name similar to the lion’s name: Leib or Arieh, and sometimes Yehuda. It, naturally, implies positive treats of this animal – courage, strength, which are associated with the deceased.
Examples of matching symbols and names can be seen in the photograph from the Brest cemetery. We can even find the grave with deer there. The deer corresponded to the name of Hirsch, otherwise Zvi. If there was a bird on the tombstone, this corresponded to the burial of a woman, and it could have been connected with her name – Feiga, and if we recognize a dove in the bird, then the name Jonah corresponded to it. Another female gender attribute is menorah (7-nranched candlestick). This is due to the tradition of the mistress lighting candles at sunset on Friday, in preparation to meet Shabbat. Sometimes there are combinations of menorah and the image of bird.
Symbolic visualization included not only names, but also last names, kin affiliation, including social status obtained by birth. For example, the class of Cohens, who led their genealogy from Aaron. They had a high social status, and on their tombstones one can see images of two hands with especially folded fingers (two each). It is nothing but a sign of a ritual blessing. Another such group is the Levites – descendants of the tribe of Levi. Traditionally, they help in worship and, in particular, bring a jug of water to the Cohen for ritual washing of hands. Therefore, on their tombstones you can see the image of the same jug.
The symbol of a broken branch or a broken crown of a tree is quite often found on mazevahs. Looking at it, we understand that this is an image of loss, the tragedy of the end of life, and in the case of a branch, the death of a loved one in the family. The same symbol is well known in Orthodox and Catholic cemeteries – it is a gravestone in the form of a trunk of a tree with cut branches. Interestingly, this form of gravestone, which developed in Christian cemeteries, became popular among Jews. It has been used since the beginning of the twentieth century, and with every decade it becomes more complicated. On the monuments dated 1950-1960s, this is a whole system of pleached trunks.
At the same time, the symbolism of a broken tree was supplemented with fruits on it in images from classic mazevahs. It was believed that the number of fruit corresponded to the number of children left orphans. There are sometimes images of broken candles on the mazevahs – usually over the graves of women, and warped, broken doors embodied the death of the master of the house. In Christian cemeteries, we find broken columns. A broken sword meant the death of the last male of the kin.
The Star of David is perhaps the first thing that comes to mind when we talk about the symbolism of the Jewish culture. But on mazevahs it appears quite recently, somewhere in the late nineteenth century. And this is due to the development of the Zionist movement and the formation of Jews as a political nation. Moreover, it is still used not so often. Take, for instance, the Jewish cemetery in Lepel. Of the 403 graves from the end of the XIX to the beginning of the XXI century, the star of David is used only at 14, with the earliest of them dated 1901. In this sense, two letters of the Hebrew alphabet, “peh” and “nun” (נ פ), should be recognized as the most characteristic mark of the most mazevahs. These are the first letters of the words “rests here”.
The Jewish epitaph, at least in Belarus, is a rather standardized text. From mazevah to mazevah, the same expressions are repeated, deviations are relatively rare. First comes the already mentioned two-letter formula, sometimes it is changed to “here is the grave”. Next is the standard characteristic of the deceased. For example, for women - “a modest woman, mistress” and then a name follows added by “a daughter of such and such”. Then goes is the date of death according to the Jewish calendar. Finally, everything ends with the obligatory phrase “Let his/her soul be tied into a knot of life” (a phrase is usually written not in words, but in the first letters of words). Sometimes, there are more detailed options, for example, on the graves of rabbis, whose merits are more widely enumerated.
Do you want to see with your own eyes everything described above? Contact us and we will arrange a custom-made tour for you.