Jewish Headstones, Monuments & Markers

Jewish tradition prescribes the placement of a monument, or matzeivah, on the grave of a loved one. It’s a sign of love and respect and part of the mitzvah of honoring the person who has passed. 

Also spelled matzevot, massebot or matzevah, the matzeivah marks the gravesite and includes a little bit about the person buried there.

In this article, you will learn about:

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Jewish headstone and monument design

Design options for Jewish memorials can vary depending on the rules of the cemetery, local traditions and family customs and tastes. They may be simple, upright granite monuments or large stone statues. Markers might include a birdbath or a simple plaque. Some families prefer grave ledgers, which are slabs of stone that cover the grave completely.

Jewish headstones, monuments and markers can be made of stately granite or timeless bronze. They are almost always personalized in some way.

Stones lying on an upright monument engraved with the Star of David.

What should be engraved on a Jewish headstone?

Traditionally, Jewish headstones have included two basic pieces of information:

  • The person's Hebrew name, so the name will be remembered.
  • The Hebrew date of that person's death, so future generations will know the date of the yahrzeit.

In the United States, it’s customary to also include the person's English name, dates of birth and death, and a short epitaph.

At the bottom of the monument, it’s traditional to include the following inscription:
ת נ צ ב ה
These letters are an acronym for a Hebrew phrase that translates as May/his/her/their soul(s) be bound up in the bond of life.

It's also very common to see two other letters that translate as Here lies: פ נ.

The letters typically appear at the top of a gravestone, alone, embedded in the Star of David or underneath it, and above the deceased's name.

What do the different symbols on Jewish monuments mean?

Because the Shulkhan Aruch, or Code of Jewish Law, restricts the creation of images of people or angels, Jewish headstone designs usually prioritize symbols. That said, it's very common for Jewish families of Eastern European descent to include lifelike portraits on their loved ones' headstones.

Star of David

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The Star of David, also called the Magen David (Shield of David) in Hebrew, represents Judaism all over the world. It's a means of identification and connection for Jewish people. Though it’s an iconic symbol, its widespread use is relatively recent. The Star of David is believed to date back only to the 17th century.

Cohen hands

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Two hands next to one another, with the ring and middle fingers spread apart and the thumbs on each hand touching, represent a man called a Kohayn (also spelled Cohen or Kohan) or the plural Kohaynim.

This status is passed down from father to son in families believed to descend from Aaron, an important figure in ancient Jewish history. A Kohayn has a special role in many synagogues, where they bless the people present by using the hand gesture depicted in the symbol.

Water and pitcher

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A hand pouring water from a pitcher into a bowl represents a Levite. A Levite is believed to be descended from Levi, another important figure in Jewish history, and has a special role in many congregations, assisting Kohaynim. The symbol represents a Levite’s traditional role of cleaning the hands of Kohaynim.

Menorah or Sabbath candlesticks

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A lit candelabra with up to seven branches, in the style of a menorah, usually represents a woman, with the candlesticks representing the traditional role of women as the ones responsible for lighting the Shabbat candles in Jewish homes.

Holocaust survivor

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This symbol appears on the headstone of someone who survived the Holocaust.

Department of the Army

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We see this symbol used to indicate the deceased was an Army veteran. There are also symbols used for members of other branches of the military, fraternal organizations and various professions.

Jewish unveiling ceremony at the grave marker

The unveiling ceremony

It's traditional for Jewish families to hold a ceremony to unveil a loved one's monument after it's been installed. The ceremony usually takes place on the yahrzeit, though a family may elect to hold it any time between the end of shiva and the yahrzeit. Timing may depend on when the cemetery is able to install the monument.

For an unveiling, the headstone is covered with a cloth. Some families use elaborate custom cloths to cover the stone; others use a simple white or dark-colored sheet.

The ceremony usually starts with a series of readings, which can include something from the Book of Psalms and the Mourner's Kaddish. Some families share memories about their loved ones. At the end, the cloth is removed from the headstone so everyone can see it for the first time.

A rabbi may preside over the service or the family may conduct the unveiling themselves.

The unveiling ceremony isn’t required by Jewish law, so it won’t always be done the same way.

Planning a Jewish memorial

With expertise in planning Jewish funerals and burials, Dignity Memorial® professionals can help you honor your family's traditions. We're here to guide you through the process and help you understand all your options.

We're also experts in planning ahead, which can save your family from emotional and financial burdens. Contact us to learn more about Jewish headstones and monuments or to start planning today.