When I was at Wildacres last month, I made a thank-you visit to the grave of I. D. Blumenthal whose vision made the retreat what it is today. And I brought a little stone from home to add to those already there.
I'd noticed little rocks on headstones in cemeteries before but not till last year did I learn that it's a Jewish custom -- a way of paying respect to the deceased.
It makes sense -- a stone is far more permanent than flowers -- and, according to some of my research, some Jewish traditions feel that money would be better given to charity in honor of the departed rather than buying flowers.
Some authorities believe that the custom is ancient and traces back to when stones would be put on a grave to keep wild animals from digging in it -- or to keep the spirits of the dead safely underground.
The website Ask the Rabbi has a great story about the custom, supposedly dating back to the Turkish occupation of Israel. According to this tale, an Arab was killed in Jerusalem on the Sabbath and the rumor spread that a Jew was the murderer. The Turkish authorities proclaimed that all Jews must leave the city at once.
A well known elderly Jewish mystic and Kabbalist came upon the scene of the crime where many Arabs were crowded around the dead man. Even though it was the Sabbath, a time when he was forbidden to write, the mystic wrote one of the names of God on a piece of paper and laid it on the dead man's chest. at once the corpse sat up and pointed to his murderer -- another Arab.
The Jews were saved. But the mystic had broken the Law by writing on the Sabbath. Even though the dire nature of the emergency allowed the act, feeling that some atonement should be made, the mystic asked that his fellow Jews stone his grave when he died.
They agreed but in order not to bring shame to the man who had saved them, they began the custom of placing small stones on every Jewish grave.
This endeth the lesson for the day.