Bar-Ilan University

The Faculty of Jewish Studies

The Office of the Campus Rabbi


Daf Parashat Hashavua

(Study Sheet on the Weekly Torah Portion)

Basic Jewish Studies Unit


Parshat "Vayishlakh"

Rachel's Tombstone: The Reasons for Erecting a Tombstone

Prof. Ya'akov S. Spiegel

Department of Talmud

Translated by Mark Elliott Shapiro

"Rachel died and was buried on the road to Efrat, in Bethlehem. On her grave Jacob erected a monument, which, to this very day, is known as Rachel's monument" (Genesis xxxv:19-20).

This is the first time we encounter in our tradition the concept of a tombstone, or a memorial marker. Furthermore, this is the only place in the Bible where a tombstone erected on an individual's grave is specifically mentioned. Although several references to burial are made elsewhere in the Bible, none of these are accompanied by the mention of a tombstone or any other such structure having been erected over a grave. There is, in fact, an additional reference in the Bible to a memorial monument: "Absalom erected his own tombstone in the Valley of the King, for Absalom said, 'I have no son who will remember me after I die.' He named the monument 'Absalom's Tomb', which has remained the monument's name to this very day." (II Samuel xviii:18) However, in this verse, Absalom's Tomb is not referred to as a tombstone, but rather as a structure erected in a particular place in order to serve as a memorial. Furthermore, the structure is known as Absalom's Tomb during his lifetime.

The Bible uses another term connected with burial - "tziyun" or marker: "He asked, 'What is this marker that I see before me. The residents of the town responded, "This is the tomb of the Man of God, an individual who came to us from Judah . . . ." (II Kings xxiii:17)

Is there a difference between the terms "tombstone" (or "tomb") and "marker"? According to the Rabbis, there is a difference.

In the Mishna Sheqalim (chapter 1, subchapter 1), we read the following:

On the first day of the month of Adar, the passages concerning the donation of the half Shekel and of the prohibition of adulterated fruit are read in public. On the fifteenth of Adar, the Book of Esther is read in the walled cities . . . tombs are visited and the prohibition of adulterated fruit is declared before the congregation.

Regarding this passage, the Jerusalem Talmud comments:

What is the Biblical source for the custom of erecting tomb-markers? Rabbi Berakhiya states: Concerning the leper the Torah decrees that "he shall call out, Unclean! Unclean!" to warn the passerby that he should avoid touching him.

This indicates that the purpose of the Biblical landmark, which notes a burial place, is to inform ritually pure the individuals where a grave is located, so that the ritually pure will avoid that spot and thus avoid the danger of becoming ritually impure. The marking of graves was a customary practice even after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, because, even after the Temple ceased to exist, the Kohanim, the members of the priestly caste, are required to maintain their ritual purity.

In the Talmud (Baba Matsia, 85b), we find the following passage: "Resh Lakish used to mark the burial caves of righteous individuals". Rashi explains this statement: "The purpose of this action was to prevent Kohanim from accidentally walking over a burial cave and from becoming ritually impure as a result. Resh Lakish would mark burial caves in order to avoid a unpleasant situation whereby a righteous person's grave inadvertently becomes the source of ritual impurity for Kohanim." Similarly, we read elsewhere in the Talmud (Baba Batra, 58b): "Rabbi Bana'a would mark burial caves". On this passage, Rashbam provides an interpretation that is similar to the above explication provided by Rashi: "He would mark the burial cave with whitewash in order to designate the location of a ritually impure area and in order to prevent people from bringing ritually pure items through such areas, which can render these items ritually impure". A verse closely related to this subject can be found in the Book of Ezekiel (xxxix: 15): "People would travel the length and breadth of the Land of Israel, and, whenever they would see a human bone, they would erect a marker beside it . . . in this way, the Land was rendered ritually pure".

In ancient times, graves in the Land of Israel were specifically marked, so that persons would know the location of graves and would thereby avoid becoming ritually impure by walking over a grave. However, this practice does not in itself constitute proof that, according to Jewish law, a tombstone must be erected over a gravesite. While it is true that a tombstone may be used to mark a grave, there is no obligation that a grave must be so marked.

Tombstones fulfilled another purpose, as we can learn from another Mishna in the tractate of Shekalim:

If money was collected for burial purposes and a certain sum was left over after the individual was buried, that sum may be used for erecting a tombstone over the grave.

In connection with this Mishna, the Jerusalem Talmud states:

In the view of Rabbi Shimon Ben Gamliel, tombstones should not be erected over the graves of righteous individuals, whose words are their memorial. (According to the explication provided by "Korban Ha'eida", "The term 'words' should be understood in the following manner: 'Whenever one quotes a righteous person with regard to the interpretation of a point in Jewish law, that reference serves as the memorial of this righteous individual".)

In other words, as Rabbi Shimon Ben Gamliel sees it, the function of the tombstone is to keep the memory of the departed alive in the minds of the living. Thus, if the memory of the departed individual is kept alive means, the tombstone is not needed as a memorial: since the words of righteous individuals serve as a memorial, there is no need for the erection of a tombstone over their gravesite. It is quite possible that the other Sages of the Talmud regarded the tombstone as having a memorial function and disagreed only over the issue of utilizing the surplus funds after the burial costs have been deducted.

In this context, the above mentioned verse in II Samuel (xviii:18) regarding Absalom's tomb should be recalled. In Absalom's case, the reference is not to a tombstone erected on a gravesite; nonetheless, the tombstone or tomb serves a memorial function in the absence of any other instruments. In the parlance of our rabbinical sages, it is interesting to note, the concept "tombstone" or "tomb" is no longer rendered by the Hebrew term "matzeva." This term is replaced by "nefesh," which literally means "soul" and whose connotation helps us to understand the function of the structure erected over a gravesite.

There are thus two reasons for the erection of a "gravemark" ("tziyun") or "tomb(stone)" ("matzeva"): first, to warn kohanim that they must avoid this area so as to maintain their ritual purity; and, second, to serve as a memorial for the departed. A well-known individual requires no physical memorial, since the deeds of that person serve a memorial function.

In light of the above reasons, there is no need for any inscription on a tombstone. Some rabbinical authorities consider the practice of writing an inscription on a gravestone as a custom that developed in the course of Jewish history and which is a late addition to Jewish tradition.

The above discussion leads us to this week's Torah portion. Why did Jacob erect a tombstone over Rachel's gravesite? After all, a celebrated individual requires no tombstone, because the words of that individual serve as a memorial.

Rabbi Shmuel Yaffeh Ashkenazi, one of the greatest interpreters of the Midrash, lived in 16th century Turkey and died slightly over four hundred years ago, in 1595, on the 19th day of the Hebrew month of Elul. According to Rabbi Ashkenazi, as he notes in his commentary on the Midrash, "Yeffeh To'ar", the Midrash (Genesis Rabba, ch. 82, section 10) for this week's Torah portion provides an answer:

"On her grave Jacob erected a tombstone" (Gen. xxxv:20)

. . . . In the view of Rabbi Shimon Ben Gamliel, tombstones should not be erected over the graves of righteous individuals, whose words are their memorial . . . . "Rachel died and was buried on the road to Efrat . . . ." Why did Jacob erect a tombstone over Rachel's gravesite? He foresaw that the future exiles of the Jewish people would have to pass her tomb; therefore, he buried her there, so that she could pray for God's mercy on her nation.

The author of this Midrash quotes Rabbi Shimon Ben Gamliel to emphasize the problem that is posed by Jacob's decision to set up a tombstone over Rachel's grave and which has been referred to above. In order to resolve the apparent contradiction involved (Rachel was a celebrated personage in the ancient world), the author of the Midrash argues that the function of the tombstone in this specific case is different. The purpose of the tomb is not to memorialize Rachel, but rather to designate the place of her burial, so that future exiles could cling to that tomb and beg her to pray for them as they leave the Land of Israel.

According to Rabbi Hayim Elazar Shapira, the Great Teacher and Rabbi of Munkatch in the pre-World War Two period, a close reading of the Torah will show us that this interpretation is, in fact, presented by the Biblical text itself. In Rabbi Shapira's view, ("Minhat Elazar" part 3, section 37), the interpretation is suggested by the phrase that refers to the tombstone and which literally means "this is the tombstone of Rachel's burial". The Bible could simply have said "this is "Rachel's tomb" but, instead of doing so, wants to stress that the tomb is meant not to memorialize Rachel (since, as Rabbi Shimon Ben Gamliel notes, tombstones should not be erected over the graves of righteous individuals, whose words are their memorial), but rather to designate the place of her burial, so that the living will know where she is buried and so that they will be able to pray at her gravesite.

We thus have here yet a third reason for erecting a tombstone. In the case of Rachel's gravesite, the tombstone is intended to mark the place where the living can pray for God's mercy. It should be added here that the custom of praying at Rachel's Tomb developed quite dramatically over the generations and that this custom has taken on various forms and various directions. Furthermore, it should be added that many rabbis did not approve of the practice, for different reasons; however, discussion of this particular point belongs to another context.

"He bought the plot of land . . . for a hundred keshithas" (Gen. xxxiii:19)

Dr. Zohar Amar

Department of Land of Israel Studies

Translated by Mark Elliott Shapiro

In this week's Torah portion, we learn that Jacob purchased a plot of land in the city of Shekhem from the sons of Hamor and that the price was 100 kesithas (cf. Joshua xxiv:32). The Bible also informs us that Job received one kesithas from each member in his family (Job xlii:11).

This article will briefly consider the meaning of the term "kesitha" and will also provide a quick glimpse into the Biblical world's modes of payment.

In the world of numismatics, it is customarily assumed that the coins as we know them today were invented in the seventh century B.C.E. in Lydia in Asia Minor. The coins discovered in archeological excavations in the Land of Israel date back only from the Persian period. The first coins in the Land of Israel were produced in the late sixth century B.C.E. and were of Greek origin. From the fourth century B.C.E. onwards, coins began to minted in the Land of Israel as well: for example, the "YHD" coins, which bear the Aramaic name of the province of Yehuda under the Persian empire. In any event, it is clear that the payments during the Biblical period (up to the Persian era) were not made with coins, but rather with pieces of metal (copper, silver or gold), which were used as barter, by weight, in return for goods (generally speaking, agricultural produce).

In Onkolos' translation, kasita is rendered as "hurfan", that is: "lambs.

During the Middle Ages, a similar interpretation is offered for Gen. xxxiii: 19) by such commentators as Rabbi Sa'adia Gaon and Rabbi Abraham, son of Maimonides (cf. Menahem Ben Saruk's Notebook, under "lamb" [kesev]).

According to this line of interpretation, Jacob bought the plot of land in Shekhem for 100 head of sheep.

On the other hand, in his translation of Job xlii:11, Rabbi Sa'adia Gaon (according to the compiler of one of the editions in which the translation appears) interprets the term "kesitha" as a form of jewelry, that is, as a parallel term to the phrase "gold nose ring" referred to in the same verse (please see Rabbi Yosef Kapah, Job with a Translation and with the Interpretation of Rabbi Sa'adia Gaon [Jerusalem, 5733/1972-73]), p. 207). The phrase in Job might not necessarily be an actual piece of jewelry but rather a kind of early ornament with a fixed weight, as is the case with "golden nose rings" (please see Gen. xxiv:22 and Judges viii:24-26).

An Egyptian relief dating from 1380 B.C.E. depicts the weighing of silver or gold coins against a weight in the form of a bull's head (please see picture). Thus, the Biblical term "kesitha" might be a reference to a metal weight that was in the form of a lamb and which represented a fixed weight with a predetermined and known price.

Our rabbinical sages provide another line of interpretation to the term "kesitha". In an anecdotal comment, Rabbi Akiva notes, "When I went to Africa, I observed that the people there used the word "kesitha" to describe their coinage (Babylonian Talmud, Rosh Hashana, p. 26b). The interpretation of "kesitha" as a kind of coin certainly reflects a somewhat later reality, which developed during the era of our rabbinical sages. It can be assumed that this interpretation of "kesitha" is the last stage in the process of translating the word, which, as noted above, originally referred either to a lamb or a weight of fixed measurement or to a kind of ornament. All of these various options are mentioned in Midrash Genesis, ch. 79, section 7).

From the above data, it seems clear that the most popular form of payment during the Biblical period before the invention of coins was pieces of metal, usually silver, with a fixed weight. Thus, the verbal root SH-K-L in the Bible (like the Akadian verb, shakalu) connotes not only "to weigh" but also "to pay for something", as in the verse: "Abraham paid Efron the sum of money that was mentioned before the sons of Het, namely, four hundred shekels of silver at the going merchant's rate"(Gen. xxiii:16). The weighing of silver shekels was apparently carried out by means of scales (cf. Jeremiah xxxii:9). Frequently, the metal (silver or gold) was in the form of a bar, which could be broken or cut up into pieces, each with a fixed weight. Apparently, this practice is the source of the Hebrew terms "beka" - coin - (Gen. xxiv:22 and Exodus xxxviii:26) and "betza kesef" - greed (Judges v:19).

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