By Israel Drazin
There is a curious practice among many Jews of picking up a rock or pebble lying by graves of relatives or friends that they visit and placing it on the grave stone or close by it as they leave. Many explanations have been offered, but most people are dissatisfied with them. I will offer a solution that may or may not be true.
Some cultures place flowers on or near graves. The Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 43a and Betza 6a, prohibit this custom, perhaps because it suggests that the deceased can appreciate the flowers and the person leaving them is being deceived. It is also possible that the talmudic rabbis wanted to discourage Jews from imitating a pagan tradition. If the latter conjecture is true and if I am correct, this rabbinic decision, as I will show, is ironic. But first, let’s look at a few solutions that people offered to explain why rocks are laid on graves.
Some people think that these pebbles and rocks recall how the ancients buried their dead: family and friends covered graves with stone piles. By placing a stone on the grave, visitors show respect by participating somewhat in the burial. But, we may ask, is such symbolic burial necessary or meaningful when a person was interred long-ago?
Why were graves covered with rocks?
Some scholars argue that the practice is based on a superstition. The ancients feared that the ghost of the dead would rise from the grave and haunt them, so they set a heavy barrier over the grave to keep the ghost in the hole. Later, by placing a small stone on the grave the caller is symbolically helping restrain the dead where it belongs. Most people today would reject this unrealistic explanation.
Some opine that ancient tombstones and stone piles protected dead bodies from animals who would try to dig up corpses. Setting new stones over graves during visits adds protection for some stones might have blown away. But if this is the reason, why place stones over a heavy tombstone.
Still others suggest that the stone shows future visitors that the grave was visited and the dead person was not forgotten. This idea is mentioned in Orach Chayim 224:8 and Yoreh Deah 376:4. But why place a stone; why not a note showing people who came?
Connecting with a patriarchal deed
Midrash Pesikta Zutra 35:20 discloses that when the patriarch Jacob’s wife Rachel died each of Jacob’s sons placed a stone over her grave to build a tombstone. This tale is not in the Bible and, in any event, Jacob’s sons’ act at burial has no connection with a visitor to a grave long after internment.
Connecting with an ancient practice
Rabeinu Tam in the Tosaphot to the Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 47b, states that small stones were placed under a large tombstone so that the heavy tombstone would not be overly heavy on the deceased’s body. His view is that the visitor is respectfully participating in the burial. However, the burial might have occurred long before the visit and the ancient practice was to place the stone under the tombstone not on top of it.
It is no surprise that so many rationales were offered since none is totally satisfactory.
My suggestion based on my understanding of a talmudic statement
There are many discussions in early and later rabbinical sources about the worship of two idols, Baal Peor and Margoliot. The many sources are mentioned by Netanel Baadani in his Talmud Ha’igud, Heyei Bodkim, pages 38-41, part of a magnificent series of discussions on the Talmud that is edited by Professor Shamma Friedman. The idol Baal Peor is mentioned frequently in the Bible, in places such as Numbers 23:28, 28:3, 5, 31:16, and Deuteronomy 4:3. The Bible describes its worship as men and women engaging in sex before the god. The idol Margoliot is not mentioned in the Bible. Scholars believe it refers to the god Mercury. Greeks called it Hermes and Romans Mercurius. Mercury was the most popular god of the lands that the Romans conquered, so it is not surprising that the rabbis mention it.
Both the Bible and later rabbinical literature frequently disparages idols, such as calling them “shit.” Thus no one should take the rabbinical descriptions of how Baal Peor and Margoliot were worshipped literally. Sources such as Midrash Sifrei Numbers 131 and Mishnah Sanhedrin 7:6 state that Baal Peor was worshipped by ridiculously defecating before it and Margoliot by pelting it with stones.
It is clear that when the rabbis said defecating, they were disparaging the sexual relations that the Torah itself states was the manner this idol was worshipped. But how was Margoliot/Mercury worshipped? What were the rabbis insulting when they said its devotees tossed stones at it?
I think that Margoliot was worshipped by placing, not tossing, stones at or near its altar. Mercury is associated with stones. Herodotus tells us in his Histories 2:51, and his report is confirmed in other sources, that the ancients placed stone Hermai, named after Hermes, as boundary or mile-stones that were carved with the head and phallus of Hermes. These stones were set on the ground to ensure fertility of herds and flocks and to bring good luck. Aesop Fables 564, Barbrius 48, describes: “There was a four-cornered statute of Hermes by the side of the road with a heap of stones piled at its base.”
It is possible that stones were chosen because Mercury was known for his speed, his swift flights from place to place, moving as fast as a tossed stone. Jews saw that placing a stone on or near his altar when they came into contact with Greeks in the fourth century BCE, considered it a sign that the worshipper visited the site, and adopted this practice as a means of demonstrating their continued love to their dead relative or friend.
If I am correct, the rabbis’ rejection of the somewhat innocuous practice of placing flowers at graves to avoid copying a pagan tradition did not stop Jews from copying a pagan method of worshipping an idol.