Reading Hebrew Tombstones
Jewish tombstones with Hebrew inscriptions have an added value to genealogists, in that they not only show the date of death and sometimes the age or date of birth, but they also include the given name of the deceased's father. This permits you to go back one more generation.
Here are a few helpful pointers if you cannot read Hebrew.
At the top of most Jewish tombstones is the abbreviation , which stands for po nikbar or po nitman, meaning "here lies".
At the end of many Hebrew tombstone inscriptions you will find the abbreviation
If any Hebrew characters at all are written on a tombstone, they are most likely to be the person's Hebrew name. A Hebrew name always includes a patronymic, the person's father's given name. This is a unique feature of Jewish tombstones, and a great boon to Jewish genealogy. The Hebrew word , ben, means "son of", as in "Yaakov ben Yitzhak", meaning "Yaakov the son of Yitzhak". , bat, means "daughter of". On tombstones, these words will often appear as , an abbreviation for ben reb, meaning "son (or daughter) of the worthy", followed by the father's given name. The word reb is a simple honorific, a title of respect — it does not mean Rabbi.
The Jewish Calendar
Dates are written in Hebrew according to the Jewish calendar. This calendar, which starts its "year one" with the Creation of the World, was probably designed by the patriarch Hillel II in the fourth century. He calculated the age of the world by computing the literal ages of biblical characters and other events in the Bible, and came up with a calendar that begins 3760 years before the Christian calendar.
The letters of the Hebrew Alphabet each have a numerical value, specified in the chart on the left. When a Hebrew date is written, you must figure out the numerical value of each letter and then add them up. This is the date according to the Jewish calendar, not the calendar we use in every day life, known as the Gregorian calendar (also referred to as the Common Era, civil or Christian calendar). In September 1999, for example, the Jewish year was 5759. Given a Hebrew date, you need to do only a little bit of math to change the Hebrew year into a secular year.
Often a Hebrew date after the year 5000 on the Jewish calendar will leave off five thousand. For example, the Hebrew year 5680 will be written as 680 rather than 5680. To compute the civil (Gregorian) year, simply add the number 1240 to the shortened Hebrew year.
Here's one example: If the year is written as
The Hebrew year begins on Rosh Hashanah, which occurs on the Gregorian calendar in September or October. Therefore, the dates listed for the months of Tishri, Heshvan, Kislev and sometimes Tevet must be read as applying to the preceding year of the civil calendar.
The complete transposition of a Hebrew date to a Gregorian date uses a very complex formula. It is easiest to simply refer to one of the published or online reference works, such as: The Comprehensive Hebrew Calendar, 5703-5860, 1943-2100 by Arthur Spier (Jerusalem, New York: Feldheim Publishers, 1981); or 150 Year Calendar by Rabbi Moses Greenfield (Brooklyn: Hotsaat Ateret, 1987). Most synagogues and Jewish libraries possess one of these works. Another alternative is to use one of several computer programs: CALCONV, JCAL, LUACH (shareware); Zmanim, HaYom, Itim (http://www.davka.com); or JewishGen's online JOS calculator (http://www.jewishgen.org/jos). These programs can convert Hebrew to Gregorian dates and vice versa, as well as display calendars and Yahrzeit dates for any year.
For more information about the Jewish calendar, see the JewishGen InfoFile Introduction to the Jewish Calendar.
Some Hebrew Phrases
In addition to names and dates, here are the common Hebrew words which appear on tombstones:
Hebrew Abbreviations on Tombstones:
There are many many different Hebrew abbreviations that are found in tombstone inscriptions and Hebrew literature. Abbreviations are usually indicated by a quote mark or an apostrophe. Often, the apostrophe is used to abbreviate a single word, whereas the quote mark indicates an abbreviated phrase. For more information, see the following works:
Symbols on Tombstones:
In addition to the inscription, symbols on the tombstone can be clues. Two hands, with four fingers each divided into two sets of two fingers, is the symbol of a priestly blessing — this signifies a Kohen, a descendant of Aaron. A pitcher signifies a Levite — the Levites were responsible for cleaning the hands of the Temple priest in ancient days. A candle or candelabra often is used on the tombstone of a woman; and the six-pointed Star of David on that of a man. A tombstone with the motif of a broken branch or tree stump often signifies someone who died young.
Copyright ©1996, 2001 by Warren Blatt.