David Bogomolny
Just a Jew in the world.

The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 44

Days before my father’s unveiling, my wife and I were taking our 4-year-old to see her first fireworks display on Yom HaAtzmaut at the Haas Promenade (Tayelet) in Jerusalem; she was skipping with excitement. Thankfully, she had napped that afternoon and could enjoy the late night entertainment. I was also impressed; the fireworks were bursting just overhead, impossibly close to us.

As we walked along the Promenade, we recalled how much my Papa had enjoyed strolling there with his camera equipment, capturing the renowned, panoramic view with his steady hands and patient eyes. Despite the festivities, I was somber, remembering him and contemplating my upcoming trip to New Jersey. It struck me that I should bring a chunk of Jerusalem stone from his beloved Tayelet to lay on Papa’s tombstone.

Pleased with myself, I sent a picture of the stone to my mother, who responded: “Beautiful! Wonderful idea! Bring one for each of you.” The next day, at my wife’s suggestion, we found four additional pieces of Jerusalem stone: a total of three for myself, my wife, and our daughter in Jerusalem, and two more for my mother and brother in America.

Afterwards, my curiosity led me to Rabbi David Golinkin’s (b. 1955) research [link] into the origins of this particular custom, and I learned that its earliest mention in our sources can be found in a halakhic work by Rabbi Shalom Ben Yiẓḥak Of Neustadt (1350-1413):

… they pluck grass from a grave or they take a pebble and put it on the grave, it is because of kevod hamet [respect for the deceased] to show him that he had visited his grave.

The fundamentality of stone challenges my romanticization. It is permanent; solid; simple. Rabbi David Wolpe (b. 1958) writes poignantly [link]:

While flowers may be a good metaphor for the brevity of existence, stones are better suited to the durability of memory. In moments when we are reminded of the fragility of life, Judaism reminds us that there is permanence amid the pain. While other things fade, stones and souls endure.

Now our five Jerusalem stones rest atop the uneven surface of Papa’s tombstone; in my mind’s eye I can see them being blown off in a storm gust, landing at its base along with other memory stones. Mama has told me that the many pebbles she’d laid over the course of this year before the setting of the headstone were left undisturbed by the workmen, out of respect.

* * *

In modern Hebrew, the word for gravestone is matzeivah (מצבה), which harkens back to the Bible. Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein explains [link]:

The common word for a tombstone in spoken Hebrew is a matzeivah (literally, ‘monument’), and, indeed, when Yaakov buried his wife Rachel, the Torah reports that he erected a matzeivah at her grave (Gen. 35:20). Elsewhere (Yechezkel 39:15 and II Kings 23:17), the Bible refers to graves that are marked with a tziyun (‘marker’).

However, these ‘monuments’ and ‘markers’ of the biblical era were not what we think of today as tombstones. Joseph Jacobs (1854-1916) and Isaac Broydé (1867-1922) unpack this in the Jewish Encyclopedia [link]:

The custom of marking a grave by a stone which bore an inscription describing the qualities of the deceased and giving his age and the date of his death was foreign to the ancient Hebrews. Stones were indeed used to mark the sites of graves… but they were not intended as monuments and bore no inscriptions. Even in the geonic period the custom seems to have been unknown to the Jews of the East, and it can not, therefore, have been current in Talmudic times.

So how, then, does rabbinic literature refer to tombstones? I wonder. The answer can be found in the Mishnah. In Tractate Shekalim the rabbis discuss the ancient tax, which went towards the maintenance of the Temple in Jerusalem.

There arises a question: what should be done with funds that one set aside for the Temple, which exceed a half-shekel of silver? On this, Rabbi Nathan the Babylonian gets the final word (Shekalim 2:5):

רבי נתן אומר, בונין לו נפש על גבי קברו Rabbi Nathan says: They [use the extra funds to] place a nefesh over his grave.

 

What?!

It’s true; Maimonides (1135-1204) uses the same terminology in his seminal halakhic opus – the Mishneh Torah (Book of Judges 4:4):

ומציינין את כל בית הקברות ובונין נפש על הקבר והצדיקים אין בונים להם נפש על קברותיהם שדבריהם הם זכרונם ולא יפנה אדם לבקר הקברות … and markings are made on the graves; and a nefesh is placed on the grave; and for the righteous, by contrast, a nefesh is not placed, for their words will cause them to be remembered; a person will not [need to] turn to visit [their] graves.

 

I am stunned. The word nefesh has come up before in my research (blog #28), but I never expected this. In modern Hebrew, the word nefesh has come to mean soul, and in biblical Hebrew it was “understood in a unitive way as the totality of being – ‘man does not have nefesh, he is nefesh, he lives as nefesh’” (Jewish Views of the Afterlife, p. 54).

oh…
… oh.
Perhaps I understand this.

The standard turn of phrase used in shul (shul’ish) when partaking of a kiddush sponsored in memory of somebody’s loved one is (blog #24): ‘L’ilui neshama’ (לעילוי נשמה – for the lifting up of [their] soul). The operative word for ‘soul’ here is neshama, rather than nefesh.

Certainly I’m disinclined towards mysticism, but I recall learning that the Kabbalah distinguishes between five levels of the soul, the most basic and earthly of which is the nefesh. It would seem that tradition is suggesting that this aspect of Papa rests forever in the earthly realm, represented by his tombstone. The mourner’s kaddish, it would seem, is not traditionally recited for the redemption of a parent’s nefesh.

* * *

Following three days of rain, the weather at the unveiling is lovely. The sun is shining; ghost white clouds billow softly on azure. Some twenty of us are gathered below the heavens at Papa’s grave; family and friends have arrived here out of love.

My mother addresses the gathered; she passes out packets containing seven of my father’s photographs (one for each letter of his name), the stanzas of Psalm 119 corresponding to ‘Alexander son of Mosheh – Neshama’ (אלכסנדר בן משה – נשמה), which I’ve studied in memory of Papa (blogs #31 thru #41), and the El Malei Rachamim prayer (blog #43) for my father’s soul.

Self-consciously, I read the 128 verses (16 stanzas) of Psalm 119 from the packet slowly, stumblingly. It takes forever. Hauntingly, my father’s friend Yossi chants El Malei Rachamim. Mama speaks. She reads letters from her sister Dina (in Hebrew) and Papa’s childhood friend Sasha (in Russian). She explains the inscription at the top of the Nefesh:

והנצח זו ירושלים
And the Eternity is Jerusalem

I am moved to provide further context for these words and read aloud the letter that I wrote to my father for his birthday – blog #23 – in which I explored the original source text and parsed the language. Then I share aloud a letter written by my wife for Papa; with a twinge, I feel that the heartfelt words of others are less onerous than my Psalm 119 recitation and blog post(s). Am I making mourning too complicated?

My brother then shares another of his clear-eyed reflections, and I recite the mourner’s kaddish along with Yossi who lost his wife quite recently. We pass little pebbles collected by Mama to each attendee, inviting everyone to place these atop the nefesh. I take to resting our five Jerusalem stones among the pebbles, shifting them around, so as to minimize their wobbling on the rugged surface.

All are invited back to our home for a beautiful meal lovingly prepared by my mother. She really poured her heart into it. She says that my father would have been pleased with the array of dishes set out for our guests, and I agree. On top of my father’s favorite Olivier Salad and countless other dishes, our cousin Lyonya has brought an enormous Napoleon Torte all the way from Boston, loving prepared by his wife Tanya. My father, my brother and I always, always relished Tanya’s Napoleons.

Eventually, the guests begin to say their goodbyes, and everybody disperses. I am left with warm feelings and memories. The event for me was perfect.

* * *

The following day is Thursday, and I join my third Virtual Mourner’s Kaddish (blog #42) conference call, this time led by Naomi from lab/shul. She shares with us a poem written by Jack Gilbert, in which he likens his grief over the death of his wife to the physically trying experience of carrying a heavy box:

Michiko Dead

He manages like somebody carrying a box
that is too heavy, first with his arms
underneath. When their strength gives out,
he moves the hands forward, hooking them
on the corners, pulling the weight against
his chest. He moves his thumbs slightly
when the fingers begin to tire, and it makes
different muscles take over. Afterward,
he carries it on his shoulder, until the blood
drains out of the arm that is stretched up
to steady the box and the arm goes numb. But now
the man can hold underneath again, so that
he can go on without ever putting the box down.

What do you think of his words? She asks. Do you find Gilbert’s simile relatable? Would anybody like to share a reflection?

My mind is still at the unveiling, struggling through the biblical Hebrew of Psalm 119 at Papa’s graveside. I had worked so hard to prepare for that reading, delving week after week into the verses and commentaries, searching for myself and my Papa in its words, pushing to find personal relevance and meaning in a tradition that I would otherwise have found meaningless. I remember my relief upon completing my analysis (blog #41); I’m done with 119, I’d thought.

I’d tired of carrying 119 all those weeks, and so I’d shifted, “pulling the weight against my chest” in that sunlight; but this too proved to be both relief and burden.

I realize that I will carry this forever.

About the Author
David Bogomolny was born in Jerusalem to parents who made Aliyah from the USSR in the mid-70's. He grew up in America, and returned to Israel as an adult. David has worked as a Russian-speaking Jewish educator for the JAFI, the JDC the Brandeis-Genesis Institute for Russian Jewry, Moishe House, and Olameinu. He now works for Hiddush - Freedom of Religion in Israel. He and his wife and daughter live in Jerusalem.
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