RRT 116-123



A young chaplain-rabbi was killed in Thailand. His family belong to the Hartford Reform Congregation, Beth Israel. His mother is an active National Sisterhood board member. She asked that the Hebrew inscription on her son’s tombstone should include her name as mother of the deceased. The local funeral director said that this request is improper, that only the father’s name may be used with that of the deceased. Is this correct? What traditional law is involved in this matter? (Asked by Rabbi Harold S. Silver, Hartford, Connecticut.)


THERE IS VERY LITTLE firm law governing tombstones. Even the latest works that specialize in these matters have comparatively little to say. Greenwald, in his Kol Bo, has only a few pages, beginning with p. 379, and Shalom Schachne Cherniak, in his Mishmeres Shalom, has only a few columns. The reason for the paucity of the law on the matter has some bearing on this discussion.

The main purpose of having a tombstone had changed in the passing years. Originally the stone was meant merely to mark the grave as a warning to Kohanim to know what spot to avoid, a warning which would be especially necessary if the grave were in some open field. Later this purpose for the tombstone changed since cemeteries (and not scattered graves or caves) developed, and the Kohen could simply avoid the cemetery. Now the purpose of the tombstone is not so much to be a warning to the Kohanim to keep away, but as a guide to the family, to tell them where to come to honor the dead or to pray. In other words, the tombstone is now for the benefit of the family. See, for example, the responsum by Isaac Glick ( Yad Yitzchok, III, #38), who says that the tombstone is for the benefit of the living to know where to come and pray. This change of mood as to the purpose of the tombstone should indicate to us, in our specific discussion, that the feelings of the bereaved family deserve sympathetic consideration in all the discussions about the tombstone.

The discussions that have arisen in recent law about the tombstone usually involve three questions: (1) whether it is permitted (as is the custom in certain Orthodox cemeteries) to have a photograph of the deceased on his tombstone (cf. Greenwald, p. 380, n. 1); (2) whether the secular date may be used on the tombstone; (3) whether the tombstone may be used for the benefit of the living (for example, to sit down and rest upon it). The third question has more meaning in the Orient, where the tombstones are not vertical, as with us, but are laid horizontally, somewhat elevated, like a bench over the grave.

As for the answers to these questions, the photograph on the tombstone is generally frowned upon as a practice. The secular date is reluctantly permitted if it is at least accompanied by the Hebrew date. As for sitting on the tombstone, that question has some bearing on our question because what is involved is the question of whether or not the tombstone is, also, for the benefit of the living, as mentioned above. Generally that is answered in the affirmative. So, as mentioned above, the desires of the living should have considera-tion in the discussion of the tombstone.

Now as to the specific question: May the tombstone giving the name of the deceased give his name as the son of his mother rather than, as is generally the usage, as the son of his father? Of course the funeral director (or the rabbi who advised him) would be quite correct if he had merely said that the general custom is to cite a man’s name with his father’s name, as “Moses the son of Amram.” This is the way a man is called up to the Torah, and thus is his name used in the get and other formal documents.

Nevertheless the question must be raised, as it is raised here in this comparatively rare question, whether the general custom of using the father’s name is more than custom but is actual law. Is it wrong to use the mother’s name, describing the man as “Moses son of Yocheved,” instead of “Moses son of Amram”? The answer goes to the heart of our question. The Bible records the name of a well-known Biblical character as the son of his mother and never as the son of his father. King David’s chief general (and his nephew) was Joab ben Zeruah. Zeruah was David’s sister (I Chronicles 11:6). Also in the Talmud there is an Amora whose name was Rab Mari ben Rachel ( Yevamos 92b).

In fact, the great authority of two centuries ago, Ezekiel Landau, in his commentary to the Shulchan Aruch (Dagul Mirvava to Even Hoezer 129:9), speaking of the divorce document, in which the proper rendering of each name is vital, says that in the case of a proselyte we should use his mother’s name instead of his father’s name, and cites the precedent of the rabbi mentioned in the Talmud, Mari the son of Rachel. As a matter of fact, the Pische Teshuvah, at the end of par 26 to the same divorce section, says that if a man is better known by his mother’s name than by his father’s name, that should be used in the get, and he says that it is obvious that if it is written thus, the get is valid.

This permissibility with regard to the divorce document, in which the names have to be precise, is crucial in all discussion of the specific matter involved here. As a matter of fact, there were communities which actually had an established custom of using the mother’s instead of the father’s name on the tombstone. One such community (and it could hardly have been the only one) wrote to David Hoffmann telling of their established custom and wanting to know whether it is correct. He answers (Melamed L’ho-il, Orah Hayyim 23) and says that the tombstones which he had seen of all the great rabbis gives the father’s name and not the mother’s. Nevertheless, if it is an established cus torn in the community to use the mother’s name, the custom should be continued, or at least not be objected to.

Now, why should such an Orthodox authority as David Hoffmann permit the custom of using the mother’s name, when he himself says that the tombstones of the great rabbis that he saw had the father’s name? The answer clearly must be that although most tombstones have the father’s name, this is because that is the usual way of referring to a man, but it does not mean that the mother’s name may not be used. In fact, in his responsum he gives some examples in which the mother’s name is used exclusively. In the prayer before the taking out of the Torah on holidays (Rebono Shel Olom), the suppliant refers to himself by his mother’s name. Also, in the regular text of the Yizkor on holidays, the deceased is referred to as child of the mother. (In our Union Prayer Book, we merely say “father” or “mother” or “brother,” and do not use the personal name at all, but in all the Machzorim where the personal name of the deceased is used in the Yizkor, it is always as the child of the mother.) Also, as he correctly points out, it is a well-established custom, when we pray for the sick, to refer to the sick person by the mother’s name only. This custom is based upon the verse in Psalms 116:16, where the suppliant says: “I am Thy servant, the son of Thy handmaiden.”

For all these reasons and established precedents, David Hoffmann, in spite of the fact that most of the tombstones he had seen used the father’s name, nevertheless was unwilling, in those communities where the custom of using the mother’s name on the tombstone was established, to recommend that the custom no longer be followed.

To sum up: The tombstone is not a matter of strict detailed law but largely of custom. What legal disputes have occurred emphasize the benefit that it brings to the living. Hence their feelings must be consulted and considered. The liturgical literature has many examples in which the mother’s name is used to the exclusion of the father’s name, and there are communities (or there were in Europe) in which the mother’s name was used regularly on the tombstone.

In this specific case, therefore, we can say that there is no real objection to the son being called the son of his mother. In fact, we might follow the decision of Greenwald (pp. 380-81) with regard to the use of the secular date on the tombstone, namely, if the secular date is used together with the Hebrew date, the use of both dates would be permissible. So here, too, we might say that if the mother would consent to having the name of both parents, hers and her husband’s, there could be no objection at all. But if with her husband’s consent (as the inquirer states) her name alone is used as the parent, there is no real ground in the law for objection.