PEBBLE ON TOMBSTONE
What is the basis and meaning of the frequently observed Orthodox custom of visitors to a grave leaving a pebble on the tombstone or the grave? (Asked by Rabbi Fredric Pomerantz, Closter, New Jersey.)
THERE IS SOMETHING rather surprising about the custom, which can be seen in many cemeteries in America. One would think that a custom so widely observed would be referred to in almost all the books on minhagim. But of all the fairly modern books on minhagim, I was able to find it in only one, and that is a book called Ta-amay Ha-Minhagim by Abraham Sperling-Danzig (first ed., Lemberg, 1896). The book concentrates chiefly on customs instituted by the various Chassidic groups. Therefore it is certainly presumed that it is practiced primarily by the Chassidim. The author explains the custom as follows: “We put grass and pebbles on the grave. It is to show one’s respect to the dead and to show that he [the visitor] was at the grave.” In other words, it is a sort of a visiting card to tell the dead that you have paid him a call.
However, although this is one of the few, if not the only, recent works which refer to the custom, it was certainly known a century or two ago. Actually, the custom and the explanation are quoted word for word from the Be’er Hetev to Orah Hayyim 224:8. And he in turn cites Derashos Maharash as his source.
As to the purpose behind the custom: It is certainly deeper than merely giving notice that one has been at the grave. This can be seen from the earlier form of the custom. Nowadays the people who observe the custom leave a pebble at the grave or on the tombstone, but the Be’er Hetev (end of 17th cent.), quoting his source, says that people left pebbles and/or grass. This fact proves that the custom has a close relationship to the more established custom which is followed at the end of a funeral. The Shulchan Aruch gives this custom in Yore Deah 376:4. Picking up the grass and the earth is in reference to Psalm 72:16: “They shall spring up like the grass of the field” (see Be’er Hetev to Orah Hayyim 547:7: “The grass that is plucked up after the burial of the dead is a symbol of resurrection” ). The custom of plucking and throwing the grass and dust as a symbol of resurrection is referred to by Israel Bruna (15th cent., Germany) in his responsa (# 181) . Therefore it seems evident that the custom of picking up pebbles (or dust and grass) after a later visit to the grave is a repetition of the reverent and devout feeling at the time of the funeral itself, which the visitor to the grave now recalls and experiences anew.
Also, it is quite possible that some Chassidic scholar recommended the practice on the basis of the Midrash which says that when Jacob buried Rachel by the roadside, each of Jacob’s sons took a stone and put it on the grave (see Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews, Vol. V, p. 319, n. 310; the Midrash is found in Lekach Tov 35,20).