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Jewish Gravestone Symbols

This is a post about the symbols found on Jewish gravestones. There is very little here for explaining how to interpret the Hebrew text of a Jewish gravestone, although I will likely write about that at a later date.

I’ve tried a few times to finish a post in time for one of the GeneaBloggers ‘daily blogger prompts’ which in general I think is a great way to spur bloggers on and get people posting on varied topics. That said, however, I’ve never actually finished a post by the day in question and I never want to wait until the following week to post something I’ve spent so much time on. Yesterday was ‘Tombstone Tuesday’ (as well as ‘Talented Tuesday’ and ‘Tech Tuesday’) but I couldn’t finish this post by then, mainly because I had to scan all the photos.

Images on Jewish gravestones were not always the norm, and are not as common today as they were in the past, so really what I’m going to show is something you would find on graves that are from 19th and early 20th century. Some of these images still appear on modern graves, but usually in far less elaborate forms.

For examples, I’m using photos I took 18 years ago in Poland. Most of these photos are from the Jewish cemetery in Warsaw, although I believe a few are from other locations in Poland. The 18 year time-frame is a bit ironic, being that 18 is the numerical equivalent of the Hebrew word Chai (חי), which means life (the two letters that make up the Hebrew word Chai (חי) are Chet (ח) and Yud (י), which are the 8th and 10th letter respectively in the Hebrew alphabet, and thus add up to 18). This is why the number 18 is generally considered lucky by Jews.

All of the photos are of the top of the gravestone only. I did not photograph the text on the main section of the gravestone which would identify who the grave belongs to, as that was not my intention at the time. These same graves are probably photographed and in on-line databases somewhere, but you would need to do a lot of searching to find them as I do not know the names of the people from whose gravestones these originated.

I’m going to keep this article a little bit more loose than my usual posting, as this topic is a bit more open to interpretation than most. I welcome peoples comments on the photos. I don’t know the meaning of all the symbols shown, and if you do please add your comments. Some symbols would be much easier to interpret if we had the full text of the gravestone to read, as some are linked to the name of the person who was deceased. For the purpose of this posting we can just guess.

You should be able to enlarge any specific image by clicking on it.

I’ll start with an image which is not a symbol at all, but an acronym. The letters Peh Nun (פנ), sometimes with an quote in between (פ”נ), show up frequently on Jewish gravestones. These letters represent either the phrase ‘Po Nikbar’ or ‘Po Nitman’ both which simply mean ‘Here Lies’. A variation that is sometimes seen is Peh Tet (פ”ט) which represents the phrase ‘Po Tamun’ which means ‘Here is Hidden’.

1) This image is simply a large graphic of the letters Peh Nun (פנ). Although the circles above each letter most likely have some symbolism, I’m not aware of what that is exactly. It could be the general ‘circle of life’ type of symbolism, but I don’t know for sure.

2) The following two photos again shows the Peh Nun lettering in the middle, but introduces two more symbols, that of the crown and two lions. Both the crown and lions are symbols linked to royalty, although in this case the link is probably more symbolic. They are meant to show honor for the deceased. The crown can also represent the head of a household.

Lions are sometimes also used when the person who died had a name linked to lions, such as Yehuda (Yehuda in Hebrew, Judah in English, the tribe of Israelites which were considered leaders, and the tribe from which King David descended), or the word Lion in various languages: Ari or Aryeh (Hebrew), Ariel (Hebrew for ‘Lion of God’), Leib (Yiddish), Leon (French) or Loeb (German).

3) In the following two photos, you can see the crown and the lion again. The center of the images, however, are two hands with thumbs touching and fingers paired and split. For those unfamiliar with Jewish tradition, this is how Cohanim (Hebrew plural of Cohen), those of the Jewish priesthood (descended from Aaron, the brother of Moses), hold their hands when bestowing a blessing during prayer.

As an aside, you might actually recognize this as the hand gesture used as a form of greeting by Vulcans in Star Trek. The reason this is the case is that Leonard Nimoy, who is Jewish, played the first Vulcan character Spock on the TV show and he created this greeting based on the hand gesture used by Cohanim.

This is a very common symbol on gravestones of Cohanim, and indeed you can still find some form of this on modern gravestones as well.

4) In this next photo there is the familiar crown, as well as the hands of the Cohanim, but also a stack of books. A common symbol on Jewish gravestones, books refer to scholarship. Sometimes the books have specific meaning, based on the number. If there are five books, it can mean the person was very knowledgeable about the Written Torah (the Five Books of Moses) and if there are six books (as there are in this case) it can mean that they were also knowledgeable in the Oral Torah (represented by the Mishnah which has six volumes).

5) In this photo you see a bookcase, again representing scholarship, but a tree that is broken. The broken tree represents someone who has died young.

6) In the following photo you see the bookcase, as well as the book on a table. To the left is a fallen crown. This particular symbol of the fallen crown usually means the person who died was the head of a family.

7) Of the original twelve tribes of Israel, based on the twelve sons of Jacob, the tribe of Levi was the tribe that dealt primarily with religious functions. Both Cohanim and Levis had part in the functioning of the Temple in Jerusalem. While Cohanim were the priests, the Levis assisted the Cohanim and were known as musicians and singers in the Temple. The Levis would sing a different Psalm each day in the Temple.

Moses and Aaron were both from the tribe of Levi, and the Cohanim, descendant from Aaron, are a sub-group of the tribe of Levi. Like Cohanim, other members of the tribe of Levi also have a tradition of keeping track of their tribal affiliation. While the tribal associations of most Jews have been lost to time, the Cohanim and Levis have traditionally kept track of this affiliation. Thus, like Cohanim, Levis have also decorated their gravestones with symbols representing their Levi heritage. The most common symbol for Levis is a hand pouring water into a basin, as the Levis would wash the hands of the Cohanim before they performed their priestly duties (and still do today).

Note in the second picture above the snake eating its tail surrounding the Levi symbol. The snake eating its tail is not a specifically Jewish symbol, but represents the cycle of life. It can also refer to infinity, and thus perhaps the belief in life beyond death.

8) As the Levis were musicians it is also common to find musical instruments on the gravestones of Levis, although of course musical instruments could also signify that the person was actually a musician. Note also the crown and the two birds facing in different directions. In the center are the letters Peh Nun (פנ).

9) As mentioned, certain animals are used to represent the names of the people who were buried. A lion may refer to a man named Aryeh. A bird could refer to a woman named Tziporah or Faiga. In the following image there is a lion and a wolf. As we cannot see the name on the gravestone we can only guess, but the wolf may refer to someone named Benjamin. Benjamin was one of the 12 sons of Jacob and he is frequently associated with the wolf. Wolf (pronounced vulf) was also a common Yiddish name.

Note in this image also the crown as well as the pitcher in a basin, referring to a Levi.

10) Another common symbol on Jewish gravestones is the charity box. Sometimes this is represented by a hand putting money into the charity box. This symbol is meant to show that the person was charitable and helped people.

11) The following image is a barrage of symbols. In the center is a hand holding a pitcher, a symbol of a Levi. Above it is crown. Next to it is a bookcase, symbolizing scholarship. Above the bookcase is a charity box, showing he was charitable. All of that is flanked by two trees. Trees generally refer to life, although two trees in this context may refer to the two trees explicitly mentioned in Genesis that were in the Garden of Eden, the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. In Jewish tradition the Garden of Eden is essentially Heaven.

12) The Menora, or seven-branched candelabra, is an ancient Jewish symbol representing the menora that stood in the Temple in Jerusalem. A nine-candle version of the menora is used on Hanukah each year by Jews worldwide. Candles are also lit every Friday night by religious Jewish women, and thus candles and candelabras are associated with women. On Jewish gravestones candlesticks and candelabras are usually associated with women.

In the following photo there is a five-branch candelabra and two birds. Birds in many cultures are associated with the soul, or the departing of ones soul. Birds may also refer to the name of the woman, if her name was Tziporah (in Hebrew) or Feiga (in Yiddish).

If you look at enough of these graves you may notice that pairs of birds show up in many of them. I’m not sure of the specific symbolism, if any, of two birds, but it’s likely that there is something specific to there being two birds.

13) This next image integrates a candelabra representing a woman, a charity box on the left showing she was charitable, and a book with the letters Peh Tet (פ”ט) which as mentioned earlier is an less-common acronym meaning ‘Here is Hidden’.

14) Like the broken tree which indicated a man that had died young in an earlier image, a woman that died young often has broken candles on a candelabra.

15) This image is centered on the broken candle image like the above, but also has two hands. It’s not uncommon to see two hands in an image of candles, as women making the blessing on candles on Friday nights life their hands up when making the blessing.  Note however that one hand is closed. The closed hand looks the same as the hands shown giving charity in other images. Even without a charity box, perhaps it represents charity?

[Rabbi Jay Goldmitz, headmaster of the Ramaz Upper School in NY, writes that the clasped hand probably refers to a line from Chapter 31 of Proverbs that refers to a Woman of Valor (Eishet Chayil): “She sends out her hand to the poor….” and thus would indeed be a reference to her being charitable.]

Here are a few interesting gravestones:

16) The symbols here include two lions with their tongues out. Actually I didn’t point out that the tongues were out in the image two. If someone knows the significance of the tongues being out, please share in the comments. The snake eating his tale is in this image as well. Inside the snake is the word Mavet (מות) which means Death. Above that is an hourglass with wings, a symbol that life is fleeting.

17) When I first looked at this image on the original negative I couldn’t figure out what it was (it had been 18 years since I took the photo). After I scanned the image I realized it was eight sheep. It seems the eight sheep are coming out of the building on the right and drinking from a well. Does the well represent the person who died? Did he have eight children? I don’t know, but the imagery is fascinating.

18) This last image is one of the more bizarre. A lion with the tail of a fish wearing a crown. The legs may also be from a different animal. There is actually a mythical beast called a Sea Lion that fits this description. In general mythical beasts such as this can be interpreted as a reference to the Time to Come, after the coming of the Messiah. The crown would seem to lend some credence to this idea, as the Messiah is considered to be a King. The image could also be a reference to the Leviathan, a mythical creature mentioned in Job. In Jewish mythology the Leviathan will be served in a grand feast to the righteous in the Time to Come, which will happen after the coming of the Messiah.

You may have noticed the one symbol I didn’t include was the Star of David. While it is a symbol, it’s not particularly symbolic. Yes finding it on a grave would presumably mean that the person was Jewish, but it’s not nearly as interesting a symbol as the above mentioned symbols. Also, putting the Star of David on a grave is actually a more recent practice. I did have one image of a Star of David on a grave from Poland, but it was certainly more rare than these other images.

To end, I wanted to include one image of what the graveyard that most of these images came from looked like at the time.

Finding US Naturalization Records

US Nationalization records can be great sources of information for someone doing genealogy. All post-1906 records should contain the town of birth for the person naturalized, and some pre-1906 records may also contain this information (although pre-1906 records are not standardized and are much less likely to have the exact town). For purely historical value, they are interesting documents and should always contain your relative’s signature on them.

However, finding US Naturalization records is complicated, and getting copies of those records can be even more complicated. There are a few ways to go about finding records, but one very good resource is the National Archives which has an online ordering system that some people don’t know about. You can order copies of US Naturalization records for $7.50 each, and receive them either scanned onto a CD, or copied onto paper. Records usually ship in less than two weeks. Records exist from as early as 1790 and as recently as 1992, although not all locations have records from all years.

One frustrating aspect of the National Archives site is that you have no way, in advance of logging into the site and beginning the order process, to know whether they have records from the place and year you are looking for, which means you might spend time going through the login and ordering processes only to find out they don’t have records from the year you need.

In an attempt to make this process a little bit easier, I’ve created a table listing all the States and Cities for which Naturalization records can be ordered from the National Archives, and have listed the ranges of years for which records are available. You can now go to the Naturalization page on this web site to see the complete table of Nationalization record holdings at the National Archives.

Note that each of the general resources I have created on this site now have their own tabs across the top of each page, one each for Forms (the B&F Forms System), Search (B&F Enhanced Genealogy Search) and now Naturalization.

In future I hope to enhance the Naturalization page with other resources specific to accessing Naturalization records. Let me know what you think.

New Genealogy Forms Posted

Thank you to all those who made suggestions for changes to my genealogy forms. The new revised forms, with the changes described in my previous post, are now live on the Forms page.

In addition to the new Ancestor Form, Family Form, Sibling Form and Ancestor Location Form, there is an all-new form called the US Immigrant Census Form. This is the first in a new series of research-oriented forms. I had originally intended to release this form after another form I am working on, but as I finished this one and I though people would find it useful, I’ve decided to post it first.


The US Immigrant Census Form is intended to help those researching people who immigrated to the US during the huge influx between the 1870s and 1930s, although it is useful for those people who immigrated earlier but were living in the US during this period as well. The idea is that each census provides different information that is useful for researchers and can help you find more records.

For example, in 1900 and 1910, the census listed how many children were born to a woman, and how many were still living. You can use this information to figure out if children may have been left behind in the old country, or may have died young. While the country of origin of each person and their parents is listed in all the censuses on the form, the language spoken by each parent is collected only in 1920. This can sometimes be more useful than the country of origin which is frequently vague – ‘Russia’ for example is not a very useful country to have listed in a census form as it could correspond to over a dozen countries that were part of the Russian Empire during those years. From 1900 on the naturalization status of each person is listed in the census, but in 1920 the actual year the person was naturalized is recorded. These bits of information are all very useful for researchers who are looking to use census records as a springboard to getting more information on immigrants to the US.

Thank you to Michael Goldstein who had an early look at the census form and reminded me to add the Military Service field.

As always, please let me know what you think of the forms, and if there are any improvements you’d like to see please post them in the comments.

So go check out the now-improved B&F Forms System.