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Is the Tetragrammaton Offensive on a Tombstone?

The above are several photos taken from the ever-interesting collection of tombstones from the Protestant graveyard on Mt. Zion in Jerusalem. These appeared in the August 2012 of the journal Ariel under the title חוקרי ארץ ישראל הקבורים בבית הקברות הפרוטסטנטי בהר ציון (Shiller, Barkai).

I will not and cannot reproduce and translate the lengthy and fascinating article here but what caught my attention and what I want to focus on is the presence of the Hebrew Tetragrammaton, the four-letter name of God (known in Hebrew as “Shem Hameforash”) on tombstones.

How common was this practice? Is it halachically permissible? Is this an anomaly because it is a non-Jewish graveyard or have Jewish gravestones likewise been adorned with the Tetragrammaton in the not-so-distant past?

First I think a brief history of the Protestant cemetery is in order.

It was purchased in the year 1848 and it came to contain the remains of some of the most prolific scholars of Near Eastern studies: archaeologists, linguists, religious figures and many others of 19th c. Ottoman Palestine.

In 1916 it was also used for inter-military casualties; 11 German soldiers, five Austrians and two Britons who fell in battle were buried there. It was in use as late as the War of Independence in 1948. After 1967 the grounds were restored but it was no longer in active use. All in all, the graveyard contains the remains of 1,040 individuals but, with the vicissitudes of time and circumstance, quite a few graves defy identification.

Most interesting for my research are the graves of Jews. As you can see in the accompanying photo, not a few Jews found their final resting place there. These included converts to Christianity but also ordinary Jews who died while being treated in one of the hospitals in Jerusalem that were operated by Protestant Christian groups (whose aim was to missionize to the local Jewish community and whose services were often strictly forbidden by Jerusalem’s rabbinate). These Jews were sometimes refused burial in a Jewish cemetery and therefore ended up there.

Hebrew inscriptions are usually a good indicator that the buried individual was a Jew—but not always, as Protestant Hebreophiles often utilized the language as well.

The photo on the far left shows a tombstone with a phrase from Psalms 116:13:

כּוֹס יְשׁוּעוֹת אֶשָּׂא וּבְשֵׁם ה’ אֶקְרָא.

A cup of salvation I shall bear and in the name of the Lord I shall call out.

Other names and details are left out of the description of that particular stone.

Back to our question about the Tetragrammaton.

Halachic logic might dictate that this would not be halachically permissible. The four-letter name of God is censored in even benign content. A graveyard of the dead seems like an unlikely, perhaps even sacrilegious, place to put it.

The “lesser sacred” name Elokim and its variants are found in relative abundance on tombstones. I also found Dr. Rami Arav’s incredulous statement here puzzling. First, it’s Greek and not Hebrew, and second, to say that for observant Jews to write “Elokim” on a burial would be unthinkable seems to me an inaccurate observation (although probably a rare occurrence but not because it would have been considered sacrilegious but because in that era very little attention was paid, in Judea, to the receptacles containing the Jewish deceased. Other than inscribing the name and perhaps some Graeco-Roman or religious/pagan designs, nothing else was added).

Dr. Rami Arav:

טענתם ארבע המילים הן” “אלוהים” ביוונית, שמו המפורש של אלוהים בעברית, “קום” או “קם לתחייה” ביוונית ו”קום” או “קם לתחייה” בעברית. האפשרות שיהודי יחרוט את שם השם המפורש על גלוסקמה היא בלתי סבירה. כך גם חיבור מעין תפילה הוא דבר לא מוכר כלל על גבי ארונות הקבורה.

I recently came across an interesting epigraphic study—a study on a Jewish cemetery in a place called Argis in Southern Armenia, dating back to the 13th and 14th century. The paper is titled בית קברות יהודי מימי הביניים בארגיס שבדרום ארמניה.

דוד עמית ומיכאל סטון

What caught my eye was this particular grave:

כתובת 10

מצבה -12 צד רוחב דרום תמונה 20

שמונה שורות קצרות הממלאות את כל שטח האבן בצדה הצר, שצורתו כאן מעוגלת

בחלק העליון.



על זה הקבר ויב א

עליו רחמים מלפני

הקדוש ברוך הוא יהי

באותו ברכה שעשה

אהרן כוהן גדול בבית

ה מקדש אמן נצח סלה

The name of the individual is somewhat difficult to decipher. The team hypothesizes that שואסתירו is a corruption of נסתר, literally [here is it is] “hidden,” commonly used in epithets. However the name defies explanation.

This is what they have to say:

לא מן הנמנע שבשורה 5 , לאחר “הקדוש ברוך הוא”, מופיע השם המפורש ולא ” יהי” . איזכור השם

המפורש בצד הכינוי “הקדוש ברוך הוא” , הוא בעל משמעות מאגית ואפוטרופאית ברורה, הבולטת

כאן ביתר שאת בהקשרה הישיר לברכת כוהנים אשר השם המפורש חוזר בה שלוש פעמים. על השימוש

בברכת כוהנים כנוסחה מאגית אפוטרופאית כבר בימי בית ראשון ניתן ללמוד ממציאותה בשני קמיעות

הכסף שגילה גבריאל ברקאי באחת ממערות הקבורה שחפר בכתף הינום בירושלים, המתוארכות

למאה השביעית לפנה”ס, אף כי יש לציין כי מקום מציאתם של קמיעות אלה אינו מוכיח שיש להם

קשר לקבורה וסביר להניח שהמת נשא אותם על צווארו בהיותו בחיים – ראו ברקאי. בספרות קומראן,

בספרות חז”ל ובספרות ההיכלות, נמשך השימוש בשם המפורש בכלל ובברכת כוהנים בפרט כנוסחה

. מאגית – ראו: אשל, עמ’ 297-295 ; בר-אילן, עמ’ 42-41 ; נוה ושקד, עמ’ 27-25

While it seems inconclusive that the Tetragrammaton in fact appears on this particular gravestone (the comment also includes a pretty mind-blowing theory about the Ketef Hinnom priestly plates [that they were buried along with an apparently prominent individual], Amit and Stone hold out for that [strong] possibility). Lest one think this was a Karaite or some other sectarian cemetery (Karaites themselves, though more liberal in their approach to the reproduction of the Tetragrammaton, refrained from writing out the name outside of a liturgical context, see Fleicher, Ezra “סידור השם המפורש” in תפילות הקבע בישראל p. 304, n. 2), of particular interest is MS TS 20.57 from the Cambridge collection. The MS is one of the earliest liturgical documents from the Cairo Genizah (from the Eretz Yisrael rite). It was studied and published by Ezra Fleicher (see “מגילה קדומה “לתפילת יום חול כמנהג ארץ ישראל in his תפילות הקבע בישראל). On the second folio of the MS there appears a curious inscription; someone rather clumsily scribbled:

כל השומע הזכרת השם מפי חברו ואינו מקללו הוא בעצמו יהא בנידוי

Literally, one who hears his friend utter the Tet. and does not curse him, he himself shall be in excommunication.

This harsh proscription is repeated again in larger and bolder letters, perhaps to underscore the severity of the deed (as perceived by the anonymous writer). It is unclear what this is doing in a manuscript that otherwise records weekday prayers according to the Eretz Yisrael rite. Perhaps it was written in the midst of a firestorm of anti-Karaite polemics against pronouncing the Tet. (see there pp. 530-31).

All other findings indicate otherwise; it was a cemetery used by Rabbinic Jews. There are also several strong indications that they were semi-recent migrants to the area from mainland Persia.

However, in מצבה 36 כתובת 15 in the same graveyard we find a modified representation of the Tetragrammaton. Instead of Yud, Heh, vav, Heh, we found the commonly used Yud, Vav, Yud, Vav יויו

(צורה מקובלת בקרב קהילות המזרח לציון השם המפורש)

The grave in question is that of a virgin girl. The restored inscription reads:

הרחמן יחון ויחמול וירח(ם) על נפש הנערה הבתולה

המאורשה אסתר בת מיכאל יהא חלקה עם אמנו ש›(=שרה)

(…על נשמתה) הק›(=הקדושה) על קבור›(=קבורתה) הטהורה קד›(=קדושה)

דכת’ שקר החן והבל היופי אשה יראת יויו

ועוד תנו לה ג/מ נכתב בשמונה עשר בתשרי


The inscription quotes the passage from Proverbs 31:30:

Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting;

But a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.

The Tetragrammaton is clearly modified in the reproduction of that verse, perhaps lending credence to the theory that the aforementioned כתובת 10 מצבה 12 likewise does not contain the Tetragrammaton.

Hebrew Wikipedia (light years ahead of its English counterpart…) has a pretty good breakdown of Jewish attitudes throughout the ages toward the use of the Tet. (I found it particularly interesting that Maimonides does not prohibit pronouncing the Tet. in its proper context. At least one Tosafist concurs with this liberal view as well).

Here are some available photos from the Argis inscriptions. The bottom photo is of the gravestone of the virgin girl mentioned above.

The author can be reached at [email protected].

By Joel Davidi Weisberger


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