Kohanim or Cohanim Hands – Priestly Blessing

November 1, 2006

On Jewish tombstones you will sometimes see a symbol showing two hands arranged for the Priestly Blessing like the example here. This is a symbol of the Kohen or Cohen (Hebrew for priest). The plural form is Kohanim or Cohanim. Kohanim are assumed to be direct male descendants of Aaron, who was the first Kohen and the brother of Moses. Some Jewish surnames frequently associated with this symbol are Conn or Cohn (Kohn), Cahn (Kahn), and Cohen (Kohen), but you will find the symbol on the grave markers of people with other surnames. Today families can sometimes verify a priestly lineage from the tombstones of ancestors that have this symbol.

Mr. Spock’s Vulcan Salute

And yes, Star Trek fans… You’ve probably noticed the similarity between this symbol and the Vulcan hand greeting (“live long and prosper”) used in the TV show and movies. This was suggested by actor Leonard Nimoy (Mr. Spock), who saw the Priestly Blessing in a synagogue when he was a child. He modified it as Vulcans use only one hand. See: The Jewish Origin of the Vulcan Salute

Kohanim or Cohanim Hands - Priestly Blessing cemetery symbol

Photo: from Fairmount Cemetery, Denver, Colorado

Leaving Pebbles or Stones on a Grave Marker

September 26, 2006

The Jewish tradition of leaving a pebble or stone on top of a tombstone signifies that someone has honored the deceased person’s memory with a visit to the grave. A nice example of this is shown at the end of the movie Schindler’s List.

photograph showing stones left on a Jewish tombstone from Fairmount Cemetery, Denver, Colorado

Photo: from Fairmount Cemetery, Denver, Colorado

For more information on this tradition see: Why do we place pebbles on grave stones? by Rabbi Tom Louchheim


September 18, 2006

The menorah is a seven-branched candelabra often seen on Jewish tombstones, especially those of women. The menorah is one of the oldest symbols of Judaism. Instructions for making a menorah are given in chapter 25 of Exodus. On older grave markers you may see menorahs with less than seven branches.

The menorah on a Jewish tombstone.

Photo: from the tombstone of Sam L. Meyer (1877-1961) and Ida L. Meyer (1883-1962), Emanuel at Fairmount Cemetery, Denver, Colorado

Star of David

September 12, 2006

The six-pointed Star of David, a symbol of Judaism, is frequently found on Jewish tombstones. It is also called the Shield of David (Magen David in Hebrew). Sometimes you will see the Hebrew abbreviation “Peh-Nun” inside the star like the example here. This abbreviation stands for either “poh nitman” or “poh nikbar” and means simply, “here lies…”

For more information on Jewish tombstone iconography see: Reading Hebrew Tombstones.

Star of David - Jewish cemetery symbol

Photo: from the headstone of Rose Simon (1906-1934), Emanuel at Fairmount Cemetery, Denver, Colorado