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Is the Tet. Offensive On a Tombstone?

April 8, 2014


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 most recent addition of the Hebrew Journal ARIEL, August 2012 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 I what caught my notice-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 tet. in the not so distant past? {1}

First I think a brief history of the Protestant cemetery in 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 Sudies; archaeologists, linguists, religious figures and many others of 19th c. Ottoman Palestine.

In 1916 it was also used to inter military casualties; 11 German soldiers, 5 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 (see here for instance).

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

כּוֹס יְשׁוּעוֹת אֶשָּׂא וּבְשֵׁם יְהוָה 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.

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 entitled בית קברות יהודי מימי הביניים בארגיס שבדרום ארמניה

דוד עמית ומיכאל סטון


It can be accessed here.


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.

Of interest to us is the line I highlighted and underlined. 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 Tet., 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), all other findings indicate otherwise; it was a cemetery used by Rabbinic Jews {2} (see also here). 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 Waw Heh, we found the commonly used Yud Waw Yud Waw 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 Tetragammaton 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 head of its english counterpart…) has a pretty good breakdown of Jewish attitudes throughout the ages towards the use of the Tet. See here (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.



Top with inscription under discussion



1. The ‘lesser sacred’ name ELOHIM and its variants are found in relative abundance on tombstones, see here for one example from several hundred years ago in Eastern Europe.  I also found Dr. Rami Arav’s incredulous statement here puzzling. Firstly it’s greek and not hebrew and secondly to say that for observant Jews to write ‘elohim’ on a burial would be 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 am also puzzled by this statement by James Tabor here:

 that’s the opinion of Dr. Natalie Messika, an expert in archaeological mapping often under contract with the IAA. As for the linkage to early followers of Jesus, the fact is that whoever made those pictures and wrote that inscription was sectarian and not normative. Jews did not–and do not–write the Tetragrammaton on a bone box filled with “tumah” or impurity. I know that there is an attempt to re-read the second line in the inscription, but the reading was confirmed repeatedly by major scholars, including Prof. Rollston who is now revising his opinion. It’s OK to change one’s mind. All I’m saying is that the vast majority of scholars see the ineffable name inscribed in the second line.

As far as I know these putative Christian tombs DO NOT CONTAIN THE HEBREW TETRAGRAMMATON but rather a possible Greek reference to God.

For a relatively simple-to-understand breakdown of this particular discovery see here
f you’re a bit more scholarly inclined and aware see here

How Jews in the Graeco-Roman world (decidedly more assimilated than their Judean co-religionists) often utilized God’s name (and I use that term loosely) in Greek funerary inscriptions, see here  and here

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 Israel 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 EY rite. Perhaps it was written in the midst of a firestorm of anti-Karaite polemics against pronouncing the Tet. (see there pp. 530-31).


  1. Nate permalink

    “Is this an anomaly because it is a non-Jewish graveyard ”

    I think this is the most likely explanation. I haven’t seen it on any Jewish grave stone. Not to say it has never been done. But it seems like an odd thing for a Jew to put on a grave stone, between it being on a grave, and it being susceptible to being vandalized or destroyed.

    • I hear your reasoning. However (as I just added at the conclusion of this post), there is no air-tight prohibition against uttering the tet. let alone use it in the proper context. Both Andalucian (Rambam does not count it as a negative commandment in the MT!) and some Franco-German Rabbis (not to mention Karaim and even [during a certain period] of EY custom exhibited a very liberal attitude on the issue. Plus, as I point out, the name does seem to have been used in Jewish cemeteries (there may be others out there as well, undiscovered as of yet by me or by researchers).

      • Nate permalink

        That is interesting about Rambam and pronouncing it. Do you know where that can be found? I wouldn’t think one would be able to do more than guess at the pronunciation now.

      • בפסקיו של הרי״ד (הזקן) מבאר כי אין שום איסור בהגיית השם לצורך לימוד ורק מי שקורא השם ללא צורך יתאשם‏[פסקי הרי״ד למסכת סנהדרין דף קא עמוד ב]. יש שכתבו שחברי אבא שאול חלקו עליו ודבריו לא התקבלו להלכה, שהרי הרמב”ם לא הביא איסור להגות את השם באותיותיו בספרו משנה תורה וגם האלפסי ורבינו אשר לא כתבו שום איסור בעניין בפסקיהם ההלכתיים [ספר משיב נפש למשנה תורה להרמב״ם הלכות תשובה ג יד, דף ריט -הרב שלום הכהן שפירא, בני ברק ה’תש״ד].‏

  2. I never heard about jewish grave stones having Tetragrammaton . I think it’s forbidden Al pi Halakha, but not sure.

  3. I’ve added a bunch of new material. Check them out.

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