We’re marking March 8 — International Women’s Day — by saluting the way Jewish women are remembered in visual terms: in this case, the way women are portrayed in Jewish funerary art.
Jewish cemeteries are often called “Houses of Life” — and imagery portraying women often highlights symbolic aspects of their lives, or in some cases their appearance: In the latter part of the 19th century and in the 20th century, graves in some cases (as for men) include either photographs of the deceased or even sculptural representations.
Candles and candlesticks are an especially common, and potent, symbol on women’s graves. That is because lighting the Sabbath candles is one of the three so-called “women’s commandments” carried out by female Jews: these also include observing the laws of Niddah separating men from women during their menstrual periods, and that of Challah, or burning a piece of dough when making bread. Some carved stones show a woman’s hands blessing the candles.
JHE Coordinator Ruth Ellen Gruber carried out a project documenting and commenting on such images, which you can access HERE.
Candlesticks on tombstones come in many types and styles. They range from [ … ] two matched candles in individual candle-holders — to multi-branched candelabra (including seven-branched menorahs) of various types. Some of them look as if they could have come off of a household’s shelf. Some represent candles as broken, symbolizing death.[…]
Many carved candlesticks are elaborately ornamental but still look like physical objects. But others still are intricate figures that weave and twist and entwine the branches of the menorah and/or the base of the menorah into fanciful convoluted forms. And some clearly combine the imagery of the Menorah with that of the Tree of Life — or, perhaps, of death, as in some examples the branches of the menorah may look like snakes.
In their fascinating book Traditional Jewish Papercuts: An Inner World of Art and Symbol (Hanover NH, 2002), Joseph and Yehudit Shadur write that the intricately convoluted menorah forms appear almost exclusively in two places — in traditional East European Jewish paper cuts (where they are often dominant compositional elements) and on some East European Jewish tombstones. They appear to represent a development of the “endless knot” motif.
The Shadurs write (pp 170-171):
As far as we could ascertain, neither the convoluted menorah configurations nor the endless-knot motif have ever been considered as distinct visual symbols in Jewish iconography. And yet, they are so common and figure so prominently in East-European Jewish papercuts that they can hardly be regarded as mere decorative motifs.
They theorize that
the metamorphosis of the traditional menorah of antiquity and the Middle Ages into the convoluted, endless-knot configurations appearing in the papercuts coincides with the spread and growing popularization of messianic mysticism and the Kabbalah throughout the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe from the early eighteenth century on [.]
In her book A Tribe of Stones, Jewish Cemeteries in Poland (Warsaw 1994) Monika Krajewska, a post-World War II pioneer in the study of gravestone imagery — who is also an accomplished paper-cut artist — likens the twisted menorahs to the braiding of Challah loaves, and in a way, that would mean that the images denote two of the three “women’s commandments” (lighting the Shabbos candles, “taking Challah” or removing a piece of dough when baking bread, and Niddah, or keeping menstrual purity).
With the following gallery, we remember Jewish women and recall the lives that are immortalized in symbolism and stone.