by Dovid Katz
7 August 2013
On expeditions and on culture and history tours, we have on a number of occasions come across unusual Jewish gravestones (in Yiddish — matséyves), so far invariably on the territory of western Lithuania (and on occasion, in bordering Latvia) that is the land known in Litvak culture as Zámet (a Jewish person therefrom is a Zámeter, f. Zámeterin or deep Litvak Zámeterke).
In broad terms, it corresponds to historic Samogitia (Lithuanian Žemaitija). However, the specific cultural and linguistic borders relevant to Litvak culture and Yiddish dialectology often make for a unique Litvak geocultural configuration. For a general Yiddish orientation on the (pre-Holocaust) linguistic situation, see e.g. the maps for ‘ear’ and ‘dove’ vs ‘deaf’ in the in-progress Language Atlas of Lithuanian Yiddish.
A QUESTION OF WESTERN LITVAK SYMBOLOGY
The unusual headstones have in place of the classic six-pointed star-of-david an eight-pointed symbol with points linked by lines defining a large central square surrounded by twelve triangles (eight larger and four smaller), the whole circumscribed by a circle. That diversion from tradition would be striking enough in itself. But, as they say, “the plot thickens” because from certain distances and angles, these stones appear from afar to have a Christian cross in a sea of Jewish stones. But they are classic Litvak religious Jewish in every other way. There have been some kabbalistic speculations about the significance of twelve segments (as in Tribes of Israel) around the central box, proposals regarding coterritorial Baltic and Lithuanian multitheist (pagan) parallels, a Freemasonist symbol proposal and more, but we are not aware of any academic studies to date focused on these western Lithuanian Jewish gravestones.
Here is one example, the tombstone of Joseph son of Samuel (Yosef ben Shmuel), who died on 6 Kislev 5669 (=sundown of 29 November to sundown of 30 November 1908). From the title moyréynu ho-ráv (‘our teacher the rabbi’) it is clear he was a rabbi.
An eight-pointed star on a rabbinic Jewish gravestone in western Lithuania. Photo © Dovid Katz
Because such stones have been particularly prone to pilfering after being pointed out, Defending History is withholding from publication the name of the town home to this particular matséyve.
Early draft of Cultural Dictionary of Lithuanian Jewish Gravestones