The Language of Litvak Gravestones: A Cultural Dictionary

A Work in Progress

by Dovid Katz
© Dovid Katz 2015

 

To search for a word, please use Find (control+f) and key in using the original Jewish letters.

  • Given the frequent difficulty in reading all letters accurately on old stones, readers report the occasional usefulness of keying into Find just two sequential letters of a word.

Or search by letter of the alphabet:

 א  ב  ג  ד  ה  ו  ז  ח  ט  י  כ  ל  מ  נ  ס  ע  פ  צ  ק  ר  ש  ת    

  • Readers are invited to send photographs of prewar Litvak gravestones from Belarus, Lithuania, Latvia, northeastern Poland, and the Litvak parts of eastern Ukraine and western Russia. In the fullness of time, materials from such photos will be added to the Dictionary. It is regrettably not possible to respond to individual queries at this stage.

PRONUNCIATION GUIDE 

NOTE: A pronunciation guide is provided in [square brackets]. Where no italicized markers for a pronunciation are given, it is generally the “primary pronunciation” rooted in the first two of the following categories:

LitY = Litvak / Lithuanian Yiddish / “Northern Yiddish” pronunciation

LitA = Litvak / Lithuanian Ashkenazic Hebrew / “Northern Ashkenazic” pronunciation

ForLitA = Formal Litvak / Lithuanian Ashkenazic Hebrew / “Northern Ashkenazic” pronunciation

LM = Litvak, Minsk region pronunciation

LZ = Litvak, Zamet  (Žemaitija) area pronunciation

St = Standard (Yiddish / Ashkenazic) pronunciation

Is = Israeli pronunciation 


Years

There are various automated online converters including BSSChabad, FourmilabJewishGen.

Sequential  conversions (from the Jewish to the general calendar) from 1840 to 1941, but remember that this is accurate up to the Jewish new year each year. In the three to four months from the Jewish to the general new year (September-October to 1 January) the “old” general year matches the Jewish year until the general year “catches up” on 1 January.

“MAGIC NUMBERS”

For any Jewish year from 1540 onward, just add the number 1240 to obtain the general calendar year.

Conversely, to convert the general calendar to the Jewish year, add the number 3760.

When using either “magic number” remember that days falling in the period between the Jewish and general new year belong to the previous general calendar year.


Biblical Citations

Listing of some of the more frequently cited Biblical passages and portions of passages.


Iconography

The space-saving trigraph (see sample photo at right) lamed+pey+kuf = ‘lifrat kotn’ signifying omission of the thousands column (it being understood that the person died in the sixth Jewish millennium, which started in the autumn of the general calendar year 1539). This symbol invariably follows the Jewish calendar year, which invariably begins with tof.

The Zamet (Žemaitija) eight pointed star (see sample photo at right), that occurs in western Lithuania only, still awaits explanation. Observes note that from a distance it bears an uncanny resemblance to the Christian cross.


The Words for “Gravestone” and “Cemetery”

The (Litvak) Yiddish and Ashkenazic Hebrew terms for “gravestone” and “cemetery” are themselves part of the cultural history of Litvak cemeteries. Section is developing here.


Non-Standard Spellings

While there is overall conformity to the ancient Hebrew and Aramaic spellings of names and words, and to the range of usual Yiddish spelling for Yiddish names, there are occasional and fascinating “compromises” with local pronunciation that reflect on dialect geography and the cultural history of Lithuanian Jewry. Samples are provided in the Non-Standard Hebrew Spellings and the Non-Standard Yiddish Spelling sections.


Place Names and the Territory of the Litvaks

Place names are very rare on Litvak gravestones. Their occurrence is usually a result of a person born elsewhere being identified as native of x, following the Hebrew preposition מ (‘from’). A tentative listing of place names that coincide with the modern Republic of Lithuania is provided here in Lithuanian and Yiddish (as gazetteer to the Holocaust Map of Lithuania). Further place names (in Latin transcription of their Yiddish names) from the wider Litvak territory are available on the base map of Litvish: An Atlas of Northeastern Yiddish. This map of Litvak Yiddish, including various nineteenth century outposts toward the Black Sea at the southeastern tip of Ukraine, is itself larger than the classic cultural territory of Jewish Lithuania.


‘א

1

אב

[ov]. Is [av].

eleventh month of the Jewish calendar (July/August)

אבי

[óvi]. ForLitA [oví]. Is [aví]

my father

אבי היקר, אבי יקירי

LitY [óvi hayóker]. LitA [óvi hayókor]. ForLitA [oví hayokór].  Is [aví hayakár].

my dear father

אבינו

 [ovínu]. Is [avínu].

our father

אבינו היקר

LitY [óvinu hayóker]. LitA [óvinu hayókor]. ForLitA [ovínu hayokór].  Is [avínu hayakár].

our dear father

אדר

known as אדר א in Jewish leap years

sixth month of the Jewish calendar (in February/March)

אדר ב

also known as ואדר

(in leap years only) the seventh month of the Jewish calendar (in March/April)

איר, אייר

eighth month of the Jewish calendar (in April/May)

איש

man (preceding one or more adjectives, e.g. → איש תם וישר; preceding a place name indicating the deceased’s place of origin)

איש תם וישר

a just and honest man

אלול

twelfth month of the Jewish calendar (in August/September)

אמי

my mother

אמי היקרה, אמי יקירתי

my dear mother

אמנו

our mother

אמנו היקרה

our dear mother

אסרו

at night after the end of a holiday, particularly in אסרו פסח referring to the night time hours (or entire day) following the end of Passover

‘ב

2

’בן, בר, בר

son of

בשנת

in the year

בשנת ___ לחייה

in the _____ year of her life

בשנת ___ לחייו

in the _____ year of his life

בת

daughter of

‘ג

3

‘ד

4

of

א’ דראש חודש סיוון

first day of [the two day new moon/month] the new month of Sivan

‘ה

5

ה

the [prefixed to the following word and written as one word]

האשה החשובה

the eniment woman

הבחור

the unmarried [usually young] (man)

הבתולה

the maiden, young unmarried woman, lit. virgin

הגאון

the genius (in the study of the sacred Jewish books)

החביב

the beloved (man)

החביבה

the beloved woman

החכם

the wise (man)

היקר

the dear (man)

היקרה

the dear (woman)

הישיש

(the man) of many years / advanced in age

הכהן

the cohen (kohen)

הלוי

the levite

הנגיד

the wealthy / wealthy and benevolent (man)

הנכבד

the honorable / honored (man)

הצנועה

the chaste/modest (woman)

הקדוש

(the one) who was martyred in the sanctification of God’s name (i.e. killed on account of being a Jew)

הרבני

the rabbinical (man) (i.e. man with rabbinical ordination)

הרבנית

the rabbi’s wife (Yiddish rébetsn)

התמים

the righteous (man)

התמימה

the righteous (woman)

‘ו

6

ו

and [prefixed to the following word and written as one word]

וינב, וינ”ב

ויצאה נשמתה בטהרה

and her soul departed in purity [i.e. died]

ויצאה נשמתו בטהרה

and his soul departed in purity [i.e. died]

ונפטר

and he passed away [precedes the date and year of death, with or without the prefixed preposition ב for the following word which is often the date]

ונפטרה

and she passed away [precedes the date and year of death, with or without the prefixed preposition ב for the following word which is often the date]

‘ז

7

ז”ל

זכרונו לברכה

may his memory be a blessing [usually of a highly learned/respected/saintly person]

‘ח

8

חשון, חשוון

second month of the Jewish calendar (in October/November)

‘ט

9

טבת

fourth month of the Jewish calendar (in December/January)

ט”ו

15

ט”ז

16

‘י

10

י”א

11

י”ב

12

י”ג

13

י”ד

14

י”ז

17

יום

day(s)

י”ח

18

י”ט

19

ימים

days; following a [Jewish-alphabet] number, it refers to the date (of death)

ינב, ינ”ב

יצאה נשמתה בטהרה

her soul departed in purity [i.e. died]

יצאה נשמתו בטהרה

his soul departed in purity [i.e. died]

ירא אלהים

[lived his life] in fear/awe of God

‘כ

twenty

כסלו

third month of the Jewish calendar (in November/December)

‘ל

30

לח(ו)דש

of the month [follows a date and precedes the name of the month]

לימי חייה

of the years of her life [following the age of death]

לימי חייו

of the years of his life [following the age of death]

לפרט קטן

See below לפ”ק

לפ”ק

according to the shortened form of writing the year, i.e. without the thousands column. Sometimes written as a trigraph (see Iconography notes preceding dictionary).

‘מ

40

מ

from [prefixed to following word, written as one word, sometimes with a place name indicating the place of origin of the deceased]

מוה”ר, מה”ר, מוהר, מהר

Our teacher the rabbi

מוהר”ר, מוהרר

Our teacher the rabbi, Reb/Rabbi/our Rabbi [followed by name]

מחבר ספר

author of the book

מרת

honorific title preceding a grown woman’s first name

‘נ

50

נדיב לב

(the) generous, kind-hearted (man)

נדיבת לב

(the) generous, kind-hearted (woman)

נולד

(was) born (on)

ניסן

seventh month of the Jewish calendar

(נפחה (נפשה

breathed her last, i.e. died (usually preceding date of death)

(נפח (נפשו

breathed his last, i.e. died (usually preceding date of death)

נפטר

passed away (male) [precedes the date and year of death, with or without the prefixed preposition ב for the following word]

נפטרה

passed away (female) [precedes the date and year of death, with or without the prefixed preposition ב for the following word]

‘ס

60

סיון, סיוון

ninth month of the Jewish calendar (in May/June)

‘ע

70

ע”ה

עליה השלום

peace be upon her / may she rest in peace

עליו השלום

peace be upon him / may he rest in peace

עט”ר

עטרת ראשי

crown of my head

עטרת ראשינו

crown of our heads

ערב

eve of [preceding שבת when it can mean Friday, or the name of a holiday when it refers to the day before the evening onset of the holiday]

‘פ

80

פ”נ

פה נקבר, פה נטמן

here lies buried; here lies hidden away

שנת

in the year

‘צ

90

צדיק

righteous man

צדקת

righteous woman

ציון

gravestone, grave marker, place of the grave of (see history of the term)

‘ק

100

‘ר

200

‘ר

honorific title preceding a grown man’s first name

ראש חודש, ראש חדש

the new month; the new moon; precedes the name of the new month; → דראש חודש.

‘ש

300

שבט

fifth month of the Jewish calendar (in January/February)

שבק חיים לכל חי, שבק חיים לכל ישראל

departed from life, died, passed away

‘ת

400

 ◊

תפארתו

his grace, his graciousness, his eminence

תמוז

tenth month of the Jewish calendar (in June/July)

תנצבה, תנצב”ה

תהי נשמתה \ נפשה צרורה בצרור החיים

May her soul be bound up in the bond of everlasting life

תהי נשמתו \ נפשו צרורה בצרור החיים

May his soul be bound up in the bond of everlasting life

תשרי

first month of the Jewish calendar (in September/October)

Years from 1840 to 1941

ת”ר

[5,]600 [= 1840]

…תר

[5,]6… [followed by א to ט = the 1840s]

תר”י

[5,]610 [= 1850]

 …תרי

[5,]61- [followed by א to ט = the 1850s]

HENCE:

1851   תרי”א

1852   תרי”ב

1853   תרי”ג

1854   תרי”ד

1855   תרט”ו

1856   תרט”ז

1857   תרי”ז

1858  תרי”ח

1859   תרי”ט

תר”ך

[5,]620 [= 1860]

 …תרכ  

[5,]62- [followed by א to ט = the 1860s]

תר”ל

[5,]630 [= 1870]

 …תרל

[5,]63-  [followed by א to ט = the 1870s]

תר”ם

[5,]640 [= 1880]

 …תרמ

[5,]64- [the 1880s]

תר”ן

 [5,]650 [= 1890]

…תרנ

 [5,]65- [followed by א to ט = the 1890s]

תר”ס

[5,]660 [= 1900]

 …תרס

 [5,]66-  [followed by א to ט = the 1900s]

תר”ע

[5,]670   [= 1910]

…תרע

 [5,]67-  [followed by א to ט = the 1910s]

תר”פ, תר”ף

 [5,]680  [= 1920]

 

…תרפ

 [5,]68-  [followed by א to ט = the 1920s]

תר”ץ

 [5,]690  [= 1930]

…תרצ

 [5,]69-  [followed by א to ט = the 1930s]

ת”ש

  [5,]700  [= 1940]

תש”א

  [5,]701  [= 1941]

 


 Biblical Citations

 

על אלה אני בוכיה עיני עיני ירדה מים

‘On these I weep; mine eye, mine eye runneth down with water’  (from Lamentations 1:16)


Non-Standard Hebrew Spellings

יוקתיאל

Standard Yekusíel (Jekuthiel, e.g. I Chronicles 4:18), spelled יקותיאל. The metathesis of yud and kuf, on a stone in Podbrodzh (Pabradė), may reflect the frequent pronunciation Yeksíel, often shortened in Litvish to Ksíel, where the historic and phonetically disappeared u (represented by vov) “disturbs” the local rendition. Methathesis solves that perceptually. In addition, to the typical non-expert eye, the visual start of a name by yud and vov has a “classic look” to it.

 


Non-Standard Yiddish Spellings

 מענדול

The spelling מענדול in place of expected מענדיל, מענדל or מענדעל for the male forename Mendl, occurs in Dukor, Belarus where the Yiddish dialect has u instead of zero or shewa before syllabic l and n, hence ídun ‘Jews’ instead of expected Litvish idn.


Cemetery Terminology

In some registers of Yiddish, encompassing two ends of the spectrum, the folksiest and the high literary, the words for ‘gravestone’ and ‘cemetery’ can be the simplest: shteyn (literally ‘stone’) and feld (literally ‘field’). In fact the family name Feldman is thought to denote a kind of amateur cantor who said graveside prayers at funerals, memorials and visits by relatives and friends of the deceased.

‘gravestone’

In Litvak (and standard) Yiddish, the word for gravestone is matséyve (plural matséyves). In informal Litvak Ashkenazic Hebrew: matséyvo, matséyveys (standard Ashkenazic matséyvoys); in very rare (ultra)formal style matseyvó, matseyvéys (standard Ashkenazic  matseyvóys).

All these levels of intra-Litvak and inter-dialectal Yiddish and Ashkenazic Hebrew, and intimate vs. formal usage are lost when the very culturally inappropriate imposition of Israeli (“Sephardic”) Hebrew is invoked on the Litvak or East European Jewish cultural reality. This is distinct from the completely normal and appropriate use of the Israeli forms when speaking or writing Israeli Hebrew, of course. The Israeli forms are matsevá and matesvót, sometimes strangely spelled maceva and macevot by those adding East European spelling conventions (where c = ts) to Israeli pronunciations, in English usage, taking things to new levels of complexity and further from Litvak and East European Jewish culture.

Finally there is a much more biblical term for ‘gravestone’ or ‘grave marker’ that is occasionally encountered at or near the very top of the inscription. It is ציון (which in later Hebrew came to mean ‘mark’ or ‘grade’), which would for a traditional  East European Jew with basic biblical knowledge (a large percentage) immediately evoke the beloved story in the Book of Kings about the “man of God” (prophet) whose grave marker at Beth-El was found generations after his death, in a story of fulfillment of prophecy. See II Kings 23: 17, in the reign of the good king Josiah (reigned ±640 BCE — ±609 BCE), resolving the events of the “man of God” recounted in I Kings 13, in the days of the evil king Jeroboam (reigned ±922 BCE — ±900 BCE). No kidding, “Jews have a long memory”. . .

Because of the more learned nature of the term ציון, the ‘base Litvak form’ would more likely be the one rooted more in popular Ashkenazic — tsíyun, than the ‘pure Yiddish’ tsíyen.  And, the formal Ashkenazic, that would also be used in synagogue biblical readings, would be more frequent too: tsiyún, especially when perceived to be in the construct form.

‘grave’

The grave itself is the kéyver (קבר), plural kvórim (קברים).

‘Jewish cemetery’

The most common Litvak term for a Jewish cemetery is beséylem (in some Litvak varieties, social or geographic: beséylom with the final Ashkenazic full o vowel retained). This corresponds to standard Yiddish besóylem. The word derives from Hebrew בית עולם which translates literally as ‘house of eternity’ or ‘house of the world’.

A more contemplative, learned and even mystically oriented term is the Aramaic derived besálmin (בית עלמין), which can be translated ‘house of eternities’ and in earlier periods of Hebrew could refer to the Temple in Jerusalem.

One of the simplest Yiddish words for ‘Jewish cemetery’ that characterizes folk speech as well as high literary and poetic registers of modern Yiddish literature is simply feld (literally ‘field’). It normally occurs not as a noun with an article but in the prepositional/adverbial phrase afn feld ‘in the cemetery’ (it can also mean ‘in the field’ of course). It is the presumed origin of the Jewish family name Feldman, which may derive from the low-level, semi-amateur cantor who chanted memorial prayers, including the kaddish, at funerals and memorial occasions for departed relatives and friends. In more recent centuries, the usage survives in the Litvak term féld-khazn  (פעלד⸗חזן) used in precisely that sense by Chaim Grade and other Yiddish authors. It refers to the cantor of the Jewish cemetery, not of a field. . .


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