A Work in Progress
by Dovid Katz
© Dovid Katz 2023
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:
- 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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
[ov]. Is [av].
eleventh month of the Jewish calendar (July/August)
[óvi]. ForLitA [oví]. Is [aví]
אבי היקר, אבי יקירי
LitY [óvi hayóker]. LitA [óvi hayókor]. ForLitA [oví hayokór]. Is [aví hayakár].
my dear father
[ovínu]. Is [avínu].
LitY [óvinu hayóker]. LitA [óvinu hayókor]. ForLitA [ovínu hayokór]. Is [avínu hayakár].
our dear father
known as אדר א in Jewish leap years
sixth month of the Jewish calendar (in February/March)
also known as ואדר
(in leap years only) the seventh month of the Jewish calendar (in March/April)
eighth month of the Jewish calendar (in April/May)
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
twelfth month of the Jewish calendar (in August/September)
אמי היקרה, אמי יקירתי
my dear mother
our dear mother
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
′בן, בר, בר
in the year
בשנת ___ לחייה
in the _____ year of her life
בשנת ___ לחייו
in the _____ year of his life
א′ דראש חודש סיוון
first day of [the two day new moon/month] the new month of Sivan
the [prefixed to the following word and written as one word]
the eminent woman
the unmarried [usually young] (man)
the maiden, young unmarried woman, lit. virgin
the genius (in the study of the sacred Jewish books)
the beloved (man)
the beloved woman
the wise (man)
the dear (man)
the dear (woman)
(the man) of many years / advanced in age
the cohen (kohen)
the wealthy / wealthy and benevolent (man)
the honorable / honored (man)
the chaste/modest (woman)
(the one) who was martyred in the sanctification of God’s name (i.e. killed on account of being a Jew)
the rabbinical (man) (i.e. man with rabbinical ordination)
the rabbi’s wife (Yiddish rébetsn)
the righteous (man)
the righteous (woman)
and [prefixed to the following word and written as one word]
ויצאה נשמתה בטהרה
and her soul departed in purity [i.e. died]
ויצאה נשמתו בטהרה
and his soul departed in purity [i.e. died]
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]
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]
may his memory be a blessing [usually of a highly learned/respected/saintly person]
second month of the Jewish calendar (in October/November)
fourth month of the Jewish calendar (in December/January)
days; following a [Jewish-alphabet] number, it refers to the date (of death)
יצאה נשמתה בטהרה
her soul departed in purity [i.e. died]
יצאה נשמתו בטהרה
his soul departed in purity [i.e. died]
[lived his life] in fear/awe of God
third month of the Jewish calendar (in November/December)
of the month [follows a date and precedes the name of the month]
of the years of her life [following the age of death]
of the years of his life [following the age of death]
See below 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).
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
Our teacher the rabbi, Reb/Rabbi/our Rabbi [followed by name]
author of the book
honorific title preceding a grown woman’s first name
(the) generous, kind-hearted (man)
(the) generous, kind-hearted (woman)
(was) born (on)
seventh month of the Jewish calendar
breathed her last, i.e. died (usually preceding date of death)
breathed his last, i.e. died (usually preceding date of death)
passed away (male) [precedes the date and year of death, with or without the prefixed preposition ב for the following word]
passed away (female) [precedes the date and year of death, with or without the prefixed preposition ב for the following word]
ninth month of the Jewish calendar (in May/June)
peace be upon her / may she rest in peace
peace be upon him / may he rest in peace
crown of my head
crown of our heads
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]
פה נקבר, פה נטמן
here lies buried; here lies hidden away
in the year
gravestone, grave marker, place of the grave of (see history of the term)
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.
fifth month of the Jewish calendar (in January/February)
שבק חיים לכל חי, שבק חיים לכל ישראל
departed from life, died, passed away
his grace, his graciousness, his eminence
tenth month of the Jewish calendar (in June/July)
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
first month of the Jewish calendar (in September/October)
Years from 1840 to 1941
[5,]600 [= 1840]
[5,]6… [followed by א to ט = the 1840s]
[5,]610 [= 1850]
[5,]61- [followed by א to ט = the 1850s]
[5,]620 [= 1860]
[5,]62- [followed by א to ט = the 1860s]
[5,]630 [= 1870]
[5,]63- [followed by א to ט = the 1870s]
[5,]640 [= 1880]
[5,]64- [the 1880s]
[5,]650 [= 1890]
[5,]65- [followed by א to ט = the 1890s]
[5,]660 [= 1900]
[5,]66- [followed by א to ט = the 1900s]
[5,]670 [= 1910]
[5,]67- [followed by א to ט = the 1910s]
[5,]680 [= 1920]
[5,]68- [followed by א to ט = the 1920s]
[5,]690 [= 1930]
[5,]69- [followed by א to ט = the 1930s]
[5,]700 [= 1940]
[5,]701 [= 1941]
על אלה אני בוכיה עיני עיני ירדה מים
‘On these I weep; mine eye, mine eye runneth down with water’ (from Lamentations 1:16)
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.
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.
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.
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.
The grave itself is the kéyver (קבר), plural kvórim (קברים).
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. . .