…Yet I Need Hebrew Sources for My Genealogical Research
This article was given as a lecture at the 39th International Conference of Jewish Genealogy in Cleveland, Ohio on August 02, 2019.
See also my first presentation on July 31, 2019 „Lessons learned…„.
Even lacking fundamental knowledge of Hebrew, it is generally possible to decipher the most important biographical information in Hebrew source materials.
Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Johannes Reiss and I am ‒ I hardly dare to say this aloud in this company ‒ not a genealogist. I’m Director of the Austrian Jewish Museum in the town of Eisenstadt in Austria and I specialize in Hebrew gravestone inscriptions. In other words, I photograph, transcribe, translate and interpret them.
I thank you warmly for this invitation to speak today. It is an opportunity which honors and pleases me enormously.
Right off the bat: you do not need to take notes or be afraid that you might not catch every word I say. At the end of the presentation, I will give you a link with which you can download the entire presentation, including all the examples cited and necessary tools.
One brief additional note about me and my own professional engagement and involvement as it applies to today’s presentation: I completed studies in Judaism and ancient Semitic philology. My focal point throughout my professional career at the Jewish Museum has always been the Hebrew language. I taught Hebrew for ten years at the university and have conducted courses in Hebrew all over Austria for more than 25 years.
The main reason for my great interest in Hebrew is that right around the corner from the Jewish Museum in Eisenstadt, there are two large Jewish cemeteries in which there are more than 1400 gravestones, all of which are inscribed only in Hebrew. These two cemeteries, or to be more precise, the Hebrew inscriptions in the cemeteries, have fascinated me since the onset of my career and have even filled (and fulfilled) my free time to a great extent.
Eisenstadt was the center of the so-called „Seven Communities“, ‒ in Hebrew „Sheva Kehillot“ ‒ in other words, seven holy Jewish communities in what at the time was western Hungary, today it is part of Burgenland in Austria. Burgenland has been a federal state of Austria since 1921. The communities were settled at the end of the 17th century. The year 1938 forced the irrevocable end of every Jewish settlement. Today in Burgenland there are no more Jewish communities and only a dozen Jews. In the 14 Jewish cemeteries in Burgenland there are about 8,000 gravestones, all of which (practically without exception) have Hebrew gravestone inscriptions. No plans or maps of cemeteries exist in Burgenland. It is necessary to examine each and every individual gravestone on-site.
Eisenstadt is the one and only town in the region in which there are today two large Jewish cemeteries. The most significant Jewish cemetery by far in the former „Seven Communities“ is the older Jewish cemetery in Eisenstadt. The oldest gravestone goes back to the year 1679. The cemetery was used until the summer of 1875. The younger Jewish cemetery was established in fall of 1875 as the „successor cemetery“ to the older one and was used until 1938. In just a few unusual cases, there were burials after 1945.
The older Jewish cemetery of Eisenstadt, which without any doubt numbers among the most important Jewish cemeteries in the world, measured in terms of age, number of gravestones and the many great Jewish scholars buried there, has 1085 gravestones with exclusively Hebrew inscriptions. There is not one single non-Hebrew letter to be found in the entire cemetery.
The younger of the Jewish cemeteries has just under 300 gravestones. There, too, we find only gravestones with exclusively Hebrew inscriptions (with the exception of a few gravestones which were placed after 1945) although there are occasional additions with names and date of death written in German or Hungarian.
Both of the Jewish cemeteries have been comprehensively documented, digitalized and placed online in the blog of the Austrian Jewish Museum by me personally. The following things can now be consulted: a photo of each gravestone, the map of the cemetery, the script of the gravestone inscription, painstakingly transcribed in line-by-line registers, the translation and commentaries of the Hebrew inscription, genealogical data and links to the graves of relatives buried in these two cemeteries. For all interested parties, especially those searching for their relatives or antecedents, there is a QR-Code on every grave in both cemeteries which leads to the URL of the gravestone, including photo, inscription, links to relatives and a map of the cemetery. I believe I can say that this is a service not before seen in the world.
Most of the examples today come from one or the other of the two Jewish cemeteries in Eisenstadt. That was the reason for this long introduction.
The title of my presentation is:
Help! I Do Not Speak Hebrew, Yet I Need Hebrew Sources for My Genealogical Research
For genealogists, a gravestone is a fundamental and primary source of research. It goes without saying, this also applies to Jewish gravestones. And it’s valid even more crucially to Jewish gravestones with Hebrew inscriptions. Also in today’s presentation, the focal point will be the Hebrew gravestone inscriptions.
In the genealogical website portals (the Jewish Genealogy Portal more than any other of course) the most frequently asked questions are about what is contained in the Hebrew inscriptions. Above all else, that interest is directed at the name and date of death, possibly also whether the father or mother of the deceased person is referred to.
In my first presentation on Wednesday, I tried to point out that there is a great deal more biographical information contained in the Hebrew gravestone inscriptions than just name and date of death, information which in many cases cannot be found anywhere else. Today, however, the focus will be on how to recognize and decipher the most important data contained in Hebrew inscriptions, even if you don’t speak Hebrew.
But first: why is that necessary? you might be wondering. You could, for example, photograph the gravestone or at least the inscription, submit it to a genealogical portal, and you would probably receive an answer to your inquiry rather swiftly. That’s true. But if you get 10 answers, how will be know which of those answers is correct? Precisely that is the situation which most often occurs.
Far more important in practice is the following scenario: you know the civic name of the person, but you haven’t really got a chance of finding the „right“ grave at the Jewish cemetery if you are not in a position to at least read the date of death precisely, which in Hebrew inscriptions is invariably given in Hebrew letters.
Apart from that, the solution via genealogical research is often conducted through the Hebrew name which only sometimes is recorded in the birth registers, yet is always contained in the Hebrew inscription.
When we speak about gravestones and the Hebrew inscriptions of both Jewish cemeteries of Eisenstadt, we are talking about gravestones whose Hebrew inscriptions frequently comprise 40 lines of text and more (!) (Guetel/Meir Austerlitz, Malka Austerlitz, Fradl/Loeb Schacherls):
I am showing you both these inscriptions in order to give you courage. Because in just half an hour, you will be in a position to locate and decipher the most important biographical data even in such a long and complex Hebrew gravestone inscription. I have intentionally chosen examples of inscriptions for Jewish women: Resl Theben, who died in 1755, and Malka Austerlitz, who died in 1743. Later on today, we will return to the inscription of Resl Theben in several ways.
A Hebrew gravestone inscription follows a special design, a certain pattern. In 95% of all cases, it has the selfsame or at least a similar structure. Regardless whether the inscription is 5 lines long or 50 lines!
In other words: if we examine Hebrew inscriptions from above to below, we see that in nearly all cases, they are structured in the same way.
Before the actual Hebrew inscription begins, we frequently find a symbol. This in many cases already contains the first important piece of genealogical information.
To start with, there are professional symbols which are obvious and known to everyone, such as a musical instrument for a musician, cantor, singer; a circumcision scalpel for the Mohel, etc. or the rather general symbols for dying, grief, mourning and death such as the Biblical weeping oak, a broken tree trunk for early death; a star which symbolizes hope and trust; a house sign for noble families in large cities; or name symbols, as for lion, bear, lamb, etc. or, finally, the frequently utilized Menora, the seven-armed candelabra; or the Magen David, the star of David. Although many of these symbols have a certain genealogical relevance, we shall put them aside for today’s purposes, since most of them are self-explanatory. Today we shall devote ourselves only to genuine Jewish symbols, in other words to the three symbols which are rooted deep in Jewish and rabbinic tradition.
The pitcher, frequently pitcher and basin, is a symbol of parentage or descent and the symbol for Levites. It is found particularly on gravestones, only very rarely also on Jewish houses (for example in Judengasse in Frankfurt, Germany or in Eisenstadt, Austria). This symbol reveals that the deceased person hails from a Levite family. Frequently, the first name or the middle name is also לוי \ הלוי „Levi“ or „Ha-Levi“ („the Levite“) or סג“ל „SEGA’L“, which is a Hebrew abbreviation for „sgan levija“ which means „Assistant to the Cohens.“
In our example: Wilhelm (Wolf ben Salman ha-Levi) Austerlitz, who died in 1868, and Moritz Austerlitz, who died in 1900, both buried in the older Jewish cemetery of Eisenstadt.
Also a symbol of parentage or descent are the hands performing a blessing with the characteristic posture of fingers: thumb and index finger touch each other, ring finger and pinky are splayed. This symbol is found in members of the (Aaronic) priesthood (example: Samuel Cohen, died in 1791) with the name or name-afix of כהן Kohen, Kohn or Ka’tz. כ“ץ „Ka’tz“ is an abbreviation for „Kohen Zedek“ „righteous priest“ as was the case for Rabbi Karl Klein (died 1930), in Hebrew: Chaim Akiba Ka’tz, Zeile 6.
For purposes of completeness, I want to also mention the third genuine Jewish symbol, which is not a symbol of descent and has no genealogical relevance: the crown (Hindel Spitzer, who died in 1864)!
Although claims are repeatedly made that the symbol of a crown signifies that one was financially better off, this is an error. Because we read in Pirke Avot, in the Chapters of the Fathers, the following:
There are three crowns: the crown of the Torah, the crown of priestly status and the crown of royalty. However, the crown of having a good name exceeds all of these.
The symbol of the crown is in most cases a symbol for „a good name,“ for the „good reputation“ of the deceased person. Ordinarily we also then find in the inscription „He/She died with a good reputation.“ This has absolutely nothing to do with being financially better off.
And don’t let me forget: you read Hebrew from right to left. And there are only consonants, no vowels.
Very far up in the inscription, generally right after the symbol if there is one, is the so-called introductory formula which nearly always consists of 2 letters with abbreviation dashes between the two letters: פ“נ P“N „po nitman“ and for women „po nitmenet“, or פ“ט „po tamun“ and for women „po tmuna“, „here lies buried“, „here lies concealed“. Only in rare cases is this introductory formula actually written out. In principle, there is no difference between P“N“ and P“T, but in the older Jewish cemetery of Eisenstadt I discovered in 2015 something which I had never seen, at least not with such clarity, in other Jewish cemeteries: that P“N is used nearly exclusively for men, and P“T for women. There ought to be statistics to underlie this observation so that the introductory formula would be accorded important genealogical relevance; in other words, so that we would know with probability bordering on certainty whether it is a man or a woman who is buried there.
On the most famous grave of the older Jewish cemetery in Eisenstadt, the grave of the first rabbi of the community, Meir Eisenstadt, who died in 1744, we find the introductory formula written out: פה נטמן „po nitman“, „Here lies buried.“:
On thousands of graves in Italy, we find a somewhat different introductory formula, also an abbreviation with two letters: פ“ש P“SH, or when written out, פה שוכב „po shochev“, „Here lies in peace“:
And so, we finally come to what is assuredly the most important element in the Hebrew gravestone inscription, to
As a matter of course in Hebrew inscriptions, the Hebrew (synagogal) name is always given and given exclusively, both for men and for women. The civic or common bourgeois name is never given. In more recent inscriptions, the civic name is occasionally added in the German or Hungarian language, but never in the Hebrew inscription. (Examples: Antonia (Taube) Hirsch, October 4th, 1936, Jewish cemetery in Mattersburg, and Charlotte (Shwarzl) Spitzer, June 5th, 1914, younger Jewish cemetery in Eisenstadt):
So we never find in the Hebrew inscription „Charlotte,“ but rather, „Shwarzl.“ We never find „Antonia,“ but rather „Taube.“ And we never find „Armin,“ but rather, for example, „Mordechai Zvi.“
The name of a man is nearly always the combination of his first name and the name of his father, e.g. Shmuel ben/bar Moshe, Samuel, son of Mose, דוד בן\בר יעקב „David ben/bar Jakob“, David, the son of Jakob (see David Stroh, who died March 11th, 1905 and is buried in the older Jewish cemetery of Eisenstadt):
The name of a woman is a combination of her first name and the name of her father, in the case of married women in the modern era it is replaced by (or has added to it) the name of her husband, e.g. רבקה בת משה אשת שמואל „Rivka bat Moshe, eshet Shmu’el, Rebekka, daughter of Mose, wife of Samuel“, or also, as in the photo example, אלמנת כה’ נתן הירש „almanat Natan Hirsh“, widow of Natan Hirsh (Zeile 4):
The name „Taube“ is not Biblical, of course. Since women, unlike men, are not called up in the synagogue (for that reason we speak only of Hebrew names, not of synagogal names!) a woman did not have to have a religious name. It goes without saying that women also have Biblical names, in particular those of the four arch-mothers, Sara, Rivka (Rebekka), Rachel and Lea.
The Hebrew words that we need are simple. בן „ben“ for son and בת „bat“ for daughter. אשת „eshet“ means „wife of“ and אלמנת „almanat“ means „widow of“. Therefore „Rebekka, daughter of Mose“, is in Hebrew: רבקה בת משה „Rivka bat Mose“ and „Sara, wife of Abraham“ is in Hebrew: שרה אשת אברהם „Sara eshet Avraham“ and „Kressel, widow of Mose“ is in Hebrew קרעסל אלמנת משה „Kressel almanat Mose“.
Gravestone inscription of Katharina (Kressel) Breuer, who died October 25th, 1897: קרעסל אלמנת … משה אל“ ברייער … בת … מרדכי שלעזינגער „Kressel, almanat … Mose Eli(jahu) Breuer …, bat … Mordechai Shlesinger“, „Kressel, widow of Mose Elias Breuer, daughter of Mordechai Shlesinger“.
In the inscription of Charlotte Spitzer we read: שווארצל … אשת … ליב שפיטצער הלוי „Shwarzl, eshet Loeb Spitzer ha-Levi“, „Shwarzl, wife of Loeb Spitzer Halevi“. So we see in the name-afix that he belongs to the Levite line. „Shwarzl“, the Hebrew name of Mrs. Spitzer, is of course not Biblical.
The gravestone of Charlotte Spitzer is also interesting for another reason, namely, because we have an addition in the German language in which the age at the time of death (67 years) and also the date of birth and date of death are noted. But in the German inscription, the husband is not noted; this important genealogical information is contained only in the Hebrew inscription.
For genealogists, it is important to know that in principle, until the present day the custom of Ashkenasi Jews is valid, to name a child after a deceased relative. But then, it should be the name of a deceased person who did not die young or die an unnatural death. It is a custom which is intended to keep the memory and the name alive. In addition, it is a great honor for the deceased person, since the soul can attain a higher level through the good deeds which the namesake accomplishes.
And in all normal cases, we can rely on this. Only in very rare cases do we find in inscriptions things like Issachar bar Issachar or Moshe ben Moshe, in other words, son and father have the same name. When that happens, it might be an indication that the father died just before the death of the son.
Sefardic Jews, on the other hand, give their children names of relatives who are still living. In this custom, they stick to the Talmud, which reports of a child named after Rabbi Natan while he was still alive (Babylonian Talmud, Tract Shabbat 134a).
But how do we find the names in a Hebrew inscription if we don’t speak Hebrew? There are three possibilities:
- First, the name is written larger than the rest of the inscription. We can see that quite easily in the inscription of Charlotte Shwarzl Spitzer (in line 5). In other words, you need a list of Hebrew letters and can, as a rule, read the name without any problem. Of course you will receive that list to download.
- The second possibility is the bestowal of a blessing after the name : „Like amen at the end of a prayer“ following the name of the deceased person comes the blessing: עליו \ עליה השלום „May peace be upon him / her“, נוחו עדן „His peace / joy is (in) Eden“ or ז“ל „May his / her memory be for a blessing“, and particularly for great scholars זצ“ל „May the memory of the righteous be for a blessing“.
Also in the inscription of Charlotte Spitzer, we find following the name the blessing עליה השלום „may peace be upon her“, following the name of her husband: עליו השלום „may peace be upon him“.
One more example, the gravestone of Johanna (Lea Chana) Janowitz, who died in 1902, buried in the younger Jewish cemetery in Eisenstadt:
Here we find both the name of the deceased person „Lea Chana Janowitz“ (lines 4 and 5), also the name of the husband „Jakob Janowitz“ (line 7) written larger, and you see after both names two different blessings: נ“ע „Her peace / joy is (in) Eden“ following her name; and ז“ל „May his memory be for a blessing“ following his name.
What is important in practice, here as well, is: keep a lookout for blessings, there are usually only two or three that occur very often, and you can be nearly sure that right before that, is the name. In the download link, you can find the most important blessings.
- And thirdly, apart from the larger letters and the blessing following the name, there is also one other way to recognize the name in a Hebrew inscription: the so-called Akrostychon!
Let me explain what that is. The introductory formula, name and date of death are often supplemented in a gravestone inscription by a conspicuously long part which we call the eulogy, the words of praise or laudatio. In just a moment I will get into the eulogy in greater detail, but here it is sufficient to know that in this part we often see the first letters of one line or of all the lines written larger or specially marked, for example by dots above the letters.
Let’s stick with our example from above, the gravestone of Charlotte Shwarzl Spitzer:
You see here: the beginning letters of all lines of the eulogy are written quite a bit larger. If we now read these letters from above to below, they result in the Hebrew first name of the deceased person: שווארצל „Shwarzl“! That is called Akrostychon.
It is similar in the other example we cited, the gravestone of Johanna Janowitz:
Here you see both larger beginning letters in the first 3 lines from above and also in line 4 of the eulogy. In addition, there are dots above all large letters. So we see the first name לאה Lea twice and the middle name חנה Chana once, an akrostychon vertically and two akrostycha horizontally.
This gravestone belongs to Chaja Schlesinger, who died in 1777 and is buried in the older Jewish cemetery of Eisenstadt.
When you stand before such a gravestone whose inscription is difficult to read or perhaps even completely illegible, you (and that includes me, too) don’t stand much of a chance of finding the name or date of death. These things are found in the opening lines in the arched part and are hardly legible. But we see ‒ our eyes are now somewhat educated ‒ the akrostychon which fortunately is easily legible and tells us the name: חיה יפה „Chaya Jafe“. She, incidentally, was a housekeeper and her husband Isak, who died six years earlier, was an accountant for his father, who was no less a personality than Marx Schlesinger (Mordechai ben Moses Margulies), who had a highly respected position in the ghetto of Vienna and was murdered by Polish soldiers in 1683. It is also worth noting that the Hebrew word „Jafe“ means „beautiful“ in English and can be found in later registers under „Schön,“ which is the German word for beautiful.
Apropos registers, in particular birth registers:
The Hebrew name can be found not merely in the Hebrew inscription, but frequentlly also in the birth registers.
(The Hebrew names from top to bottom: Mose, Chana, Mose, Chayim Zvi, Bella/Bila, Sanwel, Berl, Miryam, Sanwel, Yosef)
Since the Hebrew name often provides the crucial balance in genealogical research, I would like to plead for including also the Hebrew name in birth registers. It would be a great help, particularly if we are looking for a certain grave in a Jewish cemetery with Hebrew inscriptions.
To go back to the gravestone inscriptions and the name:
The name is ordinarily introduced through the status of the deceased person: „the child,“ „the boy,“ „the girl,“ „the bachelor,“ „the young woman,“ „the widow,“ „the aged person,“ etc. In nearly all cases of men, this is followed by a title which describes his function in the community above all else: the highly esteemed gentleman, the Torah scholar, the illustrious, the MORENU = our teacher and master, etc.
Special caution is necessary with הבחור „ha-bachur“, the word for „the bachelor“, „the unmarried man“. Because also a 60-year old man who was unmarried can be called „bachur“. The word „bachur“ alone is first and foremost a description of status, not of age. Whereas הבחור החשוב (literally „the important bachelor“) is always a younger unmarried man. In local dialect it is called „chashuv bachurl“ which means an educated youth.
It is similar with unmarried women: הבתולה „ha-betula“ is an unmarried woman, regardless how old. Whereas the Hebrew word העלמה „ha-alma“ is always a quite young, as well as unmarried, woman.
In my presentation, for reasons of time I will not go into the data regarding status any further, but you will find information and frequent examples in the download link.
To return once more to the impressive gravestone of Resl Theben-Nassau who died in 1755 and is buried in Mattersdorf / Mattersburg:
Before I move on to the next point, please have a look at the fascinating inscription, which numbers among the most impressive Hebrew inscriptions. And it belongs to a woman! And in the inscription, the strikingly long and wide-ranging akrostychon which includes all the lines of the eulogy ‒ and that amounts to 26 lines (!) :
right column: הרבנית מרת ריזל זל Wife of the rabbi, Mrs. Resl, her memory be for a blessing,
left column: בת הרר וואלף זל נס Daughter of the gentleman and master Wolf, his memory be for a blessing, Nassau
I referred earlier to the eulogy, the words of praise addressing the deceased person. This is, in the formula of the components in a gravestone inscription, the next, quite often largest part of the inscription. At the same time, the frequently occurring attributes which come before the name, such as „the just man“ or „the modest woman“ or 2the great scholar“ strictly speaking are also part of the eulogy.
I dealt with this as the focus of my first lecture on Wednesday because the eulogy very often contains biographical data which can be enormously important for genealogists and make their work much, much easier or more efficient.
The aim of the eulogy is to place the deceased person in the spotlight, so to speak. This is never a literal description of the real life or an accurate depiction of the civic life of the person and is not primarily intended to supply biographical data. It is, rather, an ideal portrait of the life of the person and for that reason, its significance is often underestimated by genealogists.
Because due to the fact that the life of the person to an increasing extent is told, even described in ever greater detail, we land in that exciting, quite insecure zone between the Hebrew inscription and the entries in the registers in German or Hungarian. The „fine art“ ‒ if I can be permitted to call it that ‒ consists of filtering out the relevant biographical data in the described stereotype and texts full of quotations: discovering them and understanding them.
So that you can get a more concrete picture of a eulogy, I would like to quote part of one from the inscription for Samuel Schönberger, who died in 1911:
It begins in line 7, immediately following the blessing, which you can easily recognize, which in turn follows the name of the deceased person: Nataniel Schönberger, May peace be upon him.
And following that, the 4 lines of the eulogy:
7) The youngest son of the honored and illustrious,
8) whose name was well known due to his righteousness and his generosity,
9) of Mr. Samuel Niklo, may he rest in peace. (Attention: this is genealogically relevant information. By „Niklo“ is meant the town which is called Fertöszenmiklos in today’s Hungary.)
10) He died at a high age, after he came into
11) his strength (Attention: this is the next genealogically important piece of information: „after he came into his strength“ means that he was approximately 80 years old, because we read in Psalm 90:10, „The years of our life are seventy, or even, due to strength, eighty.“
Samuel Schönberger died at age 79.
Let me summarize. The most important thing here is that you find exactly where the eulogy is found in a Hebrew inscription.
In the inscription of Charlotte Spitzer it is in the more or less customary spot in the lower part. In the inscription of Therese Jacobi who died in 1875, it is practically right at the beginning! If you can recognize the eulogy purely from its structure, then you know which part of the inscription you have to set aside, if you will, in order to concentrate on the other parts, where you will find the elements we have talked about: introductory formula, name, blessing and ‒ the one thing we are still lacking and which after the name is the most important component ‒ the
Date of Death
Right off the bat I want to point out that the date of death actually might be anywhere in the inscription ‒ right at the top, frequently enough in the introductory formula, beneath the name or even in the eulogy. What matters for us today is how you can recognize it even if you don’t speak Hebrew, where the date of death is found in the inscription and how you can convert it to the civic date.
The date of death in Hebrew inscriptions is given solely in accordance with the Jewish calendar. The date is never given in numbers, it is invariably in Hebrew letters which have a specific correspondence to numbers.
In the download link, you of course will find all the Hebrew letters with their numerical equivalents.
Let’s look again at the inscription for Charlotte Shwarzl Spitzer:
The entire date is found in lines 7 and 8, the year of death in line 8. And to start with, what matters most is the year of death, for two special reasons:
- In practice, if you are looking for a certain gravestone in a cemetery with Hebrew inscriptions, it will be sufficient in most cases if you can clearly identify the year of death.
- And secondly, the year of death is the simplest element to read in the date given in the inscription.
The year of death ordinarily consists of three components:
(1) The word for „year“ שנת „shnat“, (2) the combination of letters, the numerical equivalent of which tells you the year of death and (3) followed by three letters which are always the same letters.
Let’s look at it in sequence:
The word for „year“ ‒ „shnat“ ‒ can also be abbreviated with its first letter: ש“ „sh“.
The combination of letters whose numerical equivalent is the year of death is in most cases indicated in some way, for example, with dots over the letters or with double quotation marks or simple quotation marks (inverted commas) between the letters. In our example we clearly see the dots above the four letters.
The three letters following the year of death are an abbreviation which is indicated by the use of double quotation marks. The abbreviation לפ“ק should be read as „lifrat katan“, which means „by the small count“ or „of the small specification“.
The customary Jewish conversion which is used today starts at the creation of the world and is set at year 3,760 before the Christian era begins. This time calculation did not establish itself until the 11th century, but ever since then, it has held firm. The conversion is very simple:
If the year „minus“ 3,760 is the Jewish year zero, then the Jewish year 5000 is the civic year 1240 (-3760 + 5000 = 1240). Since you will in all probability never be confronted with a gravestone dating to before 1240, it is quite sufficient to simply use 1240 as for the Jewish year 5000.
Then, all you need is a list of the Hebrew letters with their numerical equivalents (see above).
Now we still need to know the numerical equivalents of the letters: in the inscription for Charlotte Spitzer we find ת Taw = 400, ר Resh = 200, ע Ayin = 70 and ד Dalet = 4, which when combined results in 674.
In other words, Charlotte Spitzer died in the year 674. That means 5,674 of course, but the thousand digit is ordinarily not written. I can remember one time when I was a child and was doing my homework, my mother wrote the date over it and wrote, instead of 1974, just 74. And above the 74 she made a dash after the year, which meant, as mentioned before, „by the small count,“ in other words, without 5000!
If we want to know what Jewish year it currently is, we then have to calculate 2019 minus 1240, and we arrive at 779. In other words, we now are in Jewish year 5779 or 779 „by the small count.“
Here is the gravestone of Colombo Tolentino, who died on 16 October 1873 and was buried in the Jewish cemetery of Trieste:
In Italy we find relatively frequently the year with the 5,000 as part of it: thus, Colombo Tolentino died in the year 5634. The thousand digit is written with the letter ה „He“ and has the numerical equivalent of 5.
Now those among you who can do arithmetic in their heads will immediately object that this is not correct because 1240 and 634 of course add up to 1874 and not to 1873. The reason is this:
The Jewish year begins in September/October of the civic calendar. Therefore, the months of Tishre, Cheshwan, Kislew and part of Tevet are always in the new Jewish year, but still in the old civic year. Since the month of Tevet falls in December/January, the date might fall in the old year and might fall in the new one. And in the inscription of Colombo Tolentino we read that she died in the month of Tishre (line 6), in other words in the year 1873, but already in the „new“ Jewish year 5634.
Don’t underestimate this stumbling block! In practice we are often confronted with the problem of knowing the civic date of death and in a large Jewish cemetery with Hebrew inscriptions are looking for the corresponding gravestone. And if the date of death was in the fall of 1873, then I have to look for 634 and not 633. However, if you don’t know that, your chances of locating the right gravestone are zilch. It is, if you will, a classic problem which is not at all a problem as long as you know how it ticks.
All right, we have progressed from the year, one step further to the month. Of course you will find in the download link also the names of the Jewish months. And if you are lucky and the script is legible, you will be able to solve the problem with ease. For example in the inscription of Charlotte Spitzer, with which we are already familiar, in line 8:
Here, the Jewish month of Siwan (May/June).
And if we have come this far, then all we need is the day of the month in order to comprehend the entire date of death.
Since we already know that the digits in Hebrew inscriptions are always done with Hebrew letters, it is quite simple. We simply need to know the numerical equivalents of the letters. In this case, י Yod = 10 und א Alef = 1 (Alef is the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet), in other words, 11. Charlotte Spitzer died on the 11th of Siwan 674 and that was the 5th of June 1914.
Suggestions in websites and apps about converting the Jewish calendar / civic calendar can of course be found in the download link, too. A simple tip we have learned from longstanding practice: don’t use a website, but a good cell phone app for the conversion. Both the apps for iPhone (Jewish Calendar – CalJ) and Android (HebDate) are free, excellent and in English.
It also needs to be noted, especially for genealogical matters, that the Jewish day always begins at sundown. Thus, we often have the case that someone, for example, died on May 13, 1914 according to the death register. According to the Jewish date, that was 17 Ijjar 674. But it is also noted in the death register that death occurred at 11:00 o’clock pm. Thus, the correct date of death in the civic calendar was the 13th of May and in the Jewish calendar already the 18th of Ijjar.
For the sake of completeness and so that you don’t get discouraged at the first grave you face, permit me also the following remark:
A very beautiful example is found in the date of death on the gravestone of Samuel Schlesinger Samuel ben Moses Güns, brother of the famous rabbi Akiba Eger! Also Samuel Schlesinger is buried in the older Jewish cemetery of Eisenstadt.
In lines 3 and 4 of the Hebrew inscription, we read:
His soul floated skyward in purity in the Month of Ijjar, during the night before the Holy Sabbath, to Lag ba-Omer according to the number (= Counting of the Omer) of the children of Israel, and he was buried on Sunday, Lag ba-omer according to the number of the children of Israel in the year 565.
If you can read Lag ba-Omer Lag ba-Omer לג בעומר and if you know that Lag ba-Omer is always the 18th Ijjar, then you know that Samuel Schlesinger died on Friday evening and was buried on Sunday morning.
But as mentioned earlier, that is at least one level of difficulty higher and for the most important data that we want to pinpoint in the Hebrew inscription, not particularly important. Because you can easily read the year (in lines 5 and 6) anyway: שנת תקצה לפק: „Shnat 595 by the small count“: ת Taw = 400, ק Kof = 100, צ Zadi = 90 und ה He = 5, therefore 595 = 1835. Even the שנת „shnat“ in line 5 and the three letters for לפק for „by the small count“ in line 6 can be recognized easily, and so…you can quickly determine the year you seek! Even on the gravestone of a man from a prominent family with a long and complicated eulogy part in Hebrew.
By the way, you see here that the introductory formula, with the two letters פנ (Pe and Nun) „here lies buried“ is not right at the beginning of the inscription, but comes only after the name and the date, right before the eulogy.
And so we finally come ‒ if we analyze the Hebrew inscription from the top, down ‒ to the last part, the final section of the formula, the so-called
to the words of praise at the end of the inscription, the laudatio which is conducted in loving and scholarly ways as a kind of dialogue with the deceased person.
This Ultimate Eulogy is nearly always written in abbreviated form with the five letters תנצבה Taw, Nun, Zadi, Bet und He. If they are written out, they form the sentence תהי נפשו \ נפשה צרורה בצרור החיים „May his / her soul be bound in the bundle of the living“. This lovely sentence is actually a quotation from Samuel 1:25-29, where Abigail says to David: „…the life of my lord will be bound securely in the bundle of the living by the Lord your God …“. Beispiel: Grabstein Abraham Eidlitz, gestorben, 16. Mai 1868, begraben am älteren jüdischen Friedhof in Eisenstadt:
As might be expected, 99.9% of the time in all Hebrew inscriptions, the final blessing, the Ultimate Eulogy comes at the very end of the inscription. One of the very rare exceptions: the inscription of Moses ben Josef Wertheim, who died in 1713 and is buried in the older Jewish cemetery in Eisenstadt. He, incidentally, is the brother of the famous „court Jew“ and rabbi Samson Wertheimer. The Ultimate Eulogy in that case comes right at the beginning of the inscription. Unfortunately, I can’t supply any explanation for that.
On modern Jewish gravestones from the last few decades there is often only the introductory formula and the Ultimate Eulogy as Hebrew elements of the gravestone inscription.
And so, ladies and gentlemen, I arrive at the end of my presentation.
Dealing with Hebrew gravestone inscriptions, translating them and analyzing them, is ordinarily not judged to be genealogical work. It is at very best a kind of “supply service” for the actually core research work of genealogy. In my humble opinion, it would be desirable for the status of the Hebrew inscriptions to be shifted slightly closer to center stage of genealogical research.
Two examples illustrate this best:
When I recently traveled to Croatia to visit the Jewish cemetery in Fiume /Rijeka, I noticed a prominent gravestone as soon as I entered the cemetery, that of Antonio and Ernestina Mattersdorfer. Their last name is the name of one of the holy Jewish seven communities located in what is today the state of Burgenland, Mattersdorf, nowadays known as Mattersburg.
The gravestone of Antonio and Ernestina has inscriptions which are in Italian and in Hebrew. For both individuals there is only the year of birth and of death in Italian, no exact date, and no reference to their parents.
All this important genealogical data can be found only in the Hebrew inscription, which incidentally is extremely beautiful. Only the Hebrew inscription made it possible to uncover the origins of Antonio Elchanan Mattersdorfer, his parents and his siblings in southern Burgenland:
Because of course we find in the birth registers of Schlaining only the Hebrew names. Elchanan or Elkan אלחנן (and his father in Hebrew: Seev זאב, birth book: Wolf!) With „Antonio,“ as we read in Italian, we would have gotten nowhere.
Which makes me happiest of all, just as I promised: after just half-an-hour, you now are in a position to recognize the most important Hebrew components for genealogical purposes: the introductory formulas, the Ultimate Eulogies, the date of death, the year of death (in both cases without the three subsequent letters meaning „by the small count“) and the Hebrew names and the names of the fathers of the deceased persons.
We finally return once more, for the last time, to the gravestone of Resl Theben-Nassau:
We have already talked about the fascinating akrostychon; the abbreviation „by the small count“ can be recognized at the end of the arch; as can the Ultimate Eulogy at the end of the inscription, all without difficulty. The inscription of Resl Theben-Nassau is extremely complex, the eulogy alone which encircles her name and her ancestors fill 4 long lines.
I selected this gravestone for the culmination of my lecture because the Hebrew inscription is the one and only witness for Resl Theben-Nassau’s death, for her exact date of death, which, incidentally, is formulated with wise and profound Biblical roots
The Hebrew gravestone inscription is the one and only reliable primary source for genealogical research. I published this gravestone online in December 2014. On geni.com we find no date of death and no place of death for Resel Theben Nassau. The moderator is…Randy Schoenberg; and Randy, you are in very good company, because no lesser a personality than the librarian of the Israelite Cultural Community in Vienna, Dr. Bernhard Wachstein, whom we have to thank for trailblazing publications on the Jewish cemetery in Seegasse in Vienna and the older Jewish cemetery in Eisenstadt at the beginning of the twentieth century, and who knew her father, Wolf ben Löb Nassau-Brilin, who died on 13 April 1753 (and on whose gravestone, incidentally, between the heading and the text there is a pair of glasses engraved in the stone) ‒ even Wachstein knows of the existence of the daughter Rösel but does not know when she died or where she lies buried (Bernhard Wachstein, Die Inschriften des alten Judenfriedhofes in Wien, 2. Teil (1696 – 1783), Wien 1917, Nr. 907).
But we know! Because of the Hebrew inscription.
Of course sometimes things work out differently from the way I have described. One of the two gravestones which I showed you right at the outset was of Malka Austerlitz, who died in 1743. And I am afraid that you will not be able to recognize anything except the Ultimate Eulogy. When such cases come up, I suggest you simply write me an email ;-)
Here are the links where you can download all the sheets with the Hebrew Alefbet, numbers and inscription formula:
- Alefbet (Hebrew Letters), Number values (pdf, 88KB)
- Introductory Formula, Age, Status, Title, Attributes, Blessings, Date of death… (pdf, 99KB)
- Hebrew calendar, the jewish months (pdf, 84KB)