Matzevah – a Traditional Form of a Jewish tombstone

Jewish tombstone in the form of a vertically positioned rectangular stone or wooden slab, and from the nineteenth century also made of cast iron, topped with a straight line, triangle, semicircle or two segments of a circle, decorated with a bas-relief in the upper part and covered with an inscription (epitaph) at the bottom. The Hebrew epitaph was placed on the eastern side of the slab, as both, the tomb and the tombstone were oriented to the east. The stone slab was placed on the grave, on the headboard or in the legs of the deceased. It was often supported from the back by a stone block with a rectangular or semicircular cross-section, very rarely decorated.

Matzevot at the Cemetery in Warsaw at Okopowa Street. Photo by Grzegorz Petka (2008). Public domain. Image cropped. Colours intensified. Photo source: “Macewa” (2021). In: Wikipedia. Wolna Encyklopedia.

The reliefs in the upper part of the tombstone are not only decorative, but also symbolic; from the sixteenth century on, above the epitaph but under the top of the matzeva, there were usually sculpted symbols referring to the name of the deceased, their profession, character features, or sadness, mourning and death. Some of the decorative motifs on the matzevot are intended for representatives of traditional groups of the Jewish community, e.g. for a person from a priestly family (kohena) – those were hands folded in prayer, for a descendant of a Levite family, a cup, for a scholar or a rabbi – a Torah crown or a book for a woman, a lamp-stand, for the descendants of the tribe of Judah, a lion. Over time, the matzevot were given an increasingly complex architectural form, with cornices, columns, and recesses, and its height increased, sometimes reaching four meters.

Matzevah derived from the distant past, when it first meant sacred pillars in Canaanite sanctuaries, and then boulders, placed in memory of some important event; placed in cemeteries by Ashkenazi Jews.

Such a tombstone was adopted in Poland; the oldest one preserved there dates back to 1203 and is now at a Jewish cemetery in Wrocław (Poland), at Ślężna Street. The form of the matzevot is also recalled by erratic boulders placed on graves in Jewish cemeteries in north-eastern Poland. When in the early nineteenth century’s Poland, the administrative authorities of the partitioning powers ordered Jews to take surnames, Jewish traditionalists placed an appropriate entry containing this name on the reverse, unfinished side of the matzeva. In the areas associated with German culture, from the mid-nineteenth century, it was customary to place an epitaph in Hebrew on one side of the matzevah, and in German on the other. Similar records can also be found in Jewish cemeteries in large cities of central Poland, on the graves of assimilated Jews.

Featured image: Matzevot at the old Jewish cemetery in Wrocław. Photo by Barbara Maliszewska (2010). CC BY-SA 3.0 pl. Image cropped. Colours intensified. Photo source: “Macewa” (2021). In: Wikipedia. Wolna Encyklopedia.


“Macewa” (2021). In: Wikipedia. Wolna Encyklopedia. Available at <>. [Accessed 14th February, 2021].

Jagielski J. (2021). “Mazewa”. In: Portal DELET. Available at <>. [Accessed 14th February, 2021].

PWN (2007). Słownik terminologiczny sztuk pięknych, p. 244. Kubalska-Sulkiewicz K., Bielska-Łach M., Manteuffel-Szarota A. eds. Wydanie piąte. Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Naukowe PWN.

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