Why are stones so important in our tradition?

The Hebrew word "even" means "stone" but it also is a composite of the words for father and son.

Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis ,

UK Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis
UK Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis
Office of the Chief Rabbi

In Chumash, we find numerous examples of the significance of stones. One is in Parshat Ki Tavo. The Israelites were just about to enter into the land of Cana’an, Hashem commanded us to take stones “וְכָתַבְתָּ֣ עַל־הָאֲבָנִ֗יםאֶֽת־כָּל־דִּבְרֵ֛י הַתּוֹרָ֥ה הַזֹּ֖את” Hashem asked us to engrave within the slabs of the stones all the words of the Torah.

Why particularly stones? In Parshat Vayechi, Yaakov, who was about to pass away summoned his children. Of his son Yosef, he said “אבן ישראל – he is the stone of Israel”. What did Yaakov mean? Targum Onkelus, the Aramaic translation, explains that the word ‘אבן’ is a composite term. It is made up of two words, ‘אב’ and ‘בן’ meaning father and son – together making ‘אבן’. So Yaakov was saying of Yosef that he was the אבן ישראל – he sustained the family of Israel in Egypt. Parents and children alike – everybody together.

Emerging from this peirush of Onkelus we have a very profound message. In the same way as an אבן – a stone is indestructible in the face of natural elements, so too the Jewish people will never be destroyed for as long as parents convey the lessons of our tradition through to their children who, in turn, will pass it on to the generations to come. This is what we are being reminded of when Hashem tells us to engrave words of Torah on stone – it implies that we have a responsibility to keep Torah alive through the successful education we give to our children.

And now we can understand the significance of the matzevah – a monument of stone to the deceased – because the stone inspires us to remember that everything that those who passed away lived for, can be kept alive if we convey their traditions successfully from parents to children and onto the generations to come.

We now have added insight into an important verse in Tehillim, which we recite in Hallel. “ אֶֽבֶן מָאֲסוּ הַבּוֹנִים הָיְתָה לְרֹאשׁ פִּנָּה – the stone that the builders have rejected has become a cornerstone” We’re referring here, of course, to the tragic manner in which our enemies have so often sought to reject the Jewish people. But nonetheless, we have continued to give a contribution of immense value to societies right around the globe.

Perhaps there is an added meaning: “אֶֽבֶן מָאֲסוּ הַבּוֹנִים” – even where those who are building the future of our world reject the notion of ‘אבן’, if they reject the possibility that an ancient tradition can be just as fresh and just as relevant today as it always was because it has been passed down from generation to generation and from parents to children – “הָיְתָה לְרֹאשׁ פִּנָּה” – Am Yisrael will still triumph.

We have prevailed and today, thanks to our values, thanks to our morals and our ethics we are the cornerstone of our civilisation.



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