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by Abigail Van Buren

DEAR ABBY: My letter is in reference to the question about the Jewish practice of leaving stones at someone's grave. The rabbi whom you consulted said the stones signify that someone has visited the grave to honor the deceased; the money that would have been spent on flowers is donated to charity. Viewed from the mystical perspective, it symbolizes that the body returns to dust and the soul returns to God.

In my opinion, based upon my research, the custom has ancient and practical origins: We Jews were originally a desert people. As such, we used to bury our dead in the sand without a casket and covered the grave with stones, not only to mark the spot, but also to prevent animals from digging up and devouring the body.

Upon visiting a grave, it was considered a "mitzvah" – or good deed -– to add stones to replace those moved by the wind or animals. This helped to preserve the integrity of the grave and also the deceased.

The practice of leaving stones at the grave derives from that tradition. The idea of giving to charity instead of a florist is probably a later development. –- RABBI JACQUES CUKIERKORN, KANSAS CITY, MO.

DEAR RABBI CUKIERKORN: Your explanation makes a lot of sense to me. It is corroborated by more than a dozen letters from other Jewish readers. Read on:

DEAR ABBY: I have no doubt that your reference source was correct regarding why stones are placed on Jewish graves instead of flowers. However, I was always told that it was because stones are everlasting, and flowers die. (Just my 2 cents!) –- AVID READER, CANYON COUNTRY, CALIF.

DEAR AVID: Pennies from heaven? Read on:

DEAR ABBY: In response to why stones are placed on graves in Jewish cemeteries –- you need only go to the Book of Joshua in the Old Testament to find the answer. God instructed the people to gather stones and place them in a pile after crossing the Jordan River:

"In the future, when your children ask you, 'What do these stones mean?' tell them that the flow of the Jordan was cut off before the ark of the covenant of the Lord. When it crossed the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off. These stones are to be a memorial to the people of Israel forever." –- BECKY IN ARIZONA

DEAR BECKY: How interesting! You're the only reader who quoted chapter and verse on the subject. Read on:

DEAR ABBY: Here's what I learned in Hebrew school many years ago:

The practice started in the old country. They didn't have monuments because they couldn't afford them. So they gathered many small stones and formed a pyramid at the gravesite. When people visited the grave, they would replace any stones that had fallen off. That's how it really started –- that's the truth. -– LOUIS HYMAN (AGE 83), DELRAY BEACH, FLA.

DEAR LOUIS -– AND ALL YOU DEAR READERS WHO WROTE TO COMMENT: Thank you for your input. Your letters have been fascinating. I often wondered why Jewish scholars would sit and argue for hours about interpretations of the Torah. Well, now I know why.

Dear Abby is written by Pauline Phillips and daughter Jeanne Phillips.

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