While exploring a Jewish cemetery in Cincinnati recently I noticed much variation among the inscriptions on tombstones. Is there a particular date when families started using Gregorian dates rather than Hebrew dates on graves?
A Schelly Talalay Dardashti, whose blog, Tracing the Tribe, is a formidable source for researching Jewish roots, says the choice to use secular or Hebrew dates depends on a few things: historical period, location, and the family's affiliation and level of religious observance.
"In ancient days in Europe, dates would have been only in Hebrew, with the year written using the Hebrew alphabet characters for the numbers. In some cemeteries today, you may find only the secular dates," she says. "In the great pre-Holocaust Jewish communities throughout Europe, most old sections of Jewish cemeteries will show Hebrew-only inscriptions, while newer sections may have secular dates. It was a personal choice even though custom and tradition indicated the use of Hebrew."
Today, some assimilated families might feel the Hebrew date is not important, as the family isn't religious. In isolated areas, there may be no masons who can properly carve Hebrew inscriptions. "Using Hebrew dates means the family understands the Jewish calendar and what one must do on the anniversary of the individual's death," she says. "Synagogue observances, prayers, candles at home and visits to cemetery according to the Hebrew calendar date of death."
Cincinnati was the hotbed of German Reform Judaism in America—it's the home of the Hebrew Union College, which ordains Reform Jewish clergy. The German Jews who settled there were very assimilated, Talalay Dardashti says.
The deceased individual might have left instructions to do things one way or the other, but the children may decide if left with no instructions, she says. But when it comes down to it, picking a style of dates is a personal choice unless cemetery regulations stipulate them.
For more resources on Jewish heritage, check out Family Tree Magazine's August 2006 issue.
To easily convert Hebrew dates, you can use Steve Morse's Jewish Calendar Conversions in One Step and tombstone decipherer. JewishGen.org has a great tutorial on reading Hebrew tombstones here.
Want to share your own pictures from your cemetery visits? Come on over to the Cemetery Central Forum.