Filial Piety in Jewish Epitaphs

By Heidi M. Szpek.

Published by The Humanities Collection

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Early Polish Jewish historians described Jewish tombstone epitaphs as “exaggerated clichés that have nothing to do with the dead person”, “a Baroque ornament composed from a wreath of words and phrases”, “pompous”, or “overloaded thus hard to understand.” In defense of the sincerity of the epitaph’s language, Monika Krajewska commented that these words offered “the system of values accepted by the Jewish community” (Tribe of Stones, 1983). More recently Michael Nosonovsky delineated a basic formulaic pattern inherent in the Jewish epitaph (Hebrew Inscriptions from Ukraine and Former Soviet Union, 2006). The current paper explores the significance of three ‘formulaic’ components of the Jewish epitaph related to the deceased’s ancestry: father’s (and infrequently mother’s) name, hereditary titles (cohanim “priests” or lewyim “Levites”), extensive genealogical lineage, as well as additional expressions related to the parent-child relationship. The epitaphs examined are those found in Bialystok’s Bagnowka Jewish Cemetery, the largest Jewish urban cemetery in northeastern Poland, used for burial from 1892 until c. 1950. Comparative religious thought, in particular ancient Chinese thought, allows us to reconsider these epigraphic details, traditionally deemed formulaic, as a Jewish expression of honoring parents and respect for one’s ancestors. Such virtues are more commonly equated with the ancient Chinese concept of xiao ‘filial piety’ as promulgated by Confucius in The Analects and more extensively in the Xiao Jing. Yet drawing parallel with Eastern religious thought provides a unique lens by which to recognize the prominent place of respect for parents and ancestors in the Jewish tradition.

Keywords: Judaism, Jewish Epitaphs, Xiao, Confucianism, Poland, Jewish Tombstones

International Journal of the Humanities, Volume 8, Issue 4, pp.183-202. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 2.196MB).

Dr. Heidi M. Szpek

Associate Professor of Religious Studies, Department of Philosophy & Religious Studies, Central Washington University, Ellensburg, Washington, USA

Prof. Szpek earned her Ph.D. in Hebrew and Semitic Studies from the University of Wisconsin in 1991 with a special focus on Joban Studies. Since earning her doctorate, she has taught in Wisconsin and Arizona, until accepting her current position (2001) as a Professor of Religious Studies at Central Washington University (USA)where her teaching specialization is focused on Judaism, Eastern European Jewry & the Holocaust, Western Traditions and Sacred Literature. Her research areas have continued in Joban Studies, but also progressed into Religion under Oppression, with a particular interest in the Holocaust and Eastern European Jewry. Her current paper derives from research undertaken in Eastern Poland and is part of a larger research project involving the documentation and analysis of Jewish tombstones in northeastern Poland.


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