One of the less well known observances held during the High Holidays is the practice of Kever Avot (visiting the “grave of the ancestors”). The practice traditionally involves visiting the graves of one’s parents or close relatives where one prays for the souls of the departed. It also serves to remind us how we stand upon the deeds of our ancestors.
This practice dates back to Talmudic times when it was customary to visit the gravesides of the pious in order for “the departed to intercede for mercy on behalf of the living” (Babylonian Talmud Ta’anit 16a). According to tradition Jacob also buried Rachel near Beit Lechem so her descendants could pray for help and guidance at her grave on their way into the Babylonian Exile.
This practice has become particular popular amongst the Hasidim, however Judaism generally discourages one from making too many regular visits to a grave. As a result our tradition has set certain times where it is customary both for the individual as well as the community to go visit the graves of our loved ones. These fixed times include: the yartzeit date of the departed, the day before Rosh Chodesh (the new month), during the month of Elul, and during the 10 Days of Repentance.
At kever avot there is usually a brief service including the recitation of several psalms and Mourner’s Kaddish. You are also encouraged to bring rocks to place on the graves of your loved ones. We place rocks on the graves for two reasons. The first is in remembrance of the method of burial done by our ancestors, and the second is because unlike flowers, stones are eternal thus indicating that the person is still thought of and cherished.
By engaging in this ritual we are reminded in a very real sense that we stand before God during the Yamim Noraim not alone but on the shoulders of our ancestors. It also reminds us how their righteousness and good deeds will continue to be a guide in our own lives, and by doing so, their names shall continue to be for a blessing.