This European candlemaking ritual can be performed anytime around the season of Rosh haShanah, and is a fabulous, moving ritual to do prior to the new year. It was originally published at www.geocities.com/silkenwine/soulcandles.html.
Every year I enjoy an old ritual, a women's ritual. I didn't learn it from my mother, or from my grandmother -- I've never met anyone else who does it. My source was books, my impulse was to make something with my own hands and my own prayers.
The ritual, performed by Ashkenazi women for many generations, is the making of soul candles for Yom Kippur.
I lay out on the table my scissors, a roll of candle wick, and sheets of sweet smelling, coloured beeswax. I open my books and read out loud.
The wicks I wrap in wax will be dedicated to beloved souls.
I roll one rectangle of wax around a wick for my husband, in gratitude. One for my son, in fierce hope and fear. One for myself. Then I gently braid the three tapers together, and squeeze them tightly to join them. I press on a cut-out scrap of wax that suggests something to me – a flame, a tree, a heart.
I’ve made a sturdy braided candle to keep, to use for havdalah in the coming weeks.
In the old days, soul candles were made to light the synagogue. The women of a community pressed beeswax on to wicks during the days after Rosh Hashana. The candles were collected, brought to the shul, and lit for the Kol Nidre service.
In Ashkenazi communities, women often surrounded their ritual actions with prayers and intentions that were filled with personal, emotional content. Sometimes the thoughts were spontaneous, although shaped by tradition. Other prayers were passed orally from generation to generation. By the 17th century, printed tekhines, prayers usually composed in Yiddish, were available to accompany women's mitzvahs. * [see endnotes]
One long, very beautiful and detailed tekhine was written specifically for Yom Kippur candle making. This is a section of the Tekhine of the Three Gates, composed by Sore Bas Toyvim, probably in the late 18th century.* It was reprinted widely, available in many communities. This prayer presents the spiritual intentions of the mitzvah. Here are the opening words of the tekhine:
“Riboyne shel oylem, I beseech you, merciful God, to accept my mitsve of making these candles for the sake of Your Holy Name and for the sake of the holy souls.”(Klirs,p.22)
As a woman made the candles, she would focus on the neshome, the soul, of an individual. Each wick was dedicated to a particular soul, or group of souls.
“Because of the merit of preparing the wick for the sake of our father yitskhok, may You have mercy upon us.” (Klirs,p.22)
In the traditional world view of this prayer, two things happen when someone focuses on the soul of a dead person at an advantageous time. The soul can be lifted to a higher level, to be relieved of after-life suffering or brought to an enhanced experience of after-life bliss. And the soul can be asked to carry the prayers of the living, enhancing the power of those prayers.* In the days before Yom Kippur, traditionally the time when our futures will be decided for the coming year, petitions for health and livelihood have a special intensity.
A beautiful give and take can be seen in our relationship with these souls, especially if, as I do, we allow ourselves to believe in the power of blessing. We ask these beloved souls to pray for us, and we pray for them:
"For the lifting up of this soul ... for a year of good health ...may this soul feel honoured and remembered ... may some of your strength and wisdom be reflected in me ...
Sore bas Toyvim guides her readers to focus on the souls of figures from the Bible, starting with Adam and Eve, lifting up those souls and asking them to petition God for us.
“...may the candles that are made for the sake of the pure and holy souls cause them to awaken and inform each other...May they arise from their graves and pray for us that this year be a good year. “(Klirs,p.22)
References to the Bible, the stories of our common ancestors, make a connection between their lives and our own.
“And through the merit which I gain by preparing the wick for the sake of our mother Sore [Sarah], may hashem yisborekh - praised be He - remember us for the merit of her pain when her beloved son yitskhok [Isaac] was led to the binding. May she defend us before God - praised be He- that we should not - khas vesholem [heaven forbid] - be left widows this year, and that our children should not - khas vesholem- be taken away from this world in our lifetime.”(Klirs, p.22)
Throughout the tekhine, Sore bas Toyvim emphasizes the importance of this mitzvah. We can hope, she teaches, that God will remember us through the merit we gain by preparing these wicks. We pray for the souls of the dead and ask them to pray for us. The candles themselves, she reminds us, will facilitate the Yom Kippur service.
“May You speedily accept the prayers which are said by the light of these candles, for we pray with complete kavone [focused intention] and sincerity “(Klirs, p.28)
The tekhine interweaves many ideas. It celebrates our exalted past:
“May the merit of my mitsve of candles be accepted as equivalent to the flame which the koyen godel [high priest] lit in the beys hamikdesh [Temple] so that it may illumine the eyes of our children in the study of the holy toyre [Torah]”(Klirs, p.24)
It burns with requests concerning our own needs at the present moment, especially for health, livelihood and forgiveness. It calls out hopes for our future, including a return to the land, the restoration of the Temple, and the resurrection of the dead.
I place a bright coloured rectangle of wax in front of me and lay a wick along the edge. This candle will be for the children in my life. I roll a bit of the rectangle of wax around this first wick, for the children of my sister and my brother, lay another wick, and continue rolling, for the children on my husband’s side of the family; continue adding wicks and rolling, visualizing the children and making wishes for their future. Before the candle is done, I recall one of the most moving sections of the tekhine -- I add a wick for children who died with no one to say prayers for them, lost children in forgotten graves.
“Today we prepare candles for the sake of all these souls and for the sake of the souls who lie in the fields and forest and for all the martyrs and for those who had no children and for all the little children who died.”(Klirs, p.28)
This candle is thick, with a forest of wicks poking out. On erev Yom Kippur, it makes a mighty blaze and a flowing pool of molten wax.
Sore bas Toyvim's list of souls concerned the Jewish people as a whole. The other book which gave me insight into this ritual describes a more personal experience.
Around 1940, Bella Chagall, wife of artist Marc Chagall, wrote a memoir of her childhood, remembered through the Jewish calendar year of observance and celebration.* She describes how moved and fascinated she was helping her mother make the Yom Kippur candles. Here, this private time for improvised prayer provided an opportunity for memories and feelings to flow.
Chagall’s mother begins by making a candle for her own family.
“For my beloved husband... for my dear son Itchke – may he be healthy and live in happiness and joy till his hundred and twentieth year!” (Chagall, p. 85)
One by one, she names her living relatives and rubs wax on to the threads, which are joined together to form one heavy candle.
“With every name a tear drops on the thread and at once is imbedded in the wax like a little pearl.” (Chagall, p. 85)
She then makes a candle for her deceased relatives, wishing them rest in paradise and asking them to pray for the living family.
“Apparently, she would like to linger with her mother as long as possible; she moves the wax slowly and does not let the thread go from her hands.”(Chagall,p.86)
Young Bella holds the threads for her mother, listening and imagining, as her mother’s tears and petitions become more and more moving.
“For each one mother sheds a tear; it is like sending a greeting to every one of them. I no longer hear their names; I might be walking around an unfamiliar graveyard. I see only threads... I am glad when at last the shames, who is waiting for the candles, carries them to the shul.”(Chagall,p.86-87)
Like the women I’ve read about, I spend a long time lingering over the wicks I cut to make a candle for my own ancestors. I hold a smooth sheet of honey coloured, honey fragrant wax. Memories of my mother’s mother pour into my mind; the familiar funny stories about my father’s father; all the questions about the grandparents and great grandparents for whom I have no memories at all.
Sore Bas Toyvim’s prayer, and Bella Chagall’s memories of her mother, introduced to me a beautiful, creative ritual for women. Susan Starr Sered’s book, Women As Ritual Experts, provided me with an inspiring exploration of the meanings of ritual.* I wanted to make these candles myself.
The first time, I called friends and we met after Rosh Hashana to learn and to create. We read aloud from Chagall’s memoir, and then prayed the tekhine. We paused after the section about our mother Rachel --- Sore Bas Toyvim had not included a wick for our mother Leah. So we composed our own prayer.
B. says "Don't feel ignored, we are not ignoring you, you are our mother." We talk about her as a hidden, inward looking person. We see her as perhaps a pawn, not making her own choices. S. speaks of love even in the presence of anger.
A brief introduction to the candle-making technique, and then we stopped talking and went to work. Sometimes I listened to sighs or lifted my head to see how my friends decorated their candles, sometimes I was lost within my own visions for a while.
While writing these descriptions, I'm smiling. There are smiles while we make candles, but mostly there are tears. We sit together, around a long table, a group of women focussing minds and hands, silently weeping.
And after a while, before all the candle making is done, we feel like talking. The last few candles are told out loud -- we tell about the colours we choose, the shapes we're trying, we admire one another's work and try out the same ideas.
Then a long period of telling -- the stories and the fears and hopes that we choose to give over to the group come now, as we hold up our finished candles and explain each one in turn. I learn so much about my friends as we tell these candles.
P. speaks about letting go of her adult children; E. talks about reclaiming her closeness with her father; H. summons the courage to bless the father of her own young child, who lives apart.
The storytelling is important, and so is the silence that precedes it.
Friends living and dead cluster together in different groups as I make another candle -- one taper for friends in New York and one for Toronto, or one for music friends, another for storytellers -- I let them all leap to mind, choose different colours for each grouping. I remember to note that I'm sure to have forgotten someone dear and important, and that soul too will be bound up in my candle for the souls of friends. I tightly squeeze the tapers together at the bottom, to be sure they hold together as one candle, then let the tops of the tapers spread apart like the branches of a tree.
I was eager to repeat the candle making ritual the following year. This time I was in a new city, and called together a new group of women. We enjoyed dinner, then read aloud, noting the Yiddish versions of familiar Hebrew words and names, sharing nods and hums of connection. There was ooing and ahhing over the colours and fragrance of the wax.
Something done just twice already has elements of tradition. I structured that second evening very much like the first, and the structure felt natural, the way it should be.
Suggestions that arose from the group last year become customs I teach this year. So we wash our hands before we begin. We move from conversation, to singing a wordless nign, to our silent work.
We are all women again -- my husband is quietly there, making tea, caring for the baby. I'd thought about inviting men, but he reminded me of how valuable I find ritual in a group of women. N. points out that this mitzvah must always have been accompanied by the sounds of babies and children.
As soon as I learned about this ritual, I was deeply drawn to it -- so sensual, so personal, so ready to be filled with all I could bring to it. Why does a custom so rich disappear?
Dov Noy, recalling his mother’s candle making in his hometown, spoke of measuring the graves.* Chava Weissler, in her important examination of the tekhines, emphasizes the significance of this practise. “During the High Holiday season(and also in times of illness or trouble) women went to the cemetery, where they walked around the circumference of the cemetery and measured the cemetery or individual graves with candlewick, all the while reciting tkhines.”(p. 133) These strands were used to make the candles for the living and the dead. In some communities, there were a few women who specialized in measuring the graves. One would walk along the graves winding out thread, another would follow her gathering it up, and the woman who had ordered the candles would walk behind them, reciting prayers.(Weissler, p. 134)
When I spoke with Noy and heard the specific details of candle making in his mother’s town – how the local candle factory donated the wax for the women to make hand made candles with the measured wicks – I realized how intimately this ritual was related for each woman to a particular place. The customs were regional, with many variations. In some towns the candles were dipped, in others the wax was rubbed or pressed on to the wicks. Some women met in the synagogue to make candles together, others worked at home. Some lit the candles for the living souls at their family table, others brought all the candles to light the Yom Kippur service.*
Each place had its own customs, and each place had graveyards where generations of women had prayed. Emigrating meant leaving those graves behind. Women who came to North America parted from their ancestors as well as their living friends and relatives. Perhaps the ritual of candle making could not survive this rending.
Whatever the reasons, in our time many practises particular to Jewish women have been dropped. The electric memorial lights shining on Yom Kippur in many synagogues may in some way replace the soul candles, but many of the functions and meanings of the ritual of making the candles are no longer available. I chose to reclaim those meanings for myself and for my friends.
I questioned whether I could consider candle making a mitzvah. What makes something a mitzvah? *
I grew up with two uses of the word -- something done because it is commanded, and something done because it is helpful to others -- of course, with the understanding that such acts of kindness are commanded too.
Ritual mitzvahs, done not because of overt ethical or helpful effects -- why are they done at all? For me, brought up in a Reform household, very selectively observant, the reasons were always emotional and aesthetic -- they "feel good" or "feel right". We had lots of personal, or familial rituals -- my mother calling out "Watch the wine!" as my father raised the challah; the decorations that came out every year at Chanukah. Ritual, because they felt right and were repeated. But clearly not "mitzvahs".
The women who wrote about the Yom Kippur candles were sure their observance was a mitzvah -- a commandment.*
In my sources, it is a mitzvah on par with lighting candles for Rosh Hashana, as integral to the observance of the holiday as hearing the shofar. The candles didn't just "feel right" for the women who made them. They were also an integral part of the community experience of the Days of Awe. Individual women, alone or in groups, created the candles. They were brought to the synagogue. On Kol Nidre night, the sanctuary appeared different from any other night -- on that night the synagogue was illluminated by dozens of candles, contributed by the women of the community.
I had the opportunity twice to bring a taste of this to a synagogue, when my husband led services in small congregations. I brought a few of my candles and lit them as part of the Yomtov, explaining a bit of their history.
Mostly, my candles have lit our dinner table before the fast begins, on the evening of Yom Kippur. Each year, also, I save several candles to use as havdalah lights through the year.
In their time and place, the candles were a mitzvah, an obligation, and they were essential to the community's celebration. Year after year, the tradition continued, until times and observances changed.
Candle making has become a tradition for me, a way to connect the years as they come along. It’s my own tradition, developed over time with my friends, and for us, making the candles is a delight for our senses, a form of art.
When you make spiritual art, you can ponder your own iconography. Making candles can feel like dreaming about each soul. Certainly there's conscious thinking, but also things just come to mind.
The first year I made candles, my friend Shira Shelley was among the gathering of women crying, laughing and singing at the table. She spoke about the light within ourselves, and about the paradox of feeling so close to souls so distant in time and place.
Shira Shelley is powerfully present as I make a candle for the souls of friends. "Me!" Me!" she crows exultantly -- and my friend lost to cancer joins the living and the other dead, a bright pink shard of wax gleaming through the layer of white wax I roll over it, glowing like the rose petals in the candles Shira Shelley herself used to make.
Most years, I’ve made candles with small groups of women. The one year I made them alone, I missed the others’ stories, and my own were less vivid. After a few days, I’d forgotten who the various candles were made for.
All the other years were more satisfying -- a pair or small group of women sitting at my dining table. Feeling the wax, admiring the fragrance and colour, enjoying the readings. A bit of technical advice -- not much, this is a very simple craft. And then the beautiful, full silence, as each of us brings to mind souls.
My own candle making was brief this year. There wasn't much time for my friends and me to be alone together. My husband and my son were home, the grandmothers were on their way over to enjoy the new baby, I. and S. had limited time.
My life was full to overflowing that morning-- my baby Sura was only a few hours old. I felt in myself a superwoman, awesome mother persona, holding my very new baby in the home where she was born, teaching my two friends something very old and useful that was new for them.
I chose a few parts of the tekhine to read, told them about the Chagall, and added a bit of what I've learned. Editing can be good -- I found out which parts seemed to matter the most to me.
I. and S. immediately think of their parents' souls. I. makes dazzlingly vivid, image filled candles. One candle for each parent, but very much connected in their stories -- the candle for her mother decorated with the roses her father always presented to her. S. makes one candle, in bright colours, celebrating the vitality of her parents' marriage. She looks forward to telling them all about it when she visits in October.
I reach for wicks to make the candle I make every year, for my intimate little family. And find I'm puzzled about making a candle for four souls, not three. Always before I've made three tapers and simply braided them together. I cut four identical lengths of wick, then wonder what to do with them. Soon an image forms. I make a taper for Shlomo, for Sura, for Justin, each in a different shade of blue, and braid them together. Then I cut a very long wick. I wind the taper of cream coloured wax I make around the other three -- I make home for my family, surrounding them with care.
Lying on the table still is the fourth short wick. I make a taper of deep blood red wax. Then I lay out a cream coloured rectangle and roll into it wicks for many different circles of women, naming as many as I can and praying that those unnamed would also be included – a circle of my ancestors, of my teachers, of my friends... at last I add the red taper for myself and close the circles.
On Erev Yom Kippur, I set aside the family candle for havadalahs and light the circles of women candle. I light the wicks for Sore bas Toyvim, for Bella Chagall, for my other teachers near and far, for my mother and her mothers, for my friends, and for myself among them. The red colour flows magnificently from within the circles of cream.
1.Chava Weissler’s book, Voices of the Matriarchs (Beacon Press, Boston, 1998) is the most significant study of this body of liturgy.
2.This version is from The Merit of Out Mothers, A Bilingual Anthology of Jewish Women’s Prayers, compiled and introduced by Tracy Guren Klirs, Hebrew Union College Press, Cincinnati, 1992
Weissler analyses this prayer and the rituals associated with it in her chapter Candles for the Dead, p.126.
3.See Weissler,p.138-141 for a detailed discussion of this reciprocity.
4.Susan Starr Sered also examines this relationship in detail. “...on the one hand, [the women] seek the assistance of the dead saints, but on the other hand they must guard over them, in much the same way that old women must guard over their children.” Page 21, Women as Ritual Experts, Oxford University Press, New York, 1992
5.Bella Chagall, Burning Lights, translated by Norbert Guterman (Schocken Books, 1946).
6.Susan Starr Sered, Women as Ritual Experts, (Oxford University Press, New York, 1992).
7.Dov Noy, personal conversation, Toronto, spring 2002.
9.Weissler, page 134.
10.Weissler, in chapter Candles for the Dead and endnotes.
11.Weissler addresses this question on pages 136 and 244.
12.I recall hearing that the practise appears in the Shulchan Aruch, but I have not been able to locate the citation. Weissler, page 241, mentions that “various other medieval sources, both halakhic and minhagic, refer to aspects of this custom”
Jane Enkin is a musician, cantorial soloist, and ritual maker in Kingston, Ontario.
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