Soul Candles: For the Living and the Dead

Learning about tkhines (Yiddish women's prayers) can leave you feeling a few ways:

+ Joy at the presence of language for home life, for women's spiritual lives, for the altar that is the table being woshipped at by ancestors we felt we had, but had no idea.

+Grief at the loss of history; for the stories that felt unconsequential to some traditions of Judaism to preserve in place of more uniform, linear, convenient stories of history

+ Heartbreak at feeling like an imposter, a fraud, not meant to be where you so desperately are drawn

Yesterday's ritual and workshop in West Philly held all that, and responded with "hineni." Here I am, here we are, accountable to the ground beneath our feet, the people that came before us, the souls we pray for and hope pray for us, and a history we are discovering and co-constructing.

Jonah Aline Daniel of Narrow Bridge Candles and I have been studying tkhines for 2 years, and finally met in the same place and time to teach! Amazing humans sang, studied the history of these prayers written in the vernacular about the mundane made holy, communally made soul candles for the living and dead, blessed Shabbat and the new week, and shared a meal.

Soul candles, created by measuring wicks around the cemetery and on the headstones of the deceased, were lit before the eve of Yom Kippur. This ritual is documented in tkhines, written in Yiddish and dated between the 17th and 19th century (though they appear as early as the 9th) from Western and Eastern Europe. Chava Weissler describes it in her work:

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. Between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and often on the Eve of Yom Kippur, they made the wicks into candles "for the living" and "for the dead," again, reciting tkhines as they did so. On Yom Kippur, according to some customs, the candles were burned at home, while, according to others, one or both of them burned in the synagogue. There are hints of this practice in sources going back nearly a thousand years, and it is well attested in literary and ethnographic material over the last three centuries.

Yesterday we measured the relics of what we have from our ancestors: our spines, our arm lengths, our backs, picture frames, sweaters, books, and created candles from those measured wicks. For the living, that there should be a sweet new year of health and ease. For the dead, that they should find rest and peace and that they might intercede for us on this earth.

A selection from The Merit of Our Mothers, A Bilingual Anthology of Jewish Women's Prayers, includes the following section said while rolling these soul candles from The Three Gates by Sarah bas Tovim:

Riboyne shel oylem, I beseech You, merciful God, to accept the candles that we prepare for the sake of the holy and pure souls. For each wick that we prepare, may You add life. May the holy souls awaken from their graves and pray for us, that we should be healthy, so that we may pray for those who died in our generations and for those who died since the time of odem and khave. Today we preapre candles for the sake of all these souls and for the sake fo the sould who lie in the fields and the forests and for all the martyrs and for those who had no children and for all the little children who died. We pray that their dry bones may awaken and come alive speedily and soon. May we merit to witness the resurrection of the dead this year. Omeyn, selo.

I'm leaving with questions:
+ How do we talk about where we are FROM without privileging borders or genetics?
+ How do we hold close our ancestors without distancing them through objectifying, typifying, or dramatizing how we connect?
+ What can lives of connected ritual learn from forebears about how ritual shaped their time?
+ How can we sustain makers while bringing in as many people as possible?
+ What do we need so that we can keep gathering and telling stories that plant us, so that we can together push forward?

May the new year be bright, sweet, connected, healthy, nourishing, challenging, full of questions, and with some answers.

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