Bobtshke Kilikovski Cohen, the zogerke who measured cemeteries
In the memorial book to the Jewish community of Volovisk (Vawkavysk, Belarus), I found my second description of a real life feldmesterin....
Feldmestn. Mrs Berte T. described how 35 years ago in Goldingen (Kuldiga, now in Latvia) they sang a song during feldmestn, from which she remembers the following lines:
Depart did he in chains
For his soul a candlewick
Spin the thread, spin
- Max Weinreich, Shtaplen - 'Rungs', Studies in Yiddish linguistics and history, 1923 (p. 229)
Feldmestn and Kneytlekh-leygn
Kneytlekh-leygn (placing wicks), practised by women throughout eastern Europe, refers to the making of ritual candles, sometimes called 'neshome likht' (soul candles) using wicks made from thread that has been used to 'measure' or encircle the cemetery or sometimes a particular grave. This measurement, known as 'feldmestn' in Yiddish, was often carried out by professional women – feldmesterins – who were paid for their service. From the sources that I've translated and shared below, it seems that the act of encirclement, in which the wicks came into contact with the cemetery earth, was believed to create a connection with deceased ancestors that could be used to ask them to advocate with God on behalf of the living. At the same time and using this ancestral advocacy, the acts of encirclement and burning reinforced the boundary between the living and the dead, helping the living not to cross over before their time. Feldmestn was most commonly conducted in the month of Elul, to make candles for Yom Kippur when the community would face God's judgement and ask for their forgiveness. It was also practised at other times of fear and uncertainty, for example - during a plague, or when a member of the community was dangerously ill.
Following the measurement, the candles were made either by the feldmesterins or by their customer – usually also a woman. In all the descriptions I've read of kneytlekh-leygn, it took place in the home in the presence of a number of women, often all the women of the family. In the tkhines recited when making candles for Yom Kippur – which was done in the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur – women used the connection with the recently deceased to evoke Jewish lineage right back to the matriarchs and patriarchs, sometimes even back to Adam and Eve. They called upon the merits of these ancestors to ask God for forgiveness and blessings for the living. As in many other examples, the ancestral line was seen as a source of strength - a way of reminding God of the sacred covenant he made with the Jewish people. In turn, the ancestors are glorified in this recognition of their place in the connection between the living and the divine.
On Yom Kippur, two large candles were made - one for the living, one for the dead, which would be burned on Erev Yom Kippur. Some texts suggest that one candle would be burned in the synagogue and one in the home. On other occasions, the wick would be used to make several candles which would then be donated to the Beys-Midresh - the house of prayer and learning - where, as clearly stated in some of the prayers, they would light the study of Torah for current and future generations.
The blog posts below are my translations of Yiddish texts describing and commenting on these rituals, sometimes with my own commentary.
Click here to access a ritual guide and source sheet I made with the help of Kohenet Sarah Chandler and Rabbi Noam Lerman. I will update it periodically as I learn more about these rituals!
A photograph of three feldmesterins in a town in South Russia at the beginning of the twentieth century. Published in S. Weissenberg, 'Das Feld- und das Kejwermessen' Mitteilungen zur jüdischen Volkskunde, Neue Folge, 2. Jahrg., H. 1 (17). (1906). Read my translation of this study here.