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 Kneytlakh-leygn
Kneytlakh-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 grave of departed loved ones. While the making of candles was practised by some women in the home, the measurement, known as feldmestn (cemetery measuring) or sometimes keyver (grave) mestn, was more often carried out by an experienced and often paid female elder known as a feldmesterin (cemetery measuring woman). 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 for their forgiveness or for their advocacy with God on behalf of the living. In the tkhines recited when making candles for Yom Kippur – the most common use of these rituals – women used the connection with the recently deceased to evoke Jewish lineage right back to the matriarchs and patriarchs, in the case of one tkhine I've been looking at, 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.
The candles made with these wicks would then be donated to the Beys-Midresh - the house of prayer and learning - where, as often clearly stated in the women's prayers, they would light the study of Torah for current and future generations. While women were excluded from study in the Beys-Midresh, they were providing it these powerful lights, and this practice combines two areas of Jewish life that were very much women's domain - making lights, an extension of one of the three official mitsvot assigned to women, and, less officially, activities concerning death and the deceased, contact with whom was in ancient times forbidden to male priests, which may in part explain the development of female-led rituals. While sometimes denigrated in Yiddish sources, the feldmesterin was nevertheless an example of a female spiritual leader that existed well before the first woman rabbi was ordained.
A practical guide and source sheet can be downloaded here, including extracts of many of the sources translated in the posts below.