Das Feld un das Keywermessen - cemetery and grave measuring - S. Weissenberg
Updated: Dec 2, 2021
This is a translation of a 1906 German study of Feld (cemetery) and Keywer (grave - from the Hebrew and Yiddish קבֿר) measuring by Russian Jewish anthropologist S. Weissenberg. I published a translation of the first half of the article back in May 2020.
The original German article can be found here https://www.jstor.org/stable/41462433. It actually consists of two articles - the second part in which the font changes, is an extract of another article by the same author, a translation of which I will publish separately later this week.
This is the most comprehensive account of the practice I've found, and also shows that it was still being practised at the beginning of the twentieth century. I've included two photos taken from the original article, showing women engaged in feld and keyver mestn in South Russia presumably around the time the article was written.
In South Russia, the rare custom of measuring the 'feld' (Friedhot - graveyard) and the kejwer (grave) of close relatives and friends has survived to the present day. This measurement usually takes place on a Monday or Thursday in the month of Elul, but it can also be carried out daily after the first Selichah (in Ashkenazic tradition, the first of these penitential prayers and poems are recited the Saturday before Rosh Hashanah - for us in 2021, the Saturday just passed). During this time, there are always some older women in the graveyards who know how to measure and who carry the necessary cotton thread wrapped in balls with them.
At least two, but usually three, women are used for field measurements, depending on the length, thickness and number of candles that the measuring woman intends to make, the wicks of which the threads are used for. The measurement begins at the entrance to the cemetery and goes from right to left. One of the three women takes the balls of thread in one hand. The other two tear out some grass or take any suitable object from the Cemetery floor with one hand, in the other they take the thread-ends from the balls that the first woman holds. They move all three around the cemetery, keeping close to the inside of the cemetery fence, namely the woman holding the balls in the middle and the other two to her side, while the woman who ordered [the measurement] follows them behind performing her mostly Jewish-German (Yiddish), prayers (tkhines). The measurement goes like so, the middle woman unwinds the ball, while the other let the threads fall on the objects they hold in the left hand, rolling up the thread with the right.
The Kejwermessen (Keyvermestn / grave measuring), which only requires one woman, is also done with a thread. The measurer leads it several times around the grave house with the following words:
טײַערער פֿאָטער (מוטער און ד.ג), דײַן טאָכטער (נאָמען) האָט זיך מטריח געװען צו קומען צו דיר און דײַן קבֿר צו מעסטן, זײַ־זשע זיך מטריח פֿאַר איר און איר מאַן און אירע קינדער פֿאַר גאָט צו בעטן. דערמוטיקן זיך אין דײַן פֿריערדיקער ליבשאַפֿט און העלף איר. (א.א.װ)
tayerer foter (muter un dos glaykh), dayne tokhter (nomen) hot zikh matriekh geven tsu kumen tsu dir un dayn keyver tsu mestn, zay-zhe zikh matriekh far ir un ir man un ire kinder far got tsu betn. dermutikn zikh in dayn frierdiker libshaft un helf ir (un azoy vayter.)
Dearest father (mother/friend/sibling etc – relationship to the deceased), your daughter (friend/sibling etc) (name) has taken the trouble to come to you and to measure your grave, take the trouble to pray to God for her and her husband and her children. Muster in yourself earlier love, and help her. (etc.)
The woman for whom the measuring is being carried out stands nearby and reads the corresponding prayers here.
The threads so obtained are taken back to the home, where they are used later as wicks for the lights of the Day of Atonement, as well as for those of the Maccabee festival (Chanukah). They are also used sooner in lights for the evening classes for the children in kheyder (school) or in those for the Talmud students in the Synagogue.
The wicks are prepared in the following ceremony. On a Monday or Thursday of the period between the New Year (Rosh Hashanah) and the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) the women who have measured the cemetery go to the synagogue to ‘kneytlekh leygn’ - to lay the wicks. The measuring threads are there handed over to a poor woman who understands how to mold wax candles. Primarily two candles are molded, the size and thickness of which depend on the wealth of the customer. One light is "far di gezinte" (for the healthy), it is made longer and thicker than the other one, which is designated “far di toyte" (for the dead). The likhtmakherin (candle-makeress) takes the threads and measures a piece of each of them according to a previously indicated length, while the customer gives the name of the person for whose soul the part in question is intended; the thread must not be cut, so that each wick consists of one continuous thread. [Translator's note: I spent ages trying to figure out how the above works practically, imagining crazy tall candles that you'd have to put up a chimney or stick out the window. I found the answer in an already translated text - Pauline Wengeroff's 'Memoirs of a Grandmother', which exists now in two different English translations. She explains that the thread is not cut, but each section once measured out for a specific living or dead person is folded or wound into the last, producing a thick, slow burning wick made from one long thread. The cemetery needs to be measured twice, to produce two threads : one to make the candle for the living and one for the dead. This explains why the women in the photo above have two, not one ball of thread.]
When making the wick for the light of the living, the customer speaks to it: "Dos Kneytl is far mayn man, er zol gezunt zayn un gut gesheft dem kumendikn yohr makhn’ a.a.v ‘ – "This wick is for my husband, he shall be healthy and do good business in the coming year, etc.; this is for my son, he shall give me much joy, etc.; this is for my daughter, she shall marry well etc.; this is for my second son, etc.; This one for my father, my mother, etc." All living relatives of the woman and her husband are mentioned, and finally also the good friends of the family are mentioned, something suitable is wished for everyone, and a piece of thread is laid for each person.
When making the candle for the dead the following is said:
"This is for Adam and Eve, Abraham and Sara etc, all the Patriarchs; this for my deceased mother, zol zi hobn a likhtikn gandeyden (may she have a bright paradise) un zol zi zayn a gute meylets far mir un mayne kinder (and may she be a good advocate for me and my children); this is for my baby son etc." All long and recently deceased relatives who come to mind are mentioned.
“The living light”, to the wick of which a few white threads are added to distinguish it from the others, the housewife lights on the evening of the day of atonement at home, that it should bring happiness to the house for the whole future year and protect it from misfortune.
The “dead light” also known as the ‘neshome’ (soul) candle, is lit in the synagogue at the same time.
From the remains of the thread the above mentioned lights for the Maccabee festival as well as for the youth are made.
Also, the cemetery is not infrequently measured for another purpose. Namely, if someone is dangerously ill, especially a child who is dearly loved, the cemetery is measured as indicated above, perhaps with the idea of redeeming the sick person's death, and a piece of fabric corresponding to the length of the thread is made and given to the poor or to a hospital or infirmary.
Source: S. Weissenberg, 'Das Feld- und das Kejwermessen' Mitteilungen zur jüdischen Volkskunde, Neue Folge, 2. Jahrg., H. 1 (17). (1906), pp.39-45
For more information on uses of feldmestn to protect the living and in particular the sick from death, see my previous and upcoming blog posts. I'll be posting a few new translations in the coming days to mark the High Holidays. A beautiful description of the making of the 'gezinte likht' and 'neshome likht' - candles for the living and the dead - in preparation for Yom Kippur is found in Bella Chagall's memoirs, 'Brenendike likht' - also published in English translation 'Burning lights'. I highly recommend this memoir to anyone interested in the lives and practices of Jewish women in Eastern Europe. You can read excerpts of it in my friend Rokhl Kafrissen's latest column Rokhl's Golden City (another must read!) which also mentions a conversation Rokhl and I had about this and other practices earlier in the year. https://www.tabletmag.com/sections/community/articles/magic-of-high-holidays