A tkhine for making Yom Kippur candles - extract from Mendele Moykher Sforim's 'Shloyme Reb Khayims'
Updated: Feb 10
In this extract from his 1899-1912 unfinished autobiographical novel, Shloyme Reb Khayims, Mendele describes the protagonist's mother, Sore - who we can assume represents his own mother - making candles for Yom Kippur, presumably using wicks that have been used in cemetery or grave measuring (the two practises were known to be linked, and the Yiddish term 'kneytlakh leygn', which Mendele uses here, is known to refer specifically to the making of ritual candles from wicks used in feld or keyver mestn. Note: while some, for example Morris Rosenfeld use 'kneytlakh leygn' to refer to the laying of the wick in/around the cemetery here it is used for the placing of the wick in wax during the candle making process, which seems to have been its more common usage.) The tkhine (yiddish prayer) the protagonist's mother recites is a version of the famous tkhine for Yom Kippur candle making found in Sore Bas Toyvim's 'Shloyshe Sheorim' - 'Three Gates' - a collection of tkhines for the three 'female' mitsvot (commandments) - baking bread, following the laws of menstrual and kindling the lights for Shabbes and festivals. In this work of women's prayer, kneytlakh-leygn and by extension cemetery and grave measuring are directly linked to the female mitsvah of kindling lights. Something that is particularly interesting about the tkhines for soul-candle making is that, while they all seem to follow the same formula - calling upon the zkhus (merit) of particular ancestors to support the living in their petitions to God - the particular ancestors drawn on, and the requests made to God, differ from tkhine to tkhine. Here Sore specifically requests protection against children being taken - in Yiddish 'gekhapt' - undoubtedly a reference to the forced recruitment of Jewish children into the Russian army, which caused untold suffering to communities in 19th century Russia and features often in Mendele's writings. She also specifically asks for forgiveness not just for Jews but for the whole world - which may or may not have been added by Mendele himself. Mendele follows his description with an impassioned defence of women and female spiritual practise – indicating that even when carried out by pious, frum women, the ritual was still often looked down on, at least by the 19th century.
The Yiddish original can be found here https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/c845bf20-4ff9-0133-da49-00505686d14e#/?uuid=c989e290-4ff9-0133-d7a2-00505686d14e and this extract begins at the very bottom of p. 35.
His mother Sore is a delicate, fragile woman. She has small, white hands with small blue veins, a devout, pale face with thin lips -– her whole countenance was somewhat other-worldly, and as she walked she seemed to float. She is a learned woman, knows all the tkhines from Erets-Yisroel, as well as the Mayin Toer and all the laws of the three mitzvot which concern women, reads the Tsene-Rene, the Menoyres HaMoer and other such religious books. She shows women in shul how to pray, what to say, when to jump up for Kadosh, she also reads aloud for them and always has with her there in the women’s shul a lemon or some drops to revive herself or others when they faint.
And honestly, when Sore used to read, one really could faint. Her reading was full with feeling, her little tune simultaneously moved, plucked at the soul; even a stone would melt from her tears. It’s worth adding here, for the sake of curiosity, at least part of the Tkhine she would say on Erev Yom Kippur, while making the wax candles. Sore places the wicks. Women, neighbours with broken hearts, stand around her. Meanwhile, she reads and reads aloud to them, deep from her heart in a heart-rending voice: "Raboyne ShelOylem - Master of the Universe - merciful God! The candles which we will install in Shul, for the sake of your Holy Name and the holy, pure souls, shall rouse the Oves and Imoes - Fathers and Mothers, that they should from their graves entreat on our behalves, that no evil, no troubles, no suffering should come to us, and our light, and our husbands’ light, and our children’s light shall not be extinguished before the time comes, God Forbid … I will place the thread for our father Abraham, who you rescued from the fire in the lime-kiln, that you should also purify us from sin in this way, that our souls should come to you free of guilt, pure as they first entered our bodies. By the virtue by which I place this thread for our mother, Sarah, should God blessed-be [he] remember the virtue of her grief, when her beloved son Yitskhok was led to be sacrificed. Let her be a good advocate, that our own children should not be captured from our homes, they should not be taken away from us and not carried off far from us like stray sheep. By the virtue by which we place this thread for our father Yitskhok, that you should take pity on us that we should bring up our children and be able to send them to cheder/provide them with an education, that like the candles our children’s eyes should light up in learning the beloved Torah … For the thread, which we place for our father Yankev, who you saved from his enemies, standing by him in his needs, so should you save us from all destroyers and accusers that they should not be able to slander us with wrongdoings, fabricate defamation to darken our name … We should on the Day of Reckoning receive a good judgement along with our husbands and children, we should God Forbid not be made widows and our children not orphans… By the virtue of Shloyme [Solomon] who built the temple in Jerusalem and prayed that even when a non-Jew, a stranger from another nation, should come into to the temple and entreat you, that his prayers should also be accepted – by this virtue, Master of the Universe, should the gates of heaven not be locked before my prayer, and let me be mentioned favourably with my husband and with my children and with all good people in the New Year. Amen!"
Go ahead and laugh at this, he who can. Let him say, if his lips allow him, that this is foolishness. Bring here the lights, bring here such pure-soul lights! Let multiply these burning feelings, pure, sincere words, hot tears, prayers and love of Torah, of wisdom, love of people, of a world full of people! And where does all this come from? From women. From simple, Jewish wives, when viewed from the outside. Looking at them in the market place, it seems they are nothing, so it seems. They are oddly ignorant … May there be many such women, with such feelings and such words!
Mendele Moykher Sforim, 'Ale verk - akhtsenter band' (Varshe, 1928) pp. 35-37.