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How to make soul candles for Yom Kippur

In many shtetlekh (small towns) of Eastern Europe, it was common for the female heads of household to pay feldmesterins to measure the cemetery in the month of Elul, and use the thread to make candles for Yom Kippur. Sometimes the candles were made by the feldmesterin, or by a kneytlekh leygerin (a wick layer) but many memoirs describe them as being made by women in the home, usually surrounded by all the female members of the family. While the cemetery was measured before Rosh Hashanah, the candles were made during the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The cemetery was usually measured twice, producing two long threads which were used to make one candle for the living, and one for the dead.

The candle for the living

The wick for each candle is made by dipping the thread in wax and then, bit by bit, folding it and twisting it into a thick wick. When making the candle for the living, as each section is dipped and folded, a living loved one is remembered, along with a wish for them in the coming year. For example ‘this wick is for my partner, may they be healthy in the coming year; this wick is for my son, may he have a good first year at his new school’ etc. The full wick is then rolled in beeswax to make a giant candle.

The candle for the dead

The candle for the dead is made in the same way. As you begin dipping the wix in wax, you say a tkhine calling in the ancestors. Different versions of this tkhine, including a song/chant combining part of it with another tkhine, and a guide to writing your own tkhines, can be found on this source sheet I made with Kohenet Sarah Chandler and Rabbi Noam Lerman for our soul candle making workshop this weekend. Usually, you would begin with a tkhine naming ancient Jewish ancestors, and then begin bringing in the more recent dead. Today, we may also want to bring in other historical figures, anyone whose help you think you might need this Yom Kippur or in the coming year. Each time an ancestor is named, the thread is folded in and twisted or braided to make the wick.

Although the practice of lighting Yizkor (memorial) candles on Erev Yom Kippur may have developed from the soul candle practice, note that these candles are not made to memorialise the dead, but to call them in and ask for their help. I would be very careful about which souls you call in - it may not be appropriate, for example, to call in someone who died recently and may still be in a process of transition. As you name each ancestor, name a particular quality of theirs that you would like to have with you. For example ‘my mother, who offered me unconditional love, may I continue to have that kind of love in my life and to offer it to others.’

Descriptions of the kneytlekh leygn [laying wicks] Many Yiddish memoirs recall these huge soul candles being made before Yom Kippur. I've translated and posted two examples - Mendele Moykher Sforim's description of his pious mother, who was also a zogerke or prayer leader in shul, and Y. Y. Trunk's of his grandmother and aunts, who he describes as a Jewish folksy version of the Macbeth witches. Two memoirs written by women - Pauline Wengeroff's 'Memoirs of a grandmother' and Bella Chagall's Burning lights – both of which have been translated into English, also describe this ritual. I highly recommend both these books.

A recent attempt

This is the first year I've tried making these giant candles myself, with Rabbi Noam and Kohenet Shamira, using the thread we used two weeks ago to measure a section of Mt. Carmel Cemetery in Brooklyn. Our thread was quite thick, so the wicks are really enormous - more like torches than candles. Here are some pictures from our workshop.

More important than the final product was the intention we put into the thread. We took it in turn to fold it, and to name first our beloved living and our beloved dead. We cast blessings for our families, friends, communities, pets, and for all those who need them. We asked that the thread would burn with the power to burn down borders, prison walls and other barriers that prevent people from accessing what they want and need. When we made the candle for the dead, we called in our own beloved dead, Jewish ancestors, radical ancestors who fought for a better world, and unnamed ancestors who have been forgotten by history.

Sodi the cat also put some big intentions into the thread, hoping that we were making something for him ...

No one was expecting it to look so much like spaghetti!

My husband, Cédric, quite concerned at my plan to light this on Erev Yom Kippur.

Lighting the candles on Erev Yom Kippur

Both candles are lit on Erev Yom Kippur, just before sundown. The candle for the living was traditionally lit in the home, and the candle for the dead in the synagogue. You may choose to light them both at home, or both at shul, or somewhere else, perhaps in two different places in one room or one building.

This year, I will be lighting the candle for the living on the roof of my home at the Kohenet Hebrew Priestess Institute online Kol Nidrei Service. At the same time, Kohenet Shamira will light the candle for the dead at an outdoor in-person shul service.

Adapting the practice

Many sources state that it was very important not to break the thread when making Yom Kippur soul candles. The idea was that the whole thread burned continually, invoking the portal between worlds that is symbolized by the cemetery perimeter. However, making and burning such large candles does not always make sense today, when we no longer need them to light the whole 25 hours of Yom Kippur. Another method I've seen to burn the thread is to make many candles with the same thread, all connected together and spread out on a table. The wick then only breaks as each candle is lit, and a person can be named as each candle is lit.

You may also decide to make multiple candles, by breaking up the thread. I recommend, if doing so, cutting the thread at the latest possible moment, and doing it with intentionality – this is not to break the portal, but rather to hold it in a way that will be more meaningful in your community today. This is what I did with friends last year, we sat in a circle each of us rolling wax on the same thread, and then divided it up at the end. We then all lit the candles in our own homes on Erev Yom Kippur.

If you decide to make multiple candles, might want to divide them up between the people you make them with, and light them at the same time. You could also gift the candles for the living to the people you have made them for, and the candles for the dead to people you think may also need the help of the particular ancestor or ancestors they invoke. If you have multiple candles from one thread, you may want to light one on Erev Yom Kippur, and save the others for the time you need them throughout the year.

Stay tuned to see if Kohenet Shamira and I manage not to start any fires, and Gmar Khasisme Toyve, a gut kvitl, may you all be inscribed for good things in the book of life.

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