How to measure a cemetery in Elul
According to the feldmesterins observed by S. Weissenberg, cemetery measuring was stepped up after the first selihah, being carried out daily from then until Rosh Hashanah. So, to mark the first night of selihot in the current Hebrew year, 5782, I'm sharing this updated version of my ritual guide. I will write about how to make soul candles, how to measure the cemetery at other times of crisis, and measuring individual graves in separate posts, but for anyone who wants it the entire ritual guide - compiled with the help of Kohenet Sarah Chandler and Rabbi Noam Lerman - is also available as a google doc.
The photos are of me, Sarah and Noam measuring the Workers Circle section of Mount Carmel Cemetery in Brooklyn last weekend. Note - not everything we did (blowing the Shofar!) was traditional. These rituals were practiced differently in different places, and we can also adapt them! Photo credit Aaron Bendich, see more photos from Aaron on instagram @borschtbeat
HOW TO MEASURE A CEMETERY
I have come across two different methods of cemetery measuring, both of which require at least two people.
This can only be used for smaller cemeteries, with gates or walls that the thread can rest on as you wrap it around. The long piece of thread is literally extended around the perimeter of the cemetery. Beginning at the gate, one person holds the end of the thread, while the other walks round the cemetery perimeter, uncoiling the thread until they arrive back at the gate, so that the thread is literally wrapped around the whole cemetery. When they meet, the two ends are tied together to mark the length.
Method 2: In this process, the thread is not extended around the cemetery but rather unwound and rewound by two or three people as they walk around the perimeter. Because this doesn’t involve contact with the cemetery walls, some grass or objects from the cemetery ground are gathered to be brought into contact with the thread. This method is generally more practical, especially for larger cemeteries.
Begin at the entrance of the cemetery, in a pair or a group of three.
One person holds a large ball of thick cotton thread or string in one hand.
The other person stands to the right of them, gathers some grass or ‘any other suitable object’ from the cemetery floor and hold it in their left hand, taking the end of the ball of thread in their right hand.
Turn left and move together slowly around the cemetery in a clockwise direction, keeping close to the fence or wall.
While you walk, the first person slowly unrolls the ball of thread, which the second person lets it fall on the grass or object they hold in their left hand, winding up the thread in their right hand.
According to a yizkor [memorial] book from Pruzhany, Poland, where the cemetery was measured in ‘times of severe illness’, the feldmesterins used to sing a song while measuring:
כ'האָב אַ מאַמע צײטעלע, פֿאַר איר נשמה אַ קנײטעלע, דרײט מען דאָס פֿעדעמל שטאַרק, לאַנג, לאַנג.
Kh’hob a mame Tseytele, far ir neshome a kneytele, dreyt men dos fedeml shtark, lang, lang.
I have a mama, Tseytele, For her soul - a kneytele (candle wick), The thread is spun, strong, long, long.
Another example of words that could be said while or before measuring comes from a poem by Morris Rosenfeld. In his poem ‘feld-mestn’, Mina, the feldmesterin who holds the end of the thread while the other uncoils it around the cemetery, says the following words:
Powerful lord of all worlds! I, Your weak, poor servant maid, Measure where the wise ones lie, In peaceful dwellings, quiet graves.
Shtarker Harr fun ale veltn! Ikh dayn dinstmoyd, shvakh un orem, Mest di ruike getseltn Di tsadikims shtile kvorim
All the silent little mounds I measure now, oh kind One, Where are resting staunch and sound, Your fervently loved children.
Ale bergelakh di shtume Mest ikh guter got, atsinder Vu es ruen dayne frume Dayne heys-gelibte kinder
Who sing hymns there, by your throne, In the heavens vast and deep Each one from their own abode Through their sweet eternal sleep.
Velkhe zingen dortn shire Far dayn shtul in hoykhen himl Yeder eyner fun zayn dire Durkh zayn eybik zisn driml
And from the wick which here I lay,
Will, full with dread and horror, Make candles, God, your Fesye-Tsvey, By which to teach, your Torah.
Un fun dem geleygtn kneytl Vet mit furkhtikayt un moyre Makhn likht dayn Fesye Tsveytl Um tsu lernen, Got, dayn Toyre
By which to beg you for forgiveness, That you should, despite all, hear, Jacob’s truthful prayer, and witness Israel’s devoted tears.
Um tsu betn dikh mekhile Az du zolst shoyn fort derhern Yankev’s emesdike tfile Un derzen Yisroyl’s trern
Often, these tkhines (supplications in the vernacular, in this case Yiddish) were said by a third person, also usually a woman, and often the person with the connection to the cemetery who had paid for it to be measured. Unfortunately, I have not yet come across any surviving records of these tkhines, except for the above which is fictional. I have, however, found a record of a tkhine said at the end of the measurement, when the two ends of the thread were tied.
Prayer When Finished Measuring - in Elul
[adapted from Gitele the Gabete of Koriv's tkhine]
Raboyne shel oylem, azoy vi mir beyde hobn getsoygn dem fodem mit undzer gantsn koyekh, un der fodem iz nisht ibergerisn gevorn, azoy zoln botl vern ale beyze koykhes. Undzer lebns zoln kholile nisht ibergerisn vern far der tsayt.
Master of the universe, since we both pulled the thread with all our power, and the thread was not broken, shall all evil powers come to naught. Our lives should not – God forbid – be cut short before our time.