CURR 14-18


I have been asked concerning an older custom of burning candles in the synagague on Yom Kippur in memory of departed parents. Is this custom widespread and is it well established? (From Rabbi Walter Jacob, Rodef Shalom Temple, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.)

IN THE Shulchan Aruch, Orah Hayyim 610:4, Joseph Caro says that it is the custom on the Day of Atonement to light many candles in the synagogues and to spread beautiful cloths. To this Isserles adds that it is a custom that each individual, adult or minor, should kindle a light for himself in the synagogue and also a light for the soul of his father and mother who died. Then he adds: “And so it is proper to do, for thus some of the great scholars have written.”

Thus Caro does not mention the custom of memorial candles at all, but it is Isserles who mentions it. This would indicate that it was a custom which did not develop among the Sephardim, but only among the Ashkenazim. Furthermore, the fact that even Isserles merely recommends it as something worth doing because “some of the scholars recommend it,” would indicate that even among the Ashkenazim it was not a well-established or widespread custom. It would, therefore, be worthwhile to trace the evolution of this custom and perhaps explain how and why it developed.

It is clear that the custom developed as an elaboration of earlier and related practices with regard to the Day of Atonement. The Talmud (b. Shabbas 119a) speaks of how to honor the Day. The verse from Isaiah 58:13 reads: “Do honor to the Holy Day of God,” and the Talmud says this verse refers to honoring the Day of Atonement. The Talmud continues to the effect that since it is impossible to honor the Day of Atonement in the way in which the Sabbath is honored, namely, by extra meals, therefore it should be honored by fine garments. (That is why Caro says that it is the custom to spread handsome cloths in the synagogue on the Day of Atonement.) Asher ben Jehiel (thirteenth century) in his commentary to the Talmud {Yoma, the last chapter) adds another way of honoring the Day of Atonement besides with handsome cloths. He cites the verse in Isaiah 24:15: “In regions of light (b’urim) honor the Lord,” and he calls attention to the fact that Targum (Jonathan) translates the word “urim” as candles or lanterns. Therefore he says there is a custom also to increase the number of candles kindled in the synagogue.

Another reason for increasing the lights of the synagogue besides “honoring the Day,” is given by the Kol Bo (an early Halachic source of debated date, possibly thirteenth or fourteenth century; see Jewish Encyclopedia, Vol. VII, p. 5 3 8) . The Kol Bo says that since people stay all day and all night in the synagogue and have to read all the time, they need many more lights.

Jacob ben Asher in the Tur quotes his father’s opinion (Orah Hayyim, 610) but neither father nor son speaks of individuals each lighting a candle for himself, but merely of increasing the lights of the synagogue. Then how did the idea arise of having individual lights for each person on Yom Kippur? The Kol Bo quotes Asher ben Jehiel that individuals used to light lights for each person. Jacob Weil (fourteenth century) in his Responsa 191 and 192, speaks of the fact that Moses brought down the second tablets of stone on Yom Kippur. Therefore the day represents the “complete” availability of the Torah. Therefore, since men and not women are in duty bound to study the Torah, only the men have individual lights on Yom Kippur. He also says that on this day the judgment is completed for the souls of men, and since the verse (Proverbs 26:27) says: “The soul of man is the light of God,” the lights also began to signify the redemption of the soul of the individual wor-shiper. Thus the Kol Bo says, “God says, ‘Light a light before Me that I might protect your soul which is also called light.'” The parallelism of God’s light (the Torah) and our light (our lives) is based upon the Midrash (Deuteronomy Rabba 4:4).

From the concept that the individual Yom Kippur light was for the redemption of the souls of the living, it was easy to move over to the additional idea that it should also signify a memorial or a redemption for the departed, because it was long held that the dead need redemption, as do the living. This is based upon the verse in Deuteronomy, 21:8: “Atone for Thy people Israel which Thou hast redeemed.” The closing words, “which Thou hast redeemed,” refer to those who came out of Egypt. They were already dead and yet the verse asks that they, too, be given atonement. Therefore the Sifre at the end of Shoftim says, “This teaches us that the dead, too, need atonement.” So the Kol Bo (68) among the various reasons for lighting the extra lights, men tions also that it is a custom that each one lights a light or a lantern at his place in the synagogue to atone for his father or mother. Gaguine, in his Keser Shem Tov, Vol. I, p. 115, Note 153, quotes the Sefer Chassidim as speaking of this custom of the memorial candle on Yom Kippur, but I have been unable to verify the reference in any edition of the Sefer Chassidim. If it is indeed found in the Sefer Chassidim, this would perhaps be the oldest reference. The Kol Bo seems to have the earliest mention of this memorial custom. Few of the other codes mention it, but by the sixteenth century it is found, as we have said, in Isserles and also it is found in Mordecai Jaffe’s Levush (Levush Ha-chor 610). Gaguine in his Keser Shem Tov, Vol. VI, p. 235, in the heading, speaks of this as a world-wide Jewish custom. He would not say so unless he knew of it, since he carefully preserved all these Sephardic customs. But since Joseph Caro does not mention it, while Isserles does mention it, and since none of the Sephardic codes mention it, it may be that Sephardim have picked up the custom from Ashkenazim in recent times.

While all the elements of the observance are already found in the Kol Bo, yet most later codes omit the memorial candle until the sixteenth century (Isserles and Mordecai Jaffe). Evidently the custom spread rather slowly. At all events, the process of the development of the custom of memorial lights for parents in the synagogue seems, therefore, clear enough. Yom Kippur was to be honored by special clothes and garments. Then it was honored by extra lights. Then the custom arose to have individual lights, either because reading had to be done all day or, later, because the soul “which is a light” is redeemed on that day. From the latter idea it spread (chiefly among the Ashke nazim) that the soul of the departed should also have redemption on the Day of Atonement; hence the memorial candles which became known in Jewish parlance as neshomah licht.