God poured out His ire “like fire” on the daughter of Zion’s tent. From above, He dispatched an inferno in the narrator’s bones. A “burning blaze” incinerated Jacob.
So go some combustible metaphors in Eicha, the biblical book of Lamentations that is the central text of the Tisha B’Av fast, which begins this year after sundown on Wednesday.
For centuries, form evidently followed content, and candle wax dripped upon and stained Tisha B’Av texts, which themselves talk of fiery and other sorts of destruction.
Chaim Louis Meiselman, a cataloging librarian in the Judaica special collections at the University of Pennsylvania Libraries, told Zenger News that experiencing a Tisha B’Av text that has such stains is a whole new ball of wax for a Jewish scholar.
“Since we are in a specific area of material texts and objects, it can both be personal and emotional, as well as academically or scholarly significant,” he told Zenger News. “I think that this is certainly both of those things.”
Meiselman told Zenger News about a holiday prayer book, a mahzor, in the unique Roman rite that dates to 1718 or 1719 from the northern Italian city of Mantua. On the opening Eicha page in the book, one can see a stain from wax that dripped on the page from a candle, which a reader must have used to follow along with the text.
Reading by candlelight was associated with Eicha on Tisha B’Av, Meiselman told Zenger News. “The synagogue lights are darkened at that point in the liturgy, and the reader or user then takes a candle and sits close to the book,” he said. “The room is otherwise dark.”
Meiselman cited an illustration from a German book, belonging to a mohel, which dates to 1740 and is part of the collection of Jewish Theological Seminary. In the drawing, three men sit on a synagogue floor. The candles have been removed from the chandelier above, and one of the men holds a candle.
In a mahzor from Venice that dates between 1711 and 1714, which Kedem Auction House sold for $1,063 in 2022, the auctioneer notes: “Some leaves of Tisha B’Av lamentations with significant dampness damage, mold stains, wax stains and tears, affecting text.”
In 2009, the same auction house sold a Tisha B’Av Lamentations text on blue paper for $1,500. It described the condition, in part, as “Fair condition. Restored moth wholes. [sic] Wax stains and mold. New leather binding.”
Another Jewish auctioneer, Kestenbaum & Company, sold a 1724 Spanish text for $500. “From the library of Rabbi Dr. David de Sola Pool,” it noted. “Some candle wax stains in opening section of Kinoth for the evening of Tishah B’Av.” (Kinnos, or Kinnot, are mournful texts chanted on fast days.)
There were also “candle-wax stains throughout” in a 1665 “Selichot (Penitential Prayers for the Month of Ellul and Through the Year)” from Frankfurt, which Kestenbaum auctioned in 2021.
And in 2014 or 2015, Winner’s Auctions offered a Kinnos for Tisha B’Av from 1811 Fürth in Germany with “an authentic candle wax stain from the night of Tisha B’Av.”
The fast was taken ‘very seriously’
Although the practice of reading Eicha by candlelight has waxed and waned somewhat in Jewish communities, the practice endures.
A Chabad in Montreal’s Notre-Dame-de-Grâce neighborhood hosts an annual “multi-sensory” candlelight Eicha. “Bring a candle (in glass ideally) and a story (personal or Talmudic) about Jerusalem (optional),” it states. Temple Beth El of South Orange County in Aliso Viejo, Calif., is also hosting an Eicha by candlelight, along with Temple Beth El, Congregation B’nai Tzedek and Temple Judea of Laguna Hills, Calif.
“Our custom is to sit on the floor and read Eicha by candle light (or iPhone flashlight) to recreate the somber mood felt at the destruction of the temple,” states Beth El Synagogue in Omaha, Neb. At the Huntington Jewish Center in New York, “members of the congregation will chant the book of Eicha (Lamentations) by candlelight” and “candles will be provided, but those attending are encouraged to bring a flashlight.”
There will also be a candlelight Eicha at the Tremont Street Shul in Cambridge, Mass.; at Beth El Congregation of the South Hills in Pittsburgh; and at Congregation Beit Tefilah in Nashville, among many other places. In 2012, an Associated Press photographer captured a reading by candlelight of the central Tisha B’Av text in Mea Shearim, a Chassidic neighborhood of Jerusalem.
Meiselman takes away from the wax-stained Tisha B’Av books that the fast “was taken very seriously in the past.”
“The atmosphere was completely darkened, and Eicha was read in total mourning,” he told Zenger News. “Imagine the scene of the worshippers on the floor, and the only light is the candle the reader is holding. No other light in the room.”
Michelle Margolis, librarian for Jewish studies at Columbia University and president of the Association of Jewish Libraries, sees things a bit differently.
“We have to remember that historically, people used candles all the time. Many old Jewish books have candle or tallow stains because they were used at night before electricity,” Margolis told Zenger News.
“The custom to use candles even today on Tisha B’Av means that we find this sometimes even in books produced after the spread of electricity,” she said.
Produced in association with Jewish News Syndicate