As our congregational administrator and I were setting up a table for tonight with a bunch of memorial candles, little folded index cards where people can write the names of those they're remembering, and boxes of matches, it occurred to me that not everyone is familiar with the custom of lighting a yahrzeit candle before Kol Nidre. So I very quickly pulled a few explanatory paragraphs together, printed them and put them in a pretty frame, and stood that frame up on the table with the candles.
I mentioned this on Twitter, and Emily Hauser suggested that I share this here, since some of y'all who read this blog might find merit in it. So here it is. It's necessarily brief; I could say a lot more! But for the moment, this will have to do. If you're lighting a candle tonight but weren't sure why, maybe this will shed some metaphorical light. And if you weren't planning to light a candle, but you have some beloveds who have died, perhaps this will inspire you. (And if you don't have any special yahrzeit candles on hand, you can light whatever you do have. Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good.)
(For more on yizkor, the memorial service, stay tuned -- I'll have a post on that when we reach Shemini Atzeret. The image which illustrates this post comes from the Wikipedia entry on Yahrzeit candles.) G'mar chatimah tovah / may you be sealed for good in the year to come!
About Lighting Yahrzeit Candles Tonight
Our tradition calls us to light yahrzeit (year-anniversary) candles on the anniversary of a loved one's death and also just before sundown on the eve of Yom Kippur, Shemini Atzeret, Pesach, and Shavuot: the four times when the Yizkor (memorial) prayers are recited.
You can light a yahrzeit candle for anyone you are remembering. Traditionally we light them for parents, spouses, siblings, and children, but you can also light one for a friend, grandparent, or anyone else whom you want to remember at this season.
There are no special prayers or blessings which must be recited while lighting a yahrzeit candle. Lighting the candle presents a moment to remember the deceased or to spend some time in introspection.
In the book of Proverbs (chapter 20 verse 27) we read "the soul of a person is the candle of God." Our tradition has long regarded flames as evocative of our souls. Like a human soul, a flame must breathe, change, grow, strive against the darkness and, ultimately, fade away.
May the candles we kindle tonight in memory connect us with those we have loved and lost, and may their memories heighten and enrich our experience of Yom Kippur.