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A Tisha B'Av candlelight service in Meah Shearim in Jerusalem, July 29, 2020. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.
A Tisha B'Av candlelight service in Meah Shearim in Jerusalem, July 29, 2020. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.
featureJewish & Israeli Holidays

On Tisha B’Av, some ‘Eicha’ books wax poetic from candlelight use

"When I see wax stains, it always sends a shiver down my spine," said Sharon Mintz, curator of Jewish art at the Jewish Theological Seminary Library.

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 JNS 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 JNS. “I think that this is certainly both of those things.”

“When I see wax stains, it always sends a shiver down my spine,” Sharon Liberman Mintz, curator of Jewish art at the Library of The Jewish Theological Seminary and senior Judaica consultant at Sotheby’s New York, told JNS.

“I think about the generations of Jewish worshippers, who have held the book and prayed for redemption,” she said. “It is a very poignant experience to witness evidence of the continued use of a holy book over the centuries.”

Eicha, Book of Lamentations, Tisha B'Av
A mahzor, in the unique Roman rite that dates to 1718 or 1719 from northern Italy with a wax stain on a page for Tisha B’Av liturgy. The book is in the collection of the University of Pennsylvania Libraries. Courtesy: Chaim Louis Meiselman.

‘Sits close to the book’

Meiselman told JNS 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, which is part of the collection of the University of Pennsylvania, 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 JNS. “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 JTS collection. 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.

The Penn librarian also has a mahzor, which dates to 1734 and comes from Sulzbach am Main, Germany, in his personal collection. The book has many wax drippings on the page for Eicha.

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.”

Eicha wax
A page of Eicha stained with wax from candles in a mahzor from Sulzbach am Main, Germany, 1734. Courtesy: Chaim Louis Meiselman.

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.

Tisha B'Av, Mohel's Notebook Drawing
An illumination from a mohel’s notebook, 1740. Credit: Jewish Theological Seminary via Wikimedia Commons.

“Our custom is to sit on the floor and read Eicha by candlelight (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 JNS. “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.”

Mintz told JNS that Tisha B’Av commemorates “tremendous communal loss that according to rabbinic lore was the direct and tragic result of intercommunal strife.”

“Today, while we often experience Israel in celebratory terms, as a Jewish homeland, it is currently a time of such discord and, once again, tremendous communal strife,” she said. “The stains remind the reader that we have to find ways to live together as one people, or face tragic consequences.”

Michelle Margolis, librarian for Jewish studies at Columbia University and president of the Association of Jewish Libraries, stresses a different aspect of the wax-stained pages.

“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 JNS.

“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.

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