Friday, May 08, 2009

Kosher Fodem: Sacred Threads between the Living and Dead

[Candles stacked upon the ohel (gravesite) of a Hasidic master]

People are aware of the use of strings and threads as amulets in Jewish popular culture. Heck, the Kabbalah Centre has made it into an industry. There are a number of sources and explanations for this custom, but today I'll consider just one.

Kosher fodem ("fit string") is an outgrowth of the Ashkenazi pious custom known variously as Kneytlekh Legn ("laying wicks") or Korim Mesn ("measuring graves"). In Poland and other Eastern European communities, pious women would go, en mass, to graveyards and lay thread around the graves of people known for their piety in life. This seemingly morbid practice was actually a spirited and popular women's outing [1]. The string so prepared were thought to "absorb" a measure of the dead soul's merit. Most often, the strings would be cut into wicks, made into candles, and then donated to a synagogue or house of study.

This was a charitable effort to support these sacred institutions, but it was also done, pardon the pun, out of 'enlightened' self-interest. Often the donation would be made to coincide with High Holidays or an illness or trouble in the family, in hopes of receiving divine intercession. The candles could also be reserved for rituals of divination or as a means to protect the household against malevolent forces [2].

No doubt, some of this string was simply attached to places of vulnerablity one wanted to protect - a baby crib or birthing bed, for example. And some just got tied around the wrist.

Zal g'mor - To learn more consult the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism: http://www.amazon.com/Encyclopedia-Jewish-Myth-Magic-Mysticism/dp/0738709050

1. Wex, Born to Kvetch, p. 178.
2. Weissler, "Measuring graves, Laying Wicks," pp. 61-80.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

There seem to be so many different strands of Jewish religious and mystical thought, which one (either contemporary or from the past) would be the most similar to what Moses or Solomon would have been familiar with or practiced themselves? I.e. Would Moses have been the world's greatest Kabbalist/mystic or would he have been the world's strictest Hasidim, or something completely different and unfamiliar?

1:45 AM  
Blogger Geoffrey Dennis said...

Dear Anonymous,

Mordecai Kaplan called Judaism an "evolving religious civilization." The Talmudic Sages acknowledged this in a midrash where Moses finds himself transported a 1000 years forward in time and finds he cannot comprehend what Rabbi Akiba is teaching in his Torah class. Kabbalism is a Medieval movement, and Hasidism a modern one. In the end, it is best to think of Judaism as a rope. The many customs, teachings, and groups are the threads within that rope. Some threads at the beginning of the rope do not make it to our end of the rope(like sacrifices, for example), and other threads are added somewhere in the middle of the rope (like Kabbalism), but they bind together into a strong, unified whole across time and place.

11:22 AM  
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