MEMORIAL LIGHT (Heb. נֵר נְשָׁמָה; "the light of the soul"), a light kindled on the anniversary of the death of a relative. It is lit on the eve of the anniversary, according to the Hebrew calendar, and should burn without interruption for 24 hours. A memorial candle is also kindled when a person dies (it is placed near his head until the burial) and during the seven-day mourning period, or according to some customs during the sheloshim ("30 days") after the death. In some communities, it is customary to kindle memorial lights on the eve of the *Day of Atonement.
It is generally believed that the custom of memorial lights, as well as that of *yahrzeit, originated in Germany in the Middle Ages and spread from there to other Jewish centers. The medieval custom easily linked up with earlier notions of light as a symbol for the soul as found, e.g., in Proverbs 20:27, "The spirit of man is the lamp of the Lord" or in the story about R. *Judah ha-Nasi who asked on his deathbed that a light be kindled in his room after his death (Ket. 103a). In some synagogues memorial lights are lit on the anniversary of departed members of the congregation who have bequeathed money for that purpose. Near the lights (electrical bulbs are used nowadays), nameplates indicate the persons who are being commemorated.
I. Abrahams, Jewish Life in the Middle Ages (19322), 156 and n. 2; Eisenstein, Dinim, 274; H. Rabinowicz, Guide to Life (1964), 106.
Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.