A Nation of Pyromaniacs

Dear Josep,

So as you have probably noticed by now, Jews have a thing for candles. I think the photo I sent you on Friday demonstrates this pretty well:

This would have been a lot more impressive if they were lit, but alas, the Shabbat candles have issued a permanent media embargo.
This would have been a lot more impressive if they were lit, but alas, the Shabbat candles have issued a permanent media embargo.

That’s four menorahs (one for each family member above the age of three) all set up for the fourth night of Chanukah, with the Shabbat candles in the middle. Five for me, and one each for the kids over age three. 27 candles altogether, and we were only halfway through Chanukah! (And also some dirty dishes. We don’t talk about those.)

Well the truth is that most religions have a bit of a thing for candles. Fire is very ethereal, sort of on the borderline between material and spiritual, so it makes sense for it to be a spiritual symbol. In Judaism, the flame symbolizes the soul, because just like the soul, it always rises upwards no matter which way you turn it.

In this letter, I will talk about the different kinds of candles we light in Jewish tradition and describe how and when they are lit.

But first, let’s make an important distinction:

Menorah vs. Chanukiya

In English, both of these words generally refer to the nine-branched candelabras pictured above, which are lit during the Chanukah holiday. But in Hebrew, those are only called chanukiyot. The menorah, on the other hand, is this:

A true-to-Biblical-text reconstruction of the original menorah, courtesy of the Temple Institute. You might remember that we saw this very menorah on our way to the Western Wall last year.

This is the seven-branched candelabra that was one of the holy vessels in the Temple–the one the famed small jar of oil kept alight for eight days during the miracle of Chanukah. It is also the original symbol of Judaism, long before the six-pointed star became associated with Jews. Its central lamp remained lit at all times, and today, in many synagogues, you will find an “eternal lamp”, a ner tamid, in commemoration of that lamp. (Nowadays it is electric. Fire hazards, and all.)

The Chanukiya

So I assume you remember the story of Chanukah. (If not, here’s a refresher.) The chanukiya has nine branches–one for each night of Chanukah, plus a “helper” candle, the shammash, which we use to light the others. We add one candle for every night, and light the newest candle first, moving left to right. As I mentioned, the Ashkenazi custom is for each family member to have his or her own chanukiya. In Sephardi tradition, one person lights for the whole household.

You’ll notice that two of our chanukiyot have little glass cups filled with oil, and two of them have wax candles. Both are perfectly acceptable, but olive oil is halakhically preferred, for reasons I assume you can imagine.

The Shabbat Candles

Lighting Shabbat candles is one of the most well-known and faithfully kept Jewish traditions. Jews have gone to great lengths to light these candles–as in the classic image of the converso lighting Shabbat candles in the basement or a closet. 😉

Strangely enough, in terms of hierarchy in Jewish law, they are actually not among the most important commandments–not by a long shot. Though keeping Shabbat is a Biblical commandment of utmost importance, lighting the candles isn’t. It was instituted by the rabbis, and the reason given is shlom bayit–peace in one’s home (the halakhic concept referring to harmony at home, particularly between husband and wife). What do candles have to do with familial harmony? Well… it’s kind of hard to be nice to each other when you can’t see each other!

Yup. The Shabbat candles were instituted to prevent people from bumping into each other in the dark. How’s that for anticlimactic.

On a higher level, of course, they have become a symbol of harmony in the home and an inseparable part of the ceremony of bringing in Shabbat.

Traditionally, two candles are lit, corresponding to the two slightly different versions of the Fourth Commandment in the Torah. (That’s, uh, the Third Commandment for you. Catholics and Jews count differently.) The Bible gives two separate accounts of the Ten Commandments, almost identical, but not quite. In Exodus 20:8, it says: “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy…” and in Deuteronomy 5:12 it says, “Keep the Sabbath day holy…” The word for rememberzachor, and for keepshamor, are believed in Jewish tradition to have been said simultaneously, “within one word”, at Mount Sinai. The candles correspond to zachor and shamor.

So why do I have seven Sabbath candles in the above picture?

It is a Hassidic custom to light an extra candle for every child in the household, symbolizing the light each child brings into our lives. My mother adopted this custom when she began lighting Sabbath candles, so I continue her custom. I have three children, so that makes five. The other two are for H and R1 to light themselves. Both men and women are obligated to have Shabbat candles lit, but in most households the woman performs this commandment for the family. Nonetheless, we educate our sons as well as our daughters to light the candles. H and R1 are above the “age of education”, age three, so they both light candles.

And, you know, we try to begin cultivating Jewish pyromania fire safety habits as early as possible.

(You’ll notice, though, from the above picture, that Shabbat candlesticks traditionally come in sets of two. 😉 Now that you know that the menorah is only lit on Chanukah, you’ll just have to come back here and get yourself a pair of Shabbat candlesticks as well. You know, to light in the closet, in the tradition of your ancestors. 😛 )

The Havdalah Candle

So you thought we only light candles to mark the beginning of the Sabbath, did you? Nope! We light one at the end of the Sabbath too–but it has to be a special candle with multiple wicks, like this one:

Wondering what those other things are? That'll have to be a different e-mail. ;) Photo credit: Olaf.herfurth Creative Commons license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/legalcode
Wondering what those other things are? That’s for another e-mail! Photo credit: Olaf.herfurth, CC BY-SA 3.0

Havdalah, meaning “differentiation”, is the ceremony for closing the Sabbath and beginning the new week. The Havdalah candle symbolizes our “return to work”. While a single flame symbolizes the soul, fire is an expression of industry, of man’s mastery over nature. After handing the world back over to God for one day–which is the essence of Shabbat–we are stepping back up to the plate in our mission to join Him in creating and perfecting the world.

The Memorial Candle

There is one more candle built into Jewish tradition, and that is the memorial candle:

These are the candles we light to commemorate the dead. Traditionally we light a candle that will burn for 24 hours starting at sundown on the anniversary of a family member’s death. In Yiddish we call it a yahrtzeit candle, yahrtzeit meaning “anniversary”. In Hebrew it’s a ner neshama, a “soul candle”. Their use has extended to commemorating the dead in other contexts. If you ever visit the death camps in Poland and Germany, you’ll find lots of these candles at various monuments. And during public mourning vigils, like those held for the three teens this summer, lighting candles is how we express our sense of loss.

Well. That would be a depressing note on which to end this letter, so here, have last night’s chanukiya.

That's much better.
That’s much better.

Happy Chanukah, and Bon Nadal to you and yours!

Daniella

P.S. I hate to say this, my friend, but “Bon Nadal” just doesn’t have the ring to it that “Merry Christmas” does. I would say that even “Feliz Navidad” sounds better, but then you might hit me over the head with your Caga tió.

***

Blog readers: Did I miss anything? What meaning does lighting candles hold for you?

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