Tag Archives: Jewish symbols

An Introduction to the World’s Biggest Book Club

Dear Josep,

Most people who know the basics about Judaism know that our holy book is what we call the Torah. But there is a lot of confusion around this because we have a lot of holy books! The Bible, the Talmud, the prayer books, and a whole slew of rabbinic literature from throughout the centuries.

So in this letter we’re going to make some order in this chaos.

The Torah

This is kind of confusing because the word “Torah” is used to refer to a few different things. It literally means “instruction”, and for the most part, when we use it, we’re referring to the entire body of teachings and Jewish law, starting with the Bible and all the way down to the rabbinic literature being written at this very moment. When we say that we believe God gave us the Torah at Sinai, what we mean is that He gave us the Written Torah (which is the first five books of the Bible), and also an Oral Torah, which is meant to be taught from teacher to student and father to son. We’ll elaborate more on the Oral Torah later.

As I mentioned, though, sometimes the word “Torah” is referring to the first five books of the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. This is also called “the Chumash”, which translates well as “the Pentateuch”. The Torah was first written down as scrolls. During the beginning of the Second Jewish Commonwealth in Judea, the leaders of the reestablished Jewish community, Ezra and Nehemiah, established a law that the Torah scroll should be read publicly three times a week. They divided the Torah into weekly portions for this purpose. They did this because Jews at the time were poorly versed in Torah and were forgetting how to speak Hebrew. (They spoke Aramaic.) That custom stuck and is still practiced in every observant Jewish community today. The weekly portion is read from the Torah scroll on Mondays, Thursdays, and Shabbat, during prayer services. This is how it looks in an American Ashkenazi synagogue:

This is how it looks at a Sephardi service at the Western Wall:

Ashkenazi scrolls, as you see in the video, are generally wrapped around two handles, and covered with a decorative cloth when not in use. Sephardi scrolls are kept in a special case of wood or metal, wrapped around rods that are turned while the scroll is still in the case.

Sephardi style Torah case "SilverTorahCase" by http://hadadbros.com/. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 il via Wikimedia Commons.
Sephardi style Torah case.

SilverTorahCase” by http://hadadbros.com/. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 il via Wikimedia Commons.

Ashkenazi style Torah scroll גמלאי עיריית טבריה [CC BY 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons
Ashkenazi style Torah scroll
גמלאי עיריית טבריה [CC BY 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons
You will notice that they are chanting the words of the Torah in a kind of singing way. This is called “cantillating”. There is a very specific system of notes designated for this purpose, which is marked in the Chumash when it is in book form.

Like this one. This is the book of Genesis, with English translation and rabbinic commentary.
Like this one. This is the book of Genesis, with English translation and rabbinic commentary.

In scroll form, it must be written using the same special calligraphy and parchment that we use for the mezuza.

The Tanakh

The word Tanakh is a Hebrew acronym for the words Torah, Nevi’im (Prophets), and Ketuvim (Writings), which essentially make up the Jewish Bible or as y’all prefer to call it, the Old Testament. This is the hardcover book I gave you.

Don't worry, we're still covered. ;)
Don’t worry, we’re still covered. 😉

I should mention here the other important scroll in Jewish life: Megillat Esther, the Scroll of Esther, often referred to as simply “the Megillah”. It appears in Writings, and is read from the scroll during the holiday of Purim, which is coming right up. 😉

The Talmud

So remember this Oral Torah I mentioned that was supposed to be passed orally from teacher to student? The reason we needed it was that we needed a system to interpret the Written Torah. There are places in the Torah where God says “do X as I have described to you”, and there is no description in the text. That is referring to this Oral Law. In fact, there is a law that we are not supposed to write down this law, because it is meant to be a “living Torah” that is dynamic and shifts with the new needs and issues of each generation.

But, there was a problem. After the destruction of the Second Temple, the great Torah scholars were being killed and teaching Torah was illegal under the Romans. Under these circumstances, it was decided that the Oral Torah must be written down to preserve it for future generations. Rabbi Judah the Prince, an important figure at the time, compiled the teachings into a volume that was completed around the year 200. This book was called the Mishna (which means “teaching”).

Another volume was eventually compiled of analysis and commentary on the Mishna, and this was called the Gemara (which means “study” in Aramaic). These two volumes together, the Mishna and the Gemara, comprise the Talmud (which means “study” in Hebrew).

There are two versions of Gemara; one was compiled in Israel and completed around 350-400. This is called the “Talmud Yerushalmi”–the Jerusalem Talmud. Another was compiled in Babylonia, where the biggest and most important Jewish community was at the time, and it is called the “Talmud Bavli” (the Babylonian Talmud). The latter is the one most widely studied. It is also much longer and more comprehensive.

Yup. Allllll that is the Babylonian Talmud. This is why Jews spend their entire lives studying this thing... By אני (אני) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Yup. Allllll that is the Babylonian Talmud. Jews spend entire lifetimes studying this thing…
By אני (אני) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
The rest of rabbinic literature is basically analysis and interpretation of the Talmud. Except….

The Siddur

The Siddur (which means “order”) is the Jewish prayer book, which you have seen yourself at least twice. 😉

This is an extra one I have lying around that happens to be the one I brought with me to Barcelona. You found it lying around in the office somewhere and handed it to me, and I remember having half a mind to let you keep it. ;)
This is an extra one I have lying around that happens to be the one I brought with me to Barcelona. You found it lying around in the office somewhere and handed it to me, and I remember having half a mind to let you keep it. 😉

It has been compiled over a long period. Formal prayer was institutionalized by Ezra and Nehemiah for the same reasons mentioned above–mostly to preserve the Jews’ Hebrew. All traditional Jewish prayer is in Hebrew. The prayer they wrote was the Shmona Esrei, a collection of eighteen blessings that we are supposed to say three times a day. Over time a lot more was added onto it; we read the Shema prayer (discussed in the letter on mezuzot) with blessings before and after, and before that, more blessings, poems, and Psalms. There is a different order of prayers for the morning, afternoon, and evening prayers, and additional or alternative prayers for Shabbat and holidays. The High Holiday prayers are so different and long that we have a separate book or books for that, called the Machzor (which means “cycle”, referring to the annual cycle of the holidays).

It is also very common to find a book of Psalms on the shelf or in the pocket of an observant Jew. It’s part of the Tanakh (in Writings), a collection of poem-prayers traditionally attributed to King David.

The Haggadah

The Haggadah (which means “telling” in Hebrew) is a book exclusively read on the first night of Passover during the Seder (the Passover ceremonial meal; I’ll elaborate in a later letter). It was compiled during the Mishnaic and Talmudic periods, and the text has remained the same for hundreds and hundreds of years. There are a number of precious ancient Haggadot that were created hundreds of years ago and still have the same text we use today.

Such as.... the Barcelona Haggadah. :) This beautifully illuminated volume was created in 14th-century Barcelona. The text here is clearly legible and recognizable from the Haggadot we use today.
Such as…. the Barcelona Haggadah. 🙂 This beautifully illuminated volume was created in 14th-century Barcelona. The text here is clearly legible and recognizable from the Haggadot we use today. It is a passage from the Talmud telling the story of several rabbis who stayed up all night to discuss the exodus from Egypt on Passover.

Turns out, we are known as the People of the Book for a reason… 🙂



Jewish Symbols, or: A Rummage Through My Jewelry Box

Dear Josep,

I have a jewelry box a friend bought me while serving in Iraq for the US Army. One of the things that struck me when I saw it was this decorative motif that runs along the perimeter:

There used to be a design with a camel and palm tree in that white space, but it peeled off...
There used to be a design with a camel and palm tree in that white space, but it peeled off…

What is a six-pointed star–widely known as the Jewish Star, the Star of David, or the Shield of David–doing on a box made by a Muslim in a country with virtually no Jews?

As it turns out, the association between the six-pointed star and Judaism is a fairly recent one. The same shape was a popular decoration motif in the Middle Ages and it could be found in churches and mosques as well as in synagogues. It is not clear why it became associated with Jews, or why we began to refer to it as the “Shield of David” (“Magen David“). It has been a Kabbalistic symbol since the 16th century, sometimes called the “Seal of Solomon”. Some think it became associated specifically with Jews because of the patches we were forced to wear in the late Middle Ages, which were sometimes shaped something like the six-pointed star. (In Spain, before the expulsion, it was a red circle.) In the 17th century it appeared on synagogues, probably used the same way crosses were used to identify Christian places of worship. At any rate, it was only in the late 19th century that the Star of David became a universally accepted Jewish symbol–when the Zionist movement adopted it. Apparently there was some controversy over using it as the symbol in the center of the flag of the State of Israel.

In any case, as you know, today it is exclusively associated with Jews, and a popular motif for clothing or jewelry expressing Jewish identity.

A few samples from my jewelry box...
A few samples from my jewelry box…

As I’ve mentioned, the original symbol of Jews was not the Star of David, but the menorah; the seven-branched candelabra that was lit in the Temple. It is that symbol that is displayed on the Arch of Titus to identify the slaves portrayed there as Judeans.

Photo credit: בית השלום

That is why it was chosen as the centerpiece of the emblem of the State of Israel:

Another symbol commonly associated with Jews is the chamsa, usually spelled hamsa.

photo 3

Actually, it’s a widely used symbol of good luck in the Middle East and North Africa, and not exclusively for Jews. The right hand is a positive symbol in many cultures. Jews in particular associate the five fingers with experiencing God with the five senses, or the five books of the Torah. The word “hamsa” means “five” in Arabic.

A more exclusively Jewish symbol is the word חי, “chai“, which means “live”.

In Hebrew, each letter corresponds to a number. The numerical value of the letters ח and י is 18, so 18 is considered an auspicious number and Jews often give gift money or charity in multiples of 18.

As you know, Jews love life, and the typical Jewish toast is “L’chaim”–to life!

We also often use other Hebrew writing–quotes from the Tanakh or from rabbinic writings–as decoration. You can see this on the walls of many ancient (and modern) synagogues. Pictured here are a necklace my in-laws bought me with the Priestly Blessing engraved on it, and a locket in which I inserted a favorite phrase from a poem by Rabbi Judah the Levi, an 11th-century rabbi, poet, scholar, doctor and philosopher who lived in Toledo.

The phrase in the locket reads, "And when I came out towards You, I found You coming towards me". The Priestly Blessing on the other pendant reads, "May God bless you and keep you; may God shine His countenance on you, and bestow goodness upon you; may God lift His countenance to you", and on the other side of the pendant, "and grant you peace".
The phrase in the locket reads, “And when I came out towards You, I found You coming towards me”. The Priestly Blessing on the other pendant reads, “May God bless you and keep you; may God shine His countenance on you, and bestow goodness upon you; may God lift His countenance to you”, and on the other side of the pendant, “and grant you peace”.

Another symbol commonly found on Jewish buildings is the Tablets of the Covenant:

Photo credit: Ji-Elle, under CC BY-SA 3.0

Usually they appear rounded on top. Not sure why. They usually either have the first ten Hebrew letters representing the Ten Commandments, or the first two or three words of each commandment, as pictured here.

And the last symbol I will mention here, is the Choshen. That was the special breastplate worn by the High Priest in the days of the Temple, which had twelve precious stones, each stone representing one of the Twelve Tribes. Its meaning and significance are obscure, but seem to have something to do with atonement and judgement. This is a Choshen set into a Hamsa…

photo 5

All these symbols are incorporated into our decor, jewelry, or household items, and can be found pretty much everywhere in Israel.

My keys.
Like, for example, my random assortment of keychains.

Here you see two Hamsas and a keychain with Tefillat HaDerekh (the Traveler’s Prayer) on one side and a Choshen on the other side… which used to have rhinestones and now just looks like a weird grid 😛

(…The flip-flop that says “Drama Queen” is a symbol of me, not Judaism. 😛 )

While we’re here, I have a great story about that Hamsa with the coin on the end. In Israeli supermarkets, you need a five-shekel coin to use a shopping cart… or something shaped like a five-shekel coin. So they make keychains like the above that you can use instead, so you always have one with you and don’t need to count on having the right change. The other Hamsa used to have one of those coins but it broke off, and without having a replacement I was sick of needing to find a five-shekel coin every time I went grocery shopping. So I posted on Facebook asking if anyone knew where to get one of those keychains.

Here’s what I posted the next day.

(parnassa=financial sustenance)
(parnassa=financial sustenance)





Blog readers: Which is your favorite? Tell us about symbols from your culture or religion!

On the Doorposts of Your Home: All About Mezuzot

Dear Josep,

So before I explain about mezuzot, I must first begin with the Shema prayer. Something tells me you have heard of it. 😉 Here is a translation of the full text of the first paragraph of the prayer:

“Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might. And these words which I command you today shall be upon your heart. You shall teach them thoroughly to your children, and you shall speak of them when you sit in your house and when you walk on the road, when you lie down and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign upon your arm, and they shall be as a reminder between your eyes. And you shall write them upon the doorposts of your house and upon your gates.”

—Deuteronomy 6:4-9

That last verse is the source for the mitzvah of mezuzah.

So first of all: what is the Shema? Why is it so important? And why did God command us to say these words morning and evening, to bind them “as a sign upon your arm” and “a reminder between your eyes” (that’s the mitzvah of tefillin, which I’ll hopefully get to in a future e-mail!), and to have them hanging at every doorpost?

The crux of the prayer is the opening verse. It is our declaration of allegiance to God, and our belief that He is one. The rest of the paragraph explains how that allegiance manifests in our daily lives.

Okay, so we declare our allegiance to God. “The Lord is our God”. Why “the Lord is one”? What does his oneness have to do with our allegiance to Him and love for Him?

Well, first there’s the obvious: we were the first nation to believe in the oneness of God, and this was our unique characteristic at the time. And though this may seem totally basic in a world so strongly influenced by the three monotheistic faiths, it’s actually really not that intuitive an idea. When we look at the world all we see is contrast. Everything is defined by its separation and distinction from everything else. A tree is not a rock. The sky is not the sea. Dark and light. Good and evil. These things are so mutually exclusive that it doesn’t make sense at all that they could be all truly part of one unified thing. But they are. They are all God. This is a very difficult concept to grasp. So difficult, that the ancient peoples assigned different gods to the different forces in the world. This made sense. Even the Christians felt a need to do this to some degree. Mainstream Christianity assigns all evil in the world to a being separate from God—the Devil—because God is supposed to be pure good; how could evil come from Him as well? But according to the concept of the Shema, this is a mistake. The good and the evil in the world are both a part of God, and all are part of the same reality, which is all ultimate good. This is very hard to understand.

But that concept is central to our mission in this world, and thus central to our identity as the Jewish people. Our mission in the world is to help reveal God’s oneness and goodness. To lead the human race in its pursuit of Him, so that together, we can bring the world to a point where He can bestow His goodness entirely. The message of the Shema is our raison d’être.

And that is why we surround ourselves with its words. We recite it morning and evening. It is the first prayer we teach our children, and the last prayer we say before we die. (This is why you hear stories of Jews crying it out when facing death.) We bind it—physically or mentally—to our arms and minds when we pray (tefillin again!). And, yes… we hang it on every doorpost.

If you look at the first verse of the Shema in a Torah or mezuzah scroll, you will see that the last letter of both the first and last words of the verse are enlarged:

The mezuzah scroll. Note the beautiful calligraphy; it is actually a requirement that this scroll be especially written by a scribe, a sofer, who has learned this special calligraphy that we use for holy texts (namely: the Torah, mezuzah scrolls, tefillin scrolls, and the Scroll of Esther for Purim). The letters must be perfect, otherwise it cannot be used. We have to have our scrolls checked by a sofer from time to time to make sure they are still kosher.

These two letters spell the word עד, ed, which means “witness”. Our mission in the world is to bear witness to God’s oneness.

Okay, so that’s the first paragraph of Shema. What about the second paragraph? It reads like this:

“And it will be, if you will diligently obey My commandments which I command you this day, to love the Lord Your God and to serve Him with all your heart and with all your soul, I will give rain for your land at the proper time, the early rain and the late rain, and you will gather in your grain, your wine and your oil. And I will give grass in your fields for your cattle, and you will eat and be sated. Take care lest your heart be lured away, and you turn astray and worship alien gods and bow down to them. For then the Lord’s wrath will flare up against you, and He will close the heavens so that there will be no rain and the earth will not yield its produce, and you will swiftly perish from the good land which the Lord gives you. Therefore, place these words of Mine upon your heart and upon your soul, and bind them for a sign on your hand, and they shall be a reminder between your eyes. You shall teach them to your children, to speak of them when you sit in your house and when you walk on the road, when you lie down and when you rise. And you shall inscribe them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates—so that your days and the days of your children may be prolonged on the land which the Lord swore to your fathers to give to them for as long as the heavens are above the earth.”

—Deuteronomy 11:13-21

Very similar to the first paragraph, but with one major difference: this one talks about the consequences of not loving God and following the commandments. In Judaism we talk about two motives for loving God: ahava and yir’a, love and awe (sometimes translated as fear, but awe is a better word for it). Both are important components of our service of Him, but love, obviously, is the highest level. The first paragraph of Shema corresponds to ahava. It is unconditional. We love God with all our hearts and all our souls and therefore we perform these commandments. This is really ideal. But when we are not on that level, we need the second paragraph of Shema, which corresponds to yir’a, so we perform the commandments out of fear of the consequences. The concept of Divine reward and punishment is very complex and I won’t get into it now, but suffice to say that according to many Jewish philosophers such as Rabbi Chaim Luzzato, it is not as simplistic as it seems here. (…And there’s another topic for another e-mail! 😛 Apparently I’m never going to run out!)

There is a third and final paragraph of Shema, but it is less relevant here because only the first two paragraphs are included in the mezuzah.

So what is the mezuzah? The word “mezuzah” actually means “doorpost”. The mezuzah itself is a scroll of parchment on which the first two paragraphs of the Shema are inscribed on one side, and the word Sha-dai is inscribed on the other. Sha-dai is one of God’s names in Hebrew, associated with kindness, and it is also an acronym for shomer dlatot yisrael, “Guardian of the doors of Israel”. The scroll is rolled up from left to right with the words of the Shema on the inside. It is then affixed to the doorway. As you know, usually it is placed inside a nice protective case, one which has the letter ש or the word Sha-dai on it. Archeologists always know they have found a Jewish building when they see an indent carved into the doorway to hold the mezuzah.

The purpose of the mezuzah is, of course, to help us maintain an awareness of God and of our purpose in the world, every time we enter or exit a room.

“Psst! Hey Jew! The Lord is One! You may now carry on.”
Photo credit: 00dac, CC BY 3.0

The minimum halakhic requirement is to place one just on the main entrance of the home, but most of us affix a mezuzah in every doorway (except the bathroom, out of respect for the holy text), and also in buildings people don’t live in, like office buildings. There is a custom to kiss it as we walk past; most of us do this by touching it and then kissing our hand. (You probably saw me do this a few times…) This helps us maintain an awareness of it. Though it becomes something of an automatic reflex. Whenever I’m in a place with a doorway that doesn’t have a mezuzah, I find myself automatically reaching for a mezuzah that isn’t there! I call this “Phantom Mezuzah Syndrome” 😛

The mezuzah is affixed to the upper third of the doorway, on the side that, upon entering the room, is to the right. The Ashkenazi custom is to affix it tilting towards the interior of the room; the Sephardi custom is to affix it vertically. Why the difference? Well, because, of course*, there are differing opinions on the proper direction. 😉 According to one opinion, it should be vertical. According to the other, it should be horizontal. Sephardim go by the first opinion; Ashkenazim go by a compromise of both!

When affixing a mezuzah, the following blessing is recited: Blessed are You, Lord, our God, King of the Universe, who sanctified us with his commandments and commanded us to affix a mezuzah.

And with that, my friend, I bless you that only goodness, harmony and peace should cross your doorways, and awareness of God and His love for you should ever be in your mind.

Have a peaceful St. Stephen’s Day and a restful weekend.




*You will find within these letters many references to the irrefutable truth behind the classic joke, “Two Jews, three opinions”. 😉

Blog readers: What surprising places have you seen mezuzot? What physical objects in your life help you focus on what’s really important to you?

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!


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?