Tag Archives: Mourning practices

Grieving Through Action: A Lesson from Aaron the Priest

I mentioned in a previous post that I had an exchange with one of our readers that I’d wanted to post here. Keith is a reader from the UK who carefully reads the parsha (Torah portion) for each week, and occasionally writes to me to ask questions about issues that come up in the parsha or in general. I want to take this opportunity to remind other readers that you are also welcome to write to me with any questions or comments you may have about topics discussed on this blog or Judaism or Israel in general (and I won’t post about them here without your permission!). You can use the contact form on this blog, or email me at letterstojosep at Gmail. ūüôā

This question was about a story in the book of Leviticus about the sudden death of two of Aaron’s sons. Nadav and Avihu brought an offering to God that he hadn’t commanded them, and received a very harsh punishment:

Each of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, took his pan and put fire in them, and placed incense upon it, and offered before the Lord foreign fire which He had not commanded them. And fire came forth from before the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord. Then Moses said to Aaron, ‘This is what the Lord spoke, when He said, “I will be sanctified through those near Me, and before all the people I will be glorified.”‘ And Aaron was silent.

(Leviticus 10:1-3)

A very strange and upsetting episode to be sure, especially when we’re starting with the assumption that God is merciful and kind; why would he kill two priests just for being a little overenthusiastic with their offerings? But we won’t get into the explanations for their deaths here. Keith’s question was about the words, “and Aaron was silent”. We are taught that this means that Aaron didn’t protest or show any sign of mourning for his sons, and the Sages teach us that he was rewarded for his silence, ostensibly for accepting God’s judgment without protest. Keith asked for my thoughts on the matter:


Dear Daniella,

Shabbat Shalom….and I hope you all enjoyed Pesach.

I wonder if I may ask you about Shemini?

When I read it I was shocked by the deaths of Aaron’s sons, and also by his reaction. The command to not mourn seems cruel. I know there have been centuries of debate about why they were killed but I wonder what your thoughts and feelings are please?

Kind regards

Keith


This was my answer:


Hi Keith,

I, too, have always been puzzled by this episode. In general, Jewish tradition condones expressions of grief regardless of the cause of death, even setting up a specific structure for mourners to work through their grief. So why was Aaron rewarded for his silence?

Your question made me revisit some of the sources and I found two interesting ideas.

First of all, why does Rashi [one of the most famous Torah commentators] say that Aaron was rewarded for his silence? The “reward” was that Aaron received directions from God through direct prophecy, and our tradition teaches us that one cannot receive prophecy in sadness. Prophecy is only received when the prophet experiences joy. That means that Aaron couldn’t have been feeling sad at the time, because he received a direct prophecy. So it wasn’t so much a “reward” as a consequence of Aaron’s state of mind.

Another idea I found that I really liked had to do with something the Sages teach us about mourners. There is an idea that someone who is experiencing a major event in his life that would cause him to be too distracted/troubled to focus on performing mitzvot [commandments], is released from his obligation to perform mitzvot–such as a bridegroom on his wedding night. An “onen”, a person whose close relative has died but has not yet been buried, is also considered to be distracted, but he is still obligated to keep all the mitzvot except tefillin, because, the Sages say, his distraction is “optional”. Rashi explains that the “optional” aspect of his distraction is that although he is obligated to keep the outward traditions of mourning, he doesn’t have to feel sadness. The article I was reading went on to explain that in many cases, obviously, losing someone close to you will make you sad; however, some people choose to express their grief not by turning inward and sinking into grief, but by taking action to allow the person who has died to live through us–either through taking over or continuing that person’s work in this world, or through learning from their lives and trying to absorb and apply the positive lessons we can learn from that person to our own lives. This is why the mourner’s prayer is the Kaddish:¬†May His great name be magnified and sanctified… every human being is an expression of the Divine presence, and when they die, they leave an absence. We “survive” that person and honor their lives by filling in that absence as best we can with the glory of God, working harder to “magnify” His presence.

So bringing this back to Aaron, this is exactly what Moses said to him:¬†This is what the Lord spoke: I will be sanctified through those near Me, and before all the people I will be glorified. Aaron and his sons chose to express their loss by taking action–continuing with the work of the Tabernacle as God had commanded them, to continue the work of Nadav and Avihu, and help fill the space they left behind with love of God manifested in the rituals of the Tabernacle.

I think this teaches us¬†not¬†that we¬†shouldn’t¬†give space to our sadness and grief when we lose someone–but that we should¬†also¬†use our grief to motivate us to proactively “magnify and sanctify” God’s name in honor of that person’s memory. Action is a common Jewish response to grief. Many people set up charities or host Torah classes to honor the memories of their loved ones. Jewish hospitals and synagogues are full of memorial plaques from people who donated money or items to the institution in memory of someone. Founding new Jewish settlements has been a classic response to Arab terror since before the State of Israel was established. I think these things are an expression of the lesson we learn from Aaron.

I hope that helps!

Shavua tov and chodesh tov,

Daniella

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. ūüėČ

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¬†remember,¬†zachor, and for¬†keep,¬†shamor, 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. ūüėČ 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. ūüėõ )

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 ti√≥.

***

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