So, after ostensibly “freezing” the text of By Light of Hidden Candles (my upcoming novel) for formatting, my editor found a bunch of other issues and we did another feverish round of editing on a short deadline. Now the text is frozen for real (RIGHT, DON?!)–at least, barring any issues our beta-readers and early reviewers find in the galley.
On the day before we froze the text, I became aware of a potential issue that I hadn’t even thought of before. As one might surmise from the title of the book, Shabbat candles make several important appearances. I described, in great detail, my modern Jewish character lighting Shabbat candles–twice–in the manner I am familiar with; and then it came to my attention that Sephardi tradition is different from Ashkenazi tradition.
(And here, for a change, was an issue with the book that it would be completely pointless to ask you about! 😛 )
…Let me back up a bit and explain how this candlelighting thing is done.
There are certain commandments that require a blessing immediately before performing them. But in the case of Shabbat candles, there’s an issue: making the blessing is sort of a declaration that I am accepting Shabbat. That means it’s Shabbat for me when I finish the blessing–and if I haven’t lit the candles yet, I can’t light them on Shabbat, right?!
So Ashkenazi custom has the following solution: we light the candles first, cover our eyes, make the blessing, and then open our eyes and look at the candles, as if they just appeared! Magic! 😛
Sephardi custom, however, is to say the blessing before lighting the candles with the understanding that the blessing is not a declaration of “accepting” Shabbat; but rather, their intention is to “accept” Shabbat only after the candles are lit, or only when it enters at sunset.
Well… at least, that’s the custom in theory.
You see, I have several Sephardi/North African/Middle Eastern friends, with whom I have spent Shabbat; and I didn’t remember noticing anything unusual about their candlelighting customs. So I decided to try and find out what people actually do. I took to Facebook and took an unofficial survey among my Sephardi friends.
That’s how I discovered that the matter is actually a lot more complicated than I had suspected.
My friend Malka said her Yemenite mother-in-law makes the blessing first and then lights the candles, but doesn’t blow out the match.
My friend Shareen, who has Tunisian and Persian grandmothers, said they both lit first and made the blessing while “covering” the candles with their hands.
My friend Nora, who follows the custom of her Moroccan mother-in-law, said she lights first, covers her eyes, and makes the blessing. She mentioned, however, that she has a friend of Algerian origin who makes the blessing first and then lights the candles.
My friend Yemima, whose mother was an Italian descendant of Jewish refugees from the Spanish expulsion, said her mother lit first and then made the blessing, but never covered her eyes.
My friend Reut said her Libyan grandmother lit first, covered her eyes, and made the blessing.
My friend Shahar said her Libyan grandmother made the blessing first, then lit the candles, didn’t blow out the match, and then covered their eyes to pray; whereas her Moroccan grandmother did the same, but without covering her eyes.
My friend Yonit–who is Ashkenazi–pointed out that it doesn’t really help to ask individuals if you’re trying to determine what the custom of a particular ethnic group is. I explained that I’m not doing a scientific study here; I’m just trying to find out what people do. “I want what my character does to be at least somewhat connected to reality, so people don’t come after me with pitchforks yelling, ‘You Ashkenazi, what are you doing writing about Sephardi characters?!'”
At this point I was feeling pretty confused and felt it was time to call in the real authorities. Thankfully, I knew who to call: a number of years ago, I got in touch with Yaacov Ben-Tolila, a retired professor from Ben-Gurion University who is Israel’s leading expert on Haketía (the Judeo-Spanish of North Africa) and the Jewish community of Morocco under the Spanish Protectorate. He happens to have been born in the same city and the same year as my fictional grandmother character! He was an amazing resource and was very happy to tell me about his childhood in Tétouan.
So I wrote him an e-mail, and the following morning he called me. He described his mother’s Shabbat candle (only one!) in great detail, and said he was sure she didn’t cover her eyes, but couldn’t remember if she made the blessing before or after lighting. He recommended I contact Mois Benarroch, an Israeli author who was also born in Tétouan and who has written and published many books set in his hometown. (He blogs in Spanish and Hebrew with excerpts of his work; check out the Spanish one here!)
Mind you, this is all while we were hoping to have the manuscript finalized that day!
So I found Mois Benarroch on Facebook and asked him the question. To my enormous relief, he answered within a few hours. He remembered the women making the blessing while lighting the candles and then covering their eyes!
“The results of my survey,” I wrote on the original Facebook thread, “are as follows: everyone does something different! And no matter what I write, some group somewhere will find a reason to come after me with pitchforks. Conclusion: practice self-defense against pitchforks!”
And now you must be wondering, after all this confusing research, what I decided to have my character do!
I took out all reference to covering eyes, and simply listed her actions: “I struck a match, lit the candles, and made the blessing…” leaving it ambiguous whether she makes the blessing while lighting the candles or after.
“But you know what I’m going to get out of this?” I said to Eitan as I got ready to pick up R2 from preschool after finally resolving this issue on the manuscript. “A great blog post!”
So, Shabbat is something you are a little familiar with, having seen it–or at least part of it–first-hand. But I don’t think I’ve ever really explained it top-to-bottom, and given its centrality in observant Jewish life, I believe a proper e-mail is in order.
First of all, as you know, the commandment to “observe the Sabbath day and keep it holy” is not only a Biblical commandment, it is one of the Ten Commandments. There are two reasons listed in the Bible for keeping the Sabbath: “as a remembrance of the Act of Creation”, and “as a remembrance of the Exodus from Egypt”. That first reason has fairly straightforward to the concept of a day of rest. In Genesis, it says that God created the world in six days and then rested on the seventh. Of course, in the mainstream Jewish interpretation we do not take any of that literally. For one thing, how could there be “days” before the sun itself was created (on the fourth day)? For another, how could a God who has no body or needs of any sort “rest”? What does that even mean? Did He continue creating afterwards? Not that we know of, right? So why do we say He “rested” on the seventh day–what about the eighth, and the ninth, and every day after that?
We must conclude that we are not talking about the kicking-up-your-heels-with-a-glass-of-lemonade-on-a-Sunday-morning kind of rest. And that’s good, because if what we’re supposed to do on Shabbat is “rest”, why aren’t we allowed to do something ridiculously easy like flip a light switch, or relaxing, like playing music?
So here’s the thing. In Judaism (and in most spiritual practices) we believe that the physical world that we see, touch, smell, hear and taste, is just one aspect of the universe, and that there is a parallel spiritual world as well. One of the central concepts of Judaism is channeling the sanctity of the spiritual world into the physical world. We do this through observing the Torah–God’s “guide book to life”, which practically speaking means observing the commandments. So in a way, the act of keeping a mitzvah is a space in the realm of action where the Divine and the mundane interact.
There are a number of “meeting points” between the spiritual and physical worlds according to Judaism. In the realm of space, for example, there is a physical place where the Divine and the mundane meet. That place is (was…) the Temple, and by extension, the city of Jerusalem, and the Land of Israel. Their holiness is in that they have a central role in channeling the spiritual into the physical.
There also exists a “meeting point” in the realm of time. That meeting point is Shabbat.
To Jews, Shabbat is a time above time. It exists on a different plane than the rest of the week. The rest of the week, we have a mission in the world–to act as partners in God’s creation, to take the raw materials He has given us and build the world into a better place. You know how in the story of man’s creation in Genesis, it says that man was created “in God’s image”? Christians take that in an entirely different direction… but in Judaism, what we believe this means is that God made us like Him by giving us the ability to create. While other animals also have a limited capacity to create things, they do not do so with the intention of creating something new, but rather to sustain themselves. We have an aspiration to become greater than we are and make the world greater than it is. This is what defines us, and this, we believe, is why we are here.
On Shabbat, something changes. We step back from our role as creators, and recognize that we are also a creation. God’s creation. If you will, it’s sort of like an office party where we toast the Boss to acknowledge his role in making this all possible. 😉 So all the things we are prohibited to do on Shabbat, are acts of creation. We are supposed to use that time to focus on everything God gave us and helped us create–family, friends, good food and wine, studying Torah, and otherwise “basking in the Divine light”. In our tradition, Shabbat is “a taste of the World to Come”–both in the sense of the Messianic era, and in our idea of Heaven. A time when we will no longer have to partner with God in creation; where our work will be complete, so we can finally rest and enjoy being creations of God.
So what, practically, does this look like? Well, you’ve seen part of it, but to be comprehensive I’ll take us chronologically from lighting the candles to the havdalah ceremony.
Bringing In Shabbat
I elaborated upon the Shabbat candles in this entry, so I won’t go into their significance here. The lady of the household is usually the one who performs that ritual. We wave our hands in front of the flames in a beckoning gesture, three times, to signify “bringing in” Shabbat, and then we cover our eyes and make the blessing: “Blessed are You, Lord, our God, King of the Universe, who sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to light the Sabbath candles.” It is customary for the woman to then pray for her family and herself, as this is considered an auspicious time for prayer.
Then evening prayers are held at the synagogue. I should note, by the way, that morning, afternoon and evening prayers are not only held at the synagogue on Shabbat, but every day. Men are obligated to pray three times a day in a minyan, a quorum of ten men. The Sabbath prayers are longer and more festive. The synagogue we took you to holds prayers in the style of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, which means that it has a lot more singing and dancing than most services. In any case, the regular evening prayers are preceded by a collection of Psalms and special songs. This section of prayers is called Kabbalat Shabbat, “the reception of Shabbat”. The most famous of these songs is Lekhah Dodi, a poem written by Rabbi Shlomo Alkabetz, a Sephardi Kabbalist who lived in Safed in the 16th century. It compares the Sabbath to a bride coming to meet her groom (the nation of Israel). The poem is really beautiful; Wikipedia has a good translation of the lyrics under “Text”. The melodies you heard were ones composed by Rabbi Carlebach, but I thought you would be interested to know about the melody sung in most Sephardi synagogues. It is an ancient Moorish melody brought to Israel by refugees from Spain–meaning it is actually older than Lekhah Dodi itself. Here is a beautiful rendition by Ehud Banai. He is singing Psalm 95, which is the opening Psalm to Kabbalat Shabbat, and then Lekhah Dodi.
The Evening Feast
After we come home from synagogue, as you know, it’s time to eat! We are required to eat three festive meals on Shabbat–one at night, one in the morning/afternoon following prayers, and one towards sunset. The meal opens with the kiddush ceremony, a prayer recited over a goblet of wine. Kiddush means “sanctification”, and reciting this prayer over wine is sort of a declaration of the holiness of the day. Why over wine? Because the presence of wine and bread are required for any meal of “distinction”–a se’udah, or feast, which is often required as part of fulfilling a major commandment. Aside from the holidays, we are also required to have a se’udah following a marriage or a circumcision ceremony. Any significant moment in Jewish life is celebrated with a feast. Which brings me back to what I’ve been telling you about Jews all these years… we’re all about the food! 😉
So the head of the household makes kiddush and all those present answer “amen” and have a sip. Next we must wash for bread. We wash our hands before eating bread all the time; this is not a special Shabbat thing. Like I showed you, we pour water from a cup over our hands, three times for each hand, and then recite a blessing over washing hands (which I spared you 😉 ). Because washing hands is supposed to occur right before eating bread, we are careful not to speak (except for the blessings and “amen”) until we have eaten it, so there is no hefsek, or “break”, between washing and eating. And that is where my beautiful challahs come in:
It is not, of course, required that they be home-baked. 😉 I just happen to love baking them. It is also not required that they be braided, or as sweet and delicious as mine are 😛 (Though that is the Ashkenazi custom.) What is required is to use two full loaves of bread to make the blessing. They symbolize the manna God gave the Israelites in the desert; every day, each Israelite would get one portion of manna, but on Friday, they would get two, one for Friday and one for Shabbat.
So the head of the household makes the blessing over the challah and then distributes it to the family and guests, and then we are free to proceed with our meal. Beyond the wine and bread, there is no specific requirement for what the meal should contain, though it is customary to serve meat, as it is festive. It is customary to sing special songs about the Sabbath during the meal, and to discuss ideas from the Torah.
Speaking of guests, hosting guests is actually a mitzvah, and it is common to invite friends, neighbors and family over to share the meals on Shabbat and holidays. It’s like a dinner party every single week. 😀
In the morning, there are services at the synagogue, during which the weekly portion of the Torah is publicly read. That practice goes back to the days of Ezra and Nehemiah and the Jews returning from the first exile, in attempt to familiarize all Jews with the Torah, even those who couldn’t read. Studying Torah has always been a value of utmost importance for Jews, which is why we had such an exceptionally high literacy rate throughout history.
After the service, we have the second feast. In American congregations, it is common to have the kiddush at the synagogue with wine and refreshments, and then to continue the meal at home starting from the challah. Israelis tend to have prayers earlier and go straight home for kiddush and the meal.
The afternoon is spent enjoying friends and family, reading, napping, and/or studying Torah. There is a specific mitzvah to enjoy oneself on Shabbat, so we try to set aside the best food and (permitted) entertainment for that day.
Se’udah Shlisheet and Havdalah
Towards evening, there are afternoon prayers, and then the third meal–se’udah shlisheet. This meal does not require wine or whole loaves of bread, and in a pinch it doesn’t even have to include bread, so naturally it’s a lighter meal. We usually just have more challah with spreads. It is customary to sing songs with sort of sad melodies during this meal, to express our sadness that Shabbat will soon be leaving.
When three stars have emerged, it is time to pray the evening prayers, and then to “make havdalah”. Havdalah means “differentiation”, and the ceremony marks the end of Shabbat and the beginning of the new week. It is recited over yet another goblet of wine, starting with some verses from Isaiah: Here is the Lord of my salvation, I shall trust and I shall not fear; for my strength and my song, He has become my salvation…” And some other verses from the Tanakh. Then, the blessing is made over the wine.
Next comes the blessing for besamim. Besamim means “spices”; we smell something pleasant, like cloves or cinnamon, to sort of “ease the sadness” of Shabbat leaving. Next, the blessing over the candle. It is customary to then look at the reflection of the light on our fingernails. The idea is that it would be improper to recite a blessing for something and then not use it, so we use the light of the candle… to examine our fingernails. I have no idea why that of all things became the custom. I’m sure someone has a very profound Kabbalistic explanation somewhere. 😛
Next comes the final blessing: Blessed are You, Lord, our God, King of the Universe, who differentiates between holy and mundane, between light and darkness, between Israel and the nations, between the Seventh Day and the Six Days of Action. Blessed are You, Lord, who differentiates between holy and mundane.
The candle is then put out, usually by spilling a little wine onto a plate and putting the flame out with it. And that’s it, the new week has begun! We sing a song asking for God’s blessing for the coming week, and for Elijah the prophet to come and announce the coming of the Messiah.
…And then, to clean up the mess. 😛
Well, I’d say this qualifies as a Daniella Standard Size E-mail! If you’re confused or wish for an elaboration on a certain aspect, you know how to find me–and don’t forget, you still owe me a full Shabbat. 😉 (I certainly won’t forget. You know I never forget anything. 😛 )
Feliç Any Nou!
Blog readers: Anyone want to volunteer an explanation for the fingernails thing? Anything else you’d like to add or ask about Shabbat?
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:
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:
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.)
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 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. 😉 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:
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.
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?