We Jews love our candles, so much so that we use every opportunity we can to light them. Most of the Jewish holidays and festivals are marked by candlelight. It is with candles we bring in Shabbat, and it is with candles we end Shabbat. The flames signal the beginning of the holiday, a Yartzeit (death commemoration), and light up all eight nights of Hanukkah.
Why exactly do we do it? What is the significance of candles in Judaism?
It is not the candle itself which holds meaning, but the light it ushers into this dark world.
A Light Unto the Nations
In the book of Isaiah 42:6 God calls the Jews “a light unto the nations”. This is referring to a spiritual light, one that is found inside each of us. It is our job to go out into the world and spread more light, and help repair the brokenness. To find the holiness in the mundane.
The foundation of existence was created in light. On the very first day of creation, God saw that there was something missing in the world. “And God said, "Let there be light,". And there was light. It sounds so simple, but it is not a simple matter.
God created light before anything else. Before there were animals or people. He knew that there would come a time when the light would be dimmed, and the darkness would try to take over. And that is when we would have to dig deep into ourselves and find the light inside of us. Find the joy and positivity, and keep it not just for ourselves, but share it with others.
Our lives are not meant to be lived alone. We go out into the world and encounter people, and problems. And instead of keeping the light only for ourselves, we say- how can we help. How can we be of service. When we are in service- we are spreading the light.
Illuminating the world
The time difference from New Zealand, the first time zone on earth, to Howland and Baker islands in the southwest Pacific ocean is 24 hours. If you were to watch a map on Friday at the start of Shabbat, you would see the globe begin to light up in New Zealand, and spread every hour until the very last place on earth was lit by Shabbat candles.
This may be impossible, in practicality. But the spiritual impact of it is not just a dream. There may be no Jews living on Howland island, in fact, there are no people living on Howland island at all. But the thought of the world being lit up and infused by light for 24 hours is no less thrilling.
There is a running joke that goes along the lines of: the first astronauts to ever set foot on Mars will step out of their spaceship and onto the Martian soil for the first time, and what will they see- Jews waiting there to greet them. Shabbat candles lit. A set table. They will be given a hearty “Shalom Aleichem!”, (the Hebrew greeting meaning, peace be upon you), and invited to sit down for the Shabbat meal. The joke being, we got there first. The Jews will be able to tell the astronauts how- and when- to light Shabbat candles on Mars, and answer any other Jew-related questions.
It may be a joke, but it is our job to reach even the farthest places on earth (and outer space, once that is possible), to extend our reaches of light. It is not just a hope, it is becoming a reality.
New York Times Shabbat Mention
For a few years in the 1990’s, a philanthropist paid for ad space on the front page of the New York Times every Friday. It was a notice to all women and girls announcing the weekly Shabbat candle-lighting times in New York, which is 18 minutes before sunset. Eventually, the ad- which went for around $2,000, became too expensive to pay for, and the notice ceased.
The New York Times ran a special front page edition on January 1, 2000, with a snapshot of the front page on January 1, 1900, the current news on January 1, 2000, and a mock-up of what the front page would look like in the year 2100. Among the news articles like - welcoming Cuba as the newest state, a discussion on whether robots should be allowed to vote, and other interesting stories- there it was. On the bottom left of the page, like always, was the announcement- candle lighting times for women and girls in New York, on Friday, January 1, 2100.
The legend goes that when the production manager of the New York times, who was an Irish-Catholic, was asked about it, he responded: “We don’t know what will happen in the year 2100. It is impossible to predict the future. But of one thing you can be certain, that in the year 2100 Jewish women will be lighting Shabbos candles."
Indeed, we have no way of knowing what the future will hold. But as we have done thousands of years ago, and have continued to do throughout the ages, even when it was near impossible- we will be lighting the Shabbat candles in the future.
Life is fleeting
When someone dies, we light a candle for them, as we have discussed previously in our Yahrzeit guide. There are many reasons for this, but essentially it is because life is compared to a candle. We are all flames. We burn with a fiery passion for life. We live a life we hope we can be proud of. And at the end of it, the flame dies down, and eventually flickers out.
While we are sad when someone dies, we know this is the way of the world. From dust to dust. But there is a certain comfort in death. Like a flame, we are comforted by the memory of our loved ones, and the thought that somewhere in a realm we cannot fathom, they are watching us, and protecting us. Not only are they proud of us, but they continue to light our paths and show us the way in life.
Death is not an ending, but a new beginning. In Judaism we believe in Gilgulim- reincarnation. Gilgul in Hebrew means a cycle, or wheel. A soul that leaves this earth does not cease to exist- it attaches itself to a new body. It becomes a new existence.
Like a flame that can light other candles without ever losing its light, we always have more to give to others. We can always pass on our souls, our essence, without losing ourselves.
You always have something you can give or share with another human being without taking away from yourself.
And like a candle, as long as we stay close to its warmth, we too will always be warm.