Candles have always been an important part of my Jewish cultural tradition – the Sabbath candles lit by my mother every Friday night; the yahrzeit candle in memory of a loved one; and of course, the Chanukah candles. And now their symbolism advises my Mussar (Jewish ethics) journey as well.
According to Jewish tradition, the woman of the house is charged with lighting the Shabbat candles. My mother had a five-branched, silver-plated candelabra to honor the five members of our nuclear family. Each Friday night, she set the candelabra on the table just before sunset and inserted a stubby white candle into each slot. After she lit the candles, she waved the curling tendrils of smoke toward her closed eyes as she recited the blessing. Then we’d sit down to a dinner of homemade gefilte fish, store-bought challah and some variation of chicken. We could always look forward to a dessert of babka or eclairs from the Remsen Avenue bakery or, at worst, red Jell-O topped with Cool Whip.
I never thought much about why Mom lit those candles. It was TRADITION, as Tevye sings in Fiddler on the Roof. Doing research for this blog, I learned it’s a special commandment dating back to the days of Moses. Rashi said, “Where there is no candle, there is no peace.”* My parents lit the yahrzeit, memorial candle, to honor their parents on the anniversary of their deaths and on special Jewish holidays. Next week, I’ll light one to remember my mom. It’s another tradition that dates back to the Book of Proverbs. The belief is that the candle, with its flame reaching upward, reminds us of the soul of the departed. It is also supposed to help us recall the biblical verse, “The human soul is the lamp of God."
(Proverbs 20:27). ** Of course, I didn’t have to do any research on why we light Chanukah candles. The story of our hero Judah Maccabee and his tribe has been engraved in my heart and mind since I was a young child. The celebration, eight nights of candle-lighting, represents the miracle of the oil, which lasted eight days to keep the eternal lamp burning in the restored temple.
When I reflect on these three candle-lighting traditions, I discern a striking similarity. Unlike how we treat birthday candles, we do not snuff out the flames of these holy candles. We wait, patiently, for them to extinguish naturally. The Shabbat and Chanukah candles, depending on which ones you purchase, last an hour or so. The Yahrzeit candle is meant to burn for at least twenty-four.
The long-lasting flames remind me of a story told about Rabbi Israel Salanter, the founder of the Mussar movement. It is said that one night as he walked past the home of a shoemaker, the Rabbi noticed that although it was quite late, the cobbler was still working, his only light that of a flickering candle.
“Why are you still working?” Rabbi Salanter asked. “It is very late, and soon that candle will go out.”
The shoemaker replied, “As long as the candle is burning, there’s still time to work and repair!” According to the story, for weeks after the conversation Rabbi Salanter could be heard repeating the words, “As long as the candle is burning there is still time to work and repair.” ***
So today I apply these candle-lighting traditions to my Mussar soul trait practice –
HONOR to those who came before me. When I light my mom’s yahrzeit candle on the evening of February 17, I’ll think about how she loved birthdays, her family and friends; and her enthusiasm for opera, mahjongg and Family Feud. I’ll remember and model the lessons she taught me about generosity and volunteerism. I will think about our daily phone calls and wish I could tell her how much Selam and Dian love to read, just like she did.
PATIENCE gained from observing the long-lasting flames. When I become impatient, I have developed the practice of picturing using a match to light a candle, illuminating and responding mindfully to the situation, rather than using the match to a light an explosive fuse and reacting in anger.
PERSISTENCE, appreciating that I have the ability to repair my relationships, work for my community and do my small part for the world for as long as my candle burns.