Candles are important religious symbols. We kindle Shabbat lights on Friday evening and the multiple wick havdalah candle on Saturday evening. We light candles to mark the beginning of our holidays: on Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Pesah and Shavuot. We light the menorah on each of the nights of Hanukkah.
At each of these occasions we sanctify these holy days by reciting a blessing: “Blessed are You Adonai our God Ruler of the universe, who sanctifies us with mitzvot and commands us to kindle the lights of…” We elevate the day, we set it apart and call it holy by the lighting of candles and the reciting of these words. It is possible that our tradition mandated this candle lighting long ago at the approach of evening in order to illuminate the dark night. How else could we continue to enjoy the company of friends on Shabbat evening prior to the development of artificial illumination? And thus it is the blessing that sanctifies the day rather than the candle lighting. And yet the flames captivate us.
In contemporary culture candles enthrall us as well. We light birthday candles and sing “Happy Birthday.” Perhaps some light anniversary candles to celebrate their years together. Or perhaps we light these candles to create a romantic mood. And lest I forget, Long Island has given the Jewish world a new custom: the bar/bat mitzvah candle lighting ceremony. Honored guests are each accorded a candle. The young boy or girl offers rhymed words about his/her relative and then a song is played as the family member comes forward. Finally everyone sings “Happy birthday” as the candles are blown out.
Again candles elevate these occasions. Is it the words we sing or the lighting of candles that affects the mood? Would the words alone be enough? Is the magic of the occasion brought about by the kindling of these lights? Why do candles add holiness? Why do candles sanctify days and help to set them apart?
The Torah begins: “You shall further instruct the Israelites to bring you clear oil of beaten olives for lighting, for kindling lamps regularly.” (Exodus 27:20)
Perhaps it is because the kindling of a flame is basic and almost primal. This act alone helps to add sacredness to occasions. It hearkens back to the Torah’s words. It is the lighting of the candles rather than the words that affects our emotions.
The Talmud teaches that as the sun set on the sixth day of creation Adam became frightened. So on Saturday evening God gave Adam the gift of fire to dispel his fear and sadness, to illuminate the darkness. God taught humanity how to use fire for noble and sacred purposes. This is why the havdalah blessing is unique among the candle blessings: “Blessed are You Adonai our God Ruler of the universe creator of the lights of fire.”
Most would agree that of all the candles we light none has a greater hold on us than the yahrtzeit candle. This candle burns from sunset to sunset. We light it to sanctify the anniversary of a death. It is a private moment of reflection and contemplation. In the evening when we awake for a light night snack the small flame illuminates the kitchen with its glow. The candle is called in Hebrew a ner neshamah—literally, a soul candle.
Unique among all the candles our tradition prescribes there is no blessing for the yahrtzeit candle. No words are required. Is this to say that all words would prove inadequate? What a remarkable admission. For a tradition built on words, an edifice in which days are ushered in and out by blessings and moments are sanctified by the words “l’hadlik ner,” on this occasion we stand in silence and stare at a flickering candle. The flame is enough--perhaps. It is the light of the soul. The memory continues to burn.
“A candle from God is the soul of a human—ner Adonai nishmat adam.” (Proverbs 20:27)