And God said, Let there be light; and there was light.
God’s first magnificent gesture was to create light. For Jews, light is glory, insight, wisdom, warmth. It is safety and it is hope.
We acknowledge and mirror God’s great gesture with ritual significance during four important religious observances. The Mishnah in Pesachim teaches that “on the night of the fourteenth of Nissan we search for chametz by the light of a candle.” Chametz signifies not merely the physical process of leavening leading to seor, but also the leavening of our inner beings and our deeds. We therefore carefully search and look for any failings and shortcomings in all areas of our lives where we may have brought in leaven.
The halachic requirement that we use a ner for this task, a candle with a single wick rather than a multi-wick avukah, a torch, ensures that the light is intimate enough to allow us to reach into the depths of our minds and hearts and see failures and shortcomings lost in the more intense and overwhelming avukah.
The lighting of Sabbath candles formally ushers in the Sabbath in the home. A minimum of two candles are lit, symbolizing the two forms of the fourth commandment to honor Shabbat: zachor, “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy,” in Shemot, and shamor, “Observe the Sabbath day to keep it holy,” in Devarim.
The candles are to be lit on the table where the Shabbat meal is eaten, and should burn throughout the meal and well into nightfall. Ultimately, the reason for lighting Sabbath candles is to bring “light” into the home; to create an atmosphere, a cohesive family unit. The Talmud defines the need for Sabbath candles as shalom bayit. The holiness of the Sabbath day is meant to create a peaceful, tranquil, and happy Jewish home. Housewives, given the privilege of lighting the Sabbath candles, offer a moving and emotional prayer prior to hadlakat ha’nerot in which they ask God to instill shechinatecha beinenu, “His peaceful and bountiful providence among us.”
However, to be a genuine and creative Jew requires more of us than a searching soul or even a peaceful home. Judaism calls for openness and honest identification. It calls for a pride in one’s Jewishness, even to the point of pirsumei nisa. Judaism is more than the sum total of its institutions, organizations, shuls, or yeshivas. Judaism is first and foremost a community of proud, individual Jews willing to be known and counted as Jews. Thus the halachic requirement to light Chanukah candles so that we may “glorify Your name for Your miracles, salvation, and wondrous acts” not merely in historical and passive terms, but bayamim hahem bazman hazeh –“Who wrought miracles for our forefathers in former days, at this season.”
“At this season,” bazman hazeh, must relate to a living Jew, to a Jew willing to observe and look at candles directly and closely, and try to comprehend their relevant meaning. The law is that if one kindled the Chanukah menorah above twenty amah he accomplished nothing. Why? Because his act is not obvious. But what is not obvious? The very same candles are lit, on time, according to all halachic stipulation. What then is the psul? Perhaps the disqualification is based on the unwillingness to relate the mitzvah to a living Jew – to a gavra. Judaism cannot be camouflaged or hidden. Mitzvot cannot be placed beyond the reach of a living person, beyond human sight.
The Jew unwilling to declare his allegiance to halacha, his obedience to Shabbat, his concern for kashrut, his commitment to intensive Jewish education, his faith in God and trust in His nation – such a Jew has done nothing. His Judaism is impractical, institutional, lacks pride, and misses the essence of pirsumei nisa. Such a Jew relates to ideas at best, but never to a living people. He lacks something fundamentally “Jewish.”
The Rambam, in elaborating on the uniqueness of lighting Chanukah candles, writes: “One must be extremely careful in fulfilling the mitzvah of lighting Chanukah candles, for it is a particularly special and adored mitzvah.” The Magid Mishnah, in citing the Talmudic source for Rambam’s emphatic statement, quotes the Talmud in Shabbat: “Rav Huna said that one who persists in lighting Chanukah candles is assured of children who will become talmidei chachamim.” In verifying the actual source in the Talmud, we find Rav Huna’s statement as reading: “One who is careful with the candle,” which Rashi interprets as being careful about the mitzvah of lighting both Shabbat and Chanukah candles, which results in the light of Torah.
Jewish candles, then, teach us a great deal about what it means to be an authentic Jew. First, it requires a wholesome Jewish home – ner Shabbat. Judaism cannot thrive but in an atmosphere of tranquility, with the family-oriented shalom bayit that is created and maintained uniquely through the Shabbat.