“Shedding light”

Shedding light on the day of rest

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From The Jewish Catalog, reprinted with permission from the Jewish Publication Society.

As a ceremonial object or art, the candle is generally overlooked, yet it has great significance. Whether intended for practical purposes such as providing light, or for more evocative, quasi-magical ends, such as rekindling the winter sun, almost every festival and celebration incorporates the use of candles at some point.

Fire in Judaism

Fire is universally recognized as one of the basic elements of the world. It is mysterious, frightening, mesmerizing. Its attraction is almost irresistible. In the Kabbalah, the image of a multicolored flame emanating from a candle is taken as a metaphor for God’s relation to the world and man. The flame is a single entity, yet it appears to be undergoing constant change. The flame adheres to, relies on, and appears to emanate from the candle, yet is a distinct and separate entity. The white interior of the flame is constant, but its exterior is always in motion and changes color.

Woman lighting shabbat candles

A woman lighting Shabbat candles.

Reducing fire to a few metaphors, however, robs it of its natural power and mystique. Fortunately the tradition, by incorporating the lighting of candles into the celebratory cycle in a number of different ways [e.g., Shabbat candles, Havdalah (at the end of Shabbat), Hanukkah candles, memorial candles], left open the possibilities for recognizing the many potentialities of fire. It is for us to rediscover those potentialities and allow them to "illumine our eyes."

On Friday night, one is required to light candles in the house for the sake of shalom bayit (harmony in the home) and oneg Shabbat (Sabbath joy). The candles ought to be in the room where the Sabbath meal is to be eaten.

How to Light the Candles

It is normally woman who lights the candles, but men may light them when no woman is present.

Candles may be lit, at the earliest, 1-1/4 hours before sunset, but the [customary] time is up to 18 minutes before sunset. Check a Jewish calendar for the precise time of [candlelighting and/or] sunset. [A local daily newspaper and a myriad of websites are other good sources for the time of sunset.] If the [traditional 18-minute] time limit cannot be met, candles may be lit during the 18 minutes immediately preceding sunset.

At least two candles should be lit. These represent "shamor" ["keep"] and "zakhor" ["remember"], the first words of the commandments [in the two Ten Commandments passages in the Torah] concerning Shabbat (Exodus 20:8; Deuteronomy 5:12). They also symbolize the unity underlying all apparent duality, such as man and woman, body and soul, speech and silence, creation and revelation.

It is permissible to light more than two candles. In fact, it is considered particularly meritorious to do so. This is implied in an interpretation of "And God blessed the seventh day" (Genesis 2:3). "With what did he bless it? Light."

Some people light an additional candle for each child in the family. Once you’ve lit a certain number, it is a custom never to decrease that number.

Students away from home should light candles for themselves, as they are no longer within the household of their parents.

Blessing the Candlelighting

The ritual of lighting the candles involves:

1. The actual lighting of the candles

2. Drawing the hands around the candles and toward the face from one to seven times (three is most common)

3. Covering the eyes with the hands

4. Saying the blessing

The halakhah for this [i.e., the method prescribed in Jewish law] is a bit complicated. A blessing must [normally] be said before an act. However, since the blessing over the Shabbat candles is also the act which initiates Shabbat, it is forbidden to light a fire after the blessing is said [because of the traditional restriction against kindling a flame on Shabbat]. To get over this bind, one lights the candles and then covers one’s eyes while saying the blessing. When the eyes are opened, the already lit candles are enjoyed for the first time, as it were, therefore both completing the blessing and not violating Shabbat.

There are several intentions associated with the waving of the hands around the candles: it serves to usher in the Shabbat Bride as the light of Shabbat fills the room and surrounds the person; it symbolizes the culmination of the six days of creation into the seventh day of rest; it draws the warmth and light inside oneself.

After saying the blessing, you can softly utter prayers for yourself or others.

You should not make use of the light (e.g., by eating or reading by it); otherwise it [may be considered] a wasted and invalidated blessing.

If there are no candles available, you can make the blessing over electric lights or gas (e.g., camping lanterns).

The blessing is: "Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to light the Shabbat candles."

Note: References to gender roles represent traditional practices; in many liberal communities candlelighting can be done by any Jewish adult.


Traditional Jewish law mandates that the hanukkiyah (Hanukkah menorah) can be designed to burn either candles or oil. In special circumstances, such as hospitals and nursing homes, electric hanukkiyot may be used, and today, many people choose to use electric hanukkiyot for convenience. Reprinted with permission from Hanukkah: The Family Guide to Spiritual Celebration (Jewish Lights).

Open up a traditional prayerbook and look at the Hebrew index and you will find the words Seder Hanukkah, the "Order of Hanukkah." Like every other Jewish ritual, the Hanukkah candlelighting has a fixed order and choreography, what is known in Hebrew as a seder, a progression, and what in English we might awkwardly label a "Table Service."


The idea of a seder is of course best known from Passover, where a progression of 15 steps shapes a complicated process that allows us to re-live and re-experience the Exodus from Egypt. In the same way, we are used to daily and Shabbat services flowing through a fixed progression of prayers found in the siddur [prayerbook] (from the same root as seder). Even the way we conjure and welcome Shabbat into our homes every Friday night follows a fixed pattern of prayers and actions.

hanukkah candlesThe Hanukkah ritual is too short to call a seder, yet it has a fixed order of blessings and a fixed progression of actions. This progression takes us through a process. Think of it as one of the rides at Disney World where you get into a car that rolls or floats on a track. The ride takes you through a process: You encounter one experience, then the next, then the next. The order is always fixed, the experience cumulative. Each blessing and each prayer in the Hanukkah candle lighting service has a purpose and a function in bringing the religious experience of Hanukkah alive.

The basic Hanukkah "kindling service" consists of three berakhot [blessings] on the first night (two on the next seven nights) and then two song/prayers:

1)      First, we say the mitzvah berakhah–"lehadlik ner shel Hanukkah." [to light the Hanukkah lights]. This defines the act of lighting the Hanukkah lights as a "mitzvah," a commanded religious experience, and establishes an expectation that this act can lead–if we have the proper intention–to an encounter with the Divine.

2)      Next, we say a berakhah of praise--"sheh’asah nissim la’avoteinu."  [Who created miracles for our ancestors]. This berakhah not only thanks God for the original Hanukkah experience that we are now recalling, but defines Hanukkah as the commemoration of a time when God performed miracles. In other words, this one-line berakhah teaches us Hanukkah’s essential meaning (as expressed by the Rabbis): "Not by might, not by power, but by My spirit alone, says the Lord." In other words, we are clearly taught that Hanukkah is the acknowledgment of God’s actions on our behalf.

3)      As our final berakhah (and only on the first night) we say "shehecheyanu."  [Who has given us life]. This blessing is said at the beginning of every major Jewish religious experience. It acknowledges our entry into a special time, a holy time. But in a real sense, shehecheyanu is a connector. Its words thank God for "continuing our life," "continuing our establishment," and "bringing us along." In short, it is a blessing for growth and continuity. When we say it, we establish a link between the moment we are experiencing and the core of our life. It expresses the hope that this moment’s meaning will further enrich the meaning of every experience that has led us here, and help to sharpen our sense of direction from here on. As the last expression of blessing on the first eve of the mitzvah, shehecheyanu is a call for connection and significance.

4)      Haneirot Hallalu is a short prayer written in the Geonic period after the Talmud was finished, about 750-1038 C.E. It is a kind of instant Hanukkah lesson that reviews all the key points expressed in the Talmud. Haneirot Hallalu is a kind of miniature "Hanukkah Haggadah," a one-paragraph authorized explanation of the Hanukkah story.

5)      Maoz Tzur is a medieval song that further thanks God for the miracle of Divine intervention. It continues the themes begun in sheh’asah nissim la’avoteinu (#2) and expanded in Haneirot Hallalu (#4). It seals the Hanukkah ritual experience with a call upon God to work future redemptions, just as God effected an earlier redemption in the time of the Maccabees.

Excerpted from Celebrate! The Complete Jewish Holiday Handbook. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. Copyright 1994 by Jason Aronson Inc.

Unlike I and II Maccabees, the Talmud barely touches on the armed struggle, never mentions the word Maccabee, and of the leading rebels, names only Mattathias. The Mishnah (on which Talmud commentary is based) references Hanukkah only obliquely, referring to a "ner Hanukkah" when talking about damages, and the few relevant passages in the commentaries begin "What is Hanukkah?" (Mai Hanukkah?) as though its significance had been forgotten. The response redirected the holiday.

Rabbinic Development of Hanukkah

The rabbis said that when they reclaimed the Temple, the Hasmoneans found a single cruse of pure oil still bearing the unbroken seal of the high priest. Although only enough to last one day, it miraculously burned eight days, the amount of time needed to secure a new supply of oil to keep the menorah lit. In the following year, the holiday, to be observed with songs and praises, was ordained, a distinction that presented Hanukkah as a rabbinic, and not Hasmonean, proclamation

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