Candles, a Practice of Faith
A deeper look at one of the holiday season's simplest rituals.
This article appeared in our December 2003 issue.
Perhaps my current fascination with candles began one Friday night in June, sometime after sunset.
In those days I usually spent Friday nights with my friend Kay. We would get gussied up and go to a restaurant on the Downtown Mall to feast, drink, and see what men we might meet. But on this Friday night I attended a potluck Shabbat dinner with the Jews who knew me as a child, who taught me to speak Hebrew, how to pray, how to organize my time, and how to cook for the holidays. I had not seen most of them in the decade since I had moved away, and later, converted to Christianity.
Six years after that conversion, I am settled in the church, still in that blessed-out newlywed stage. Nevertheless, I miss Jewish ways — the rhythms and routines that draw the sacred down into the everyday. I miss Sabbaths on which I actually rested. I even miss the drudgery of keeping kosher. That night in June, I realized how much I missed the lighting of candles. Jews don’t light Sabbath candles simply because candles make them feel dose to God, but because God commanded the lighting of candles. Closeness might be a nice by-product, but it’s not the point. For Jews the essence of the thing is a doing, an action. Your faith might come and go, but your practice ought not to waver. Indeed, Judaism suggests that repeating the practice is the best way to ensure that a doubter’s faith will return. I miss that.
Candles per se are not found in Hebrew scripture. The ancient children of Israel spoke of oil lamps and torches, and only later adopted paraffin and palm oil and tallow. But candles are everywhere in contemporary Judaism. In the synagogue, in front of the cabinet that holds the Torah scrolls, burns the ner tamid, the eternal light, which is never allowed to be extinguished. Memorial candles commemorate the dead. Chanukah is marked by the nightly lighting of a candelabrum with eight branches, the menorah.
And candles bracket the Jewish Sabbath. On Friday evening, women usher the Sabbath into their homes by lighting two candles. This is the moment when the hectic last-minute Shabbat preparations become last week’s work and the peace of the Sabbath begins. After lighting the candles, you close your eyes and beckon the light toward you three times with your hands, as though drawing water from a basin to your face. There is something both meditative and practical about drawing the candlelight and the Sabbath stillness into yourself with your hands.
Candles mark the end of the Sabbath as well. In the ceremony called Havdalah, which literally means “separation” — in this case between Sabbath and week — one lights a multi-wicked, braided candle. The sages explain its origin with a story: At the end of the first Shabbat, Adam was frightened, so God gave him the flickering Havdalah candle as a promise that Shabbat would return. And each week, the confidence of the Havdalah candle helps the transition from Sabbath to week; at the end of Shabbat, as the busyness of the work week begins, that last tranquil moment of candlelight is reassuring. This promised quiet is part of what I am looking for when I light my Lemonberry Meringue and set it on the edge of my bathtub. Candles create peace. You don’t find them in frenetic houses, but in houses where people are trying to pay attention.
Christian homes are not typically as candle-filled as Jewish homes. We Christians do not traditionally light candles to usher in Shabbat or memorialize the dead. But in our communal home, the church, we have candles at almost every turn of the liturgical year. During Advent, the month before Christmas, as we prepare to celebrate Jesus’ coming to earth in Bethlehem, we make Advent wreaths of seasonal greens and four candles. Each week we light one more candle, edging out of the darkness before redemption toward the light of Jesus’ coming.
This is historically a church ritual, but more and more people are making Advent wreaths for their homes, too. My five-year old friend Henry insisted last year that his mother make an Advent wreath. When she asked why he wanted one so very much, he said he wanted something like Chanukah. (A strange cultural reversal in a country that has so long been home to Jewish children wanting something like Christmas.) Griff, my beau, made an Advent wreath this year, from greens he plucked from a friend’s yard. We put the wreath on his kitchen table and lit the candles before dinner, the wreath both making a candlelit date out of an ordinary meal and helping us live into a liturgical season so easily overshadowed by Santa Claus lists and shopping trips and cookie exchanges.
Advent and Christmas, in their wintery dark, are not the only liturgical moments for candles. The Advent wreath is something of a dress rehearsal for the Paschal, or Easter, candle. In the Paschal candle, which Christians have been lighting since at least the sixth century, we see that candlelight symbolizes not only, as at Advent, Christ’s Incarnation, but also his Resurrection. The candle is lit in the dark of the nighttime Easter vigil, and as it is processed through the church, the people sing, “The light of Christ. Thanks be to God.”
In Judaism, lighting candles has historically been associated with women. The Talmud names kindling the Sabbath lights as one of three commandments specifically incumbent upon women; the other two are preparing challah and observing the laws that govern sexual relations between husband and wife.
Kindling is not all women do with candles. There is an old Jewish folk custom called “the laying of wicks,” observed during the autumnal season of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur (the New Year and the Day of Atonement). Sometimes during this holy season, women walked through cemeteries, measuring the gravestones with candlewick and reciting special prayers. On the night before Yom Kippur, they made candles from these wicks, Shabbat candles to be lit by the living, and memorial candles to be lit in honor of those who were dead. The candles, once made and lit, were thought to awaken the dead, who would in turn intercede with God on behalf of the living. One famous prayer for the laying of wicks calls on Adam and Eve to “rectify the sin by which they brought death to the world.”
This is a somewhat obscure practice, to be sure, but one year in a fit of enthusiasm for the esoteric, my friend Shelby and I decided to measure some graves. It was only just past Yom Kippur, and Shelby had read a scholarly article about the history of the laying of wicks. It seemed a good activity for two Jewish college girls. We pulled on rubber boots, packed raisins and other snacks, and set off with our prayers and our lengths of candlewick. Once we got there, we didn’t do much measuring. (“Did your article explain exactly how to do this measuring?” I asked Shelby. “Not really,” she allowed.) But we did say the prayers, and we did eat our raisins, and Shelby told me about her grandmother, who was buried in that very cemetery. We never made the candles, either; eventually Shelby braided the wick into thick, ropey jewelry, reminiscent of the bracelets teenage girls make at summer camp.
Shelby has since entered rabbinical school, and one autumn weekend I go visit her in New York. We decide, finally, to make some candles. When our great grandmothers made them on the frontier, the task must have been simpler. Shelby lists the necessary implements, and I know they did not have all this stuff in the Nebraska territory in the 19th century: scissors and a hammer and a jiffy wicker (I do not know what this is) and a dash of Kemamide (ditto), of course wax, and a candle mold. I am intimidated.
This is perhaps not worth the effort. Perhaps I should take myself down to Ye Olde Candle Shoppe and purchase one of those brown candles with coffee beans stuck (glued? Kemamided?) onto the side. But we get started. Shelby lends me her wicking needle, and tells me that Kemamide is a powder that helps loosen candles from their molds. (“Think bundt cakes,” she says. “Kemamide is like the grease that prevents the cake from sticking in clumps on the inside of the pan.”)
We melt the wax, and prepare the wick, and thread said wick through the mold, and at the end we have a candle. Eight of them, actually. I take them home. I light them under the mirror at my bathroom sink, at the kitchen counter, on the old green desk, and by my bed. I like to keep them lit whenever I am home. Even lighting two thin tapers over dinner, I like to think about the light of Christ rectifying the sin by which came death to the world. The Light of Christ, I sometimes say to myself. Thanks be to God.
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Adapted from Mudhouse Sabbath, published November 2003 by Paraclete Press. Lauren F. Winner is the author of Girl Meets God: On the Path to a Spiritual Life (Algonquin 2002).