The Symbolic Meaning of Candles in Judaism
Candles have deep symbolic meaning in Judaism and are used on a wide variety of religious occasions.
Candles in Jewish Customs
- Candles are lit prior to every Shabbat in Jewish homes or synagogues before sunset on Friday evening.
- At the end of Shabbat, a special braided Havdalah candle is lit, in which the candle, or fire, represents the first work of the new week.
- During Chanukah, candles are lit on the Chanukiyah each night to commemorate the rededication of the Temple, when the oil that should have lasted just one night lasted for a miraculous eight nights.
- Candles are lit prior to major Jewish holidays such as Yom Kippur, Rosh Hashanah, Passover, Sukkot, and Shavuot.
- Memorial candles are lit by Jewish families on the yahrzeit (anniversary of a death) of close loved ones every year.
- The eternal flame, or Ner Tamid, found in most synagogues above the ark where the Torah scrolls are kept is meant to represent the original flame of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, although most synagogues use electric lamps instead of actual oil lamps today for safety reasons.
The Meaning of Candles in Judaism
From the many examples above, candles represent a variety of meanings within Judaism.
Candlelight is often thought of as a reminder of God's divine presence, and candles lit during Jewish holidays and on Shabbat serve as reminders that the occasion is holy and distinct from our day-to-day life. The two candles lit on Shabbat also serve as a reminder of the biblical requirements to shamor v'zachor — "keep" (Deuteronomy 5:12) and "remember" (Exodus 20:8) — the Sabbath. They also represent kavod (honor) for the Sabbath and Oneg Shabbat (enjoyment of Shabbat), because, as Rashi explains:
“... without light there can be no peace, because [people] will constantly stumble and be compelled to eat in the dark (Commentary to Talmud, Shabbat 25b).”
Candles are also equated with joy in Judaism, drawing upon a passage in the biblical book of Esther, which finds its way into the weekly Havdalah ceremony.
The Jews had light and joy, and gladness and honor (Esther 8:16).
לַיְּהוּדִים הָיְתָה אוֹרָה וְשִׂמְחָה וְשָׂשׂן וִיקָר
In Jewish tradition, the candle's flame is also thought to symbolically represent the human soul and serves as a reminder of the frailty and beauty of life. The connection between the candle's flame and souls derives originally from Mishlei (Proverbs) 20:27:
"Man's soul is the Lord's lamp, which searches out all the innermost parts."
נֵר יְהוָה נִשְׁמַת אָדָם חֹפֵשׂ כָּל חַדְרֵי בָטֶן
Like a human soul, flames must breathe, change, grow, strive against the darkness, and, ultimately, fade away. Thus, the flickering of candlelight helps to remind us of the precious fragility of our life and the lives of our loved ones, a life that must be embraced and cherished at all times. Because of this symbolism, Jews light memorial candles on certain holidays and their loved ones' yahrzeits (death anniversary).
Lastly, Chabad.org provides a beautiful anecdote about the role of Jewish candles, specifically Shabbat candles:
"On January 1, 2000, the New York Times ran a Millennium Edition. It was a special issue that featured three front pages. One had the news from January 1, 1900. The second was the actual news of the day, January 1, 2000. And then they had a third front page—projecting envisioned future events of January 1, 2100. This fictional page included things like a welcome to the fifty-first state: Cuba; a discussion as to whether robots should be allowed to vote; and so on. And in addition to the fascinating articles, there was one more thing. Down on the bottom of the Year 2100 front page was the candle-lighting time in New York for January 1, 2100. Reportedly, the production manager of the New York Times—an Irish Catholic — was asked about it. His answer was right on the mark. It speaks to the eternity of our people, and to the power of Jewish ritual. He said, “'We don’t know what will happen in the year 2100. It is impossible to predict the future. But of one thing you can be certain—that in the year 2100 Jewish women will be lighting Shabbat candles.'”
Updated by Chaviva Gordon-Bennett
By Ariela Pelaia