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The Light of the Sabbath Candles Sermon

Sermon by Rabbi Melanie Aron

March 5, 2016

“Fiddler on the Roof” has been revived on Broadway and is doing well. I imagine that many of us have seen the play either on stage, or in the movies. Perhaps we have even been part of a production. Anyone here ever been in Fiddler?

In the first act there’s a very moving scene where the family is celebrating Shabbat. Attention is centered on the lighting of the Shabbat candles. In that moment you can feel the power of this ritual. The poverty, squalor and degradation of life in the shtetl for the Eastern European Jews of that time is wiped away, and a mood of holiness takes its place. The light of the candles pulls us in to a special place, it is both mesmerizing and mysterious. A holy moment is created.

Traditionally the moment after the candles are lit and the blessing recited, and before saying Gut Shabbes to the family was regarded as a very powerful moment, an especially propitious time for personal prayers.

Years ago when I was a rabbi in Brooklyn, a member of our congregation was downsizing, moving out of the big old house he had lived in for decades. In cleaning up he found something he hadn’t looked at in 40 years. It was an old prayer book that had been handed to him on the streets of Italy, when he was there as an American soldier in 1945.

Someone had come up to him on the street and asked him if he was Jewish. When he said yes, he was handed a small package. It was a small prayerbook, hand written, in Judeo-Italian. I took that prayer book up to Manhatten to consult with a specialist and we learned that it was a collection of prayers that Italian women used for those moments just after the candle blessing when they prayed for their family, for the birth of a child (often in those days for the birth of a son), and to be saved from calamities.

The custom of lighting Shabbat candles originates in this week’s Torah portion but in a rather roundabout way. The portion includes a prohibition on fire during the Sabbath: “On six days work may be done but on the seventh day you shall have a Sabbath of complete rest, holy to the Eternal…you shall kindle no fire throughout your settlements on the Sabbath day.” Today we understand that prohibition on kindling fire as part of the cessation from creation that is an essential part of Shabbat, a day of complete peace on which we neither create nor destroy but in the 8th century there arose a movement in Judaism that treated these words in a different way.

According to Anan ben David, the most famous of the leaders of the Karaaite movement, this verse meant not only that one could not kindle fire on Shabbat but that one was to extinguish all fires before the Sabbath began. It made for a very dark, cold and joyless day.

Mainstream Judaism held that one was supposed to have light and warmth on the Sabbath. How else could it be a day of Oneg, of Sabbath joy? How else could it be marked by Shalom Bayit, peace in the home? Further in the Torah light is a symbol of the human soul, “for the human soul is the light of the Eternal”, and a sign of God’s teachings,” for the mitzvah is a lamp and the Torah a light”.

It seems that because of this dispute, it was no longer sufficient just to have a Sabbath lamp that burned throughout the day, but the lighting of Sabbath lights took on added significance. A blessing for lighting the light is found for the first time in  Siddur Rav Amram in the 9th century, but there is no indication there that this blessing was said by women.

Many scholars attribute this custom, of women reciting the blessing for the household, to the school of Rashi and his family. Rashi, in his commentary on the Talmud declared it a mitzvah for women to recite a blessing in lighting just before the onset of Shabbat and this was accepted throughout the medieval Ashkenazi world.  Sephardi women lit but did not say a blessing. Rashi’s grand-daughter Hannah, describes her mother, Rashi’s daughter’s practice in reciting this blessing in her writings, which we have today, and his grandson Rabbenu Tam mentions that lighting the Shabbat light requires a blessing. The formulation of the blessing as we say it today, a reworking of the Hanukah blessing which became a custom 1,000 years earlier,  is found in Machzor Vitry, a compendium of Jewish prayers from Rashi’s students. It also mentions women doing other rituals women hadn’t done before like blowing shofar, and so having this blessing recited by women seems to fit in.

Jason and Elijah know that I like stories about change and development in Judaism. Remember our discussions of the history of the Haftarah portion and the Torah true Samaritans.  I like us to remember that change is not something new that the Reform movement introduced into Judaism but rather that development has been part of our heritage from its earliest times.

Right now in Israel, we are still in the midst of a battle over what is and is not appropriate for women to do religiously. Up until recently a woman could be arrested at the Kotel, the Western Wall, a place of great religious significance to the entire Jewish people, merely for wearing a tallit or reading from the Torah.

A recent compromise which includes recognition of our Progressive movement by the Israeli government, will begin to change that reality. I know that many of us here in the United States, who heard about the proposal, were less than excited as it felt a bit like separate and not quite equal, but the Israelites I met on my recent trip were rejoicing in the recognition they had received and the progress it represented.

On Monday night Anat Hoffman a leader of Women of the Wall and of the Israel Religious Action Center, which acts on behalf of the civil liberties of all those in Israel who rights are not respected, will be here to talk with us about what is going on and what this compromise represents. I hope that many of you will be able to join us.

As the Shabbat candles brought peace and joy to earlier generations of our people, so may they be lit in our homes, to bring us moments of transcendence and holiness.


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