Faith Under Fire - Shabbat Candles Throughout the Centuries
Illustration: Shabbat candles (Image credit: Olaf.herfurth (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)
It was something she had always done. It was a family tradition
that she accepted, but never truly delved into.
Maria asked her date to wait a moment while she went into a hidden crevice in her home, where she lit candles the way she did every Friday at sundown. Her astonished date asked her what she was doing, and Maria, a South American Catholic woman, was surprised at his inquiry.
Only when she told him that it was something that all Spanish Catholic women do, and was told that there is no such custom among the
majority of these women, did she get the first inkling that she was different.
The mitzvah of lighting the Shabbat candles, which had endured centuries beyond her family’s conscious knowledge of its meaning and origin, was the spark that ignited Maria's trek back through history, where she uncovered her Jewish roots.
Sparks Throughout the Centuries
The King of Spain bragged to the head Inquisitor how successful they were in eradicating and forcefully converting the Jews in his kingdom. In response, the Inquisitor asked the King to look at the panoramic view of Toledo on that bleak, freezing Friday night, when anyone and everyone would have lit a fire in their home to diminish the frigid weather. "Look at all those chimneys from which no smoke arises!," replied the Inquisitor to the astonished King. “Every single smokeless chimney belongs to the home of Jews who still keep Shabbat.”
Women who were unceremoniously dragged out of their homes in the Ghettos of Nazi Europe grabbed their Shabbat candles, which they lit in the cattle cars that sped them towards their demise.
When my dearest Aunt Chanie was desperately ill, I offered to set up her Shabbat candles for her, thinking that I would be helping her. There was no way she would allow me to do it. She fought with her last ebbing strength to raise herself from her bed and set up the candles herself.
Dvorah always was careful to light the Shabbat candles, and they were invariably the first thing she packed for any trip. One Friday evening, she did not light the Shabbat candles. As the moments towards the final time to light the candles counted down, she was kneeling in a hospital emergency room, holding her mother’s legs off the floor. From this position, her eyes locked onto the flickering lights illuminating a sign near the ceiling, and that is the light upon which she made the beracha (blessing), Lehadlik ner shel Shabbat kodesh.
An elderly American Jewish woman was sharing a bikur cholim apartment, located near the hospital to visit the sick, with two religious women. When it came time to light the Shabbat candles, the religious women certainly did not wish to impose their tradition upon the elderly woman, but they gently explained to her that when a woman lights the Shabbat candles, she has a special connection and chance to pray for her loved ones. The woman, who had never lit Shabbat candles before, was sensitive and wise enough to seize the chance to pray for her husband’s recovery.
Before she lit the candles she instinctively covered her face without being told, and ascended to a level she likely had never experienced before. The beautiful comment that she made afterwards is forgotten; but while I don't remember exactly what she said, the unmistakable radiance and peace that transformed her looks is a vision that remains in my soul.
A United Glow
These seemingly unrelated sparks, lit across the centuries throughout history, in honor of Shabbat kodesh, by women whose affiliations stretch across the varied continuum of Jewish affiliation, are actually one critical mass.
Each one contributes an essential spark, which is necessary to create the stupendous cosmic illumination that will glow with ethereal radiance on the day that will be yom shekulo Shabbat (a day that is entirely Shabbat).
This article, reprinted with permission of the author, previously appeared in Saltsman, Rosally & Meyerson, Robin (eds.), Celebrating Shabbos, 2017.