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Shabbat Light

October 6, 2010 | by Lauren Shapiro

The power of the Havdallah candle.

I found a box the other day inventively labeled “Stuff.” Six months after the wedding, my mother finally evicted me from my old room and in a hasty scramble to save the sentimental remnants of my past life I was a little injudicious with the packing. The boxes have since been industriously gathering dust in a heap in the back of the spare room cupboard (not unlike my mother prophesized, it must be admitted) and while searching for something extremely useful and necessary like my good luck troll-pencil, I stumbled across said box.

Curiosity may have killed the cat, but I nearly purred with delight as I unpacked the evidence of my glorious year spent in Israel after high school. Exhibit A: my kibbutz T-shirt (tinted turquoise from the communal laundry system), with the neck and sleeves ripped as the fashion of the time dictated. Exhibit B: old bumper stickers proclaiming support for political parties no longer extant, a piece of a poster ripped off at a rally, and a badge of indiscriminate origin after its foray on the floor of a discotheque. Exhibit C: some nearly fossilized packets of Bamba (peanut-butter puffs eaten only in desperation when the vending machine had nothing else to offer). I can’t believe my mom wanted me to get rid of all this treasure!

At the bottom of the box, I found something I hadn’t thought about in a while. It was a plaited stick of wax that had somehow managed to melt itself onto an empty Maccabi beer bottle without completely losing its shape: it was a Havdallah candle.

Havdallah – the closing ceremony of Shabbat – has always had a special place in my heart. It is so rich in symbol and ritual, and I have always enjoyed it on Shabbatonim and the odd communal Shabbat during my year in Israel. With the wine and the spices and the candle and the redolent melodies, I have always found the ceremony spiritually invigorating.

The Havdallah candle, with its many strands woven together, is a complex symbol of Jewish heritage. The various threads – the mundane and the spiritual, the past and the future – come together to ignite a single burning purpose: the continuation of Jewish life. It also represents a family, in the way that the many individuals are intertwined to unite as a single flame that is brighter, stronger, and more enticing than the several smaller parts.

But now here’s the catch: performing the closing ceremony only makes sense if we’ve kept the Shabbat. It’s entirely appropriate. The first thing God did during the Creation was to create light; the last thing He did was to rest (Shabbat), so the two have forever been linked. The Shabbat is seen in with candles, so it is fitting that it is seen out with candles.

As a married woman, I now light my own candles on Friday nights. Both the ritual and the spiritual aspects appeal to me. I love the magnificent silver candlesticks from my grandmother. I love the ancient words, uttered by generations of Jewish women, inviting peace and holiness into our homes and our lives.

Nowadays it is all too easy to take for granted the power that light (in its various forms) plays in our lives. Shabbat is a constant reminder to be grateful for these things.

Shabbat is a time to think about the things that bring real light into our lives.

Firstly, with no electricity (and of course that means no TV, DVD, VCR, or PVR, no computer, no car, no cell phone, no light available at the flick of a switch), we are left to contemplate life without these conveniences and to appreciate them. And I might say we are left feeling less powerful and haughty than our modern lives allow us to believe we are.

Secondly, the Shabbat is a time to think about the things that bring real light into our lives – like family, friends, nature, and knowledge. And God.Without these, all the conveniences in the world couldn’t give our lives meaning. This in itself is a gift well worth accepting.

I know haven’t properly observed the Shabbat for a long time. But perhaps I should. I know it’s difficult. It’s a challenge of – well – biblical proportions. But the rewards are great. The load may seem heavy, but the Havdallah candle reminds us that to carry it is light. As the symbolic light at the end of the tunnel, this special candle has bound the Jews together through centuries and it stands as a testament to our faith.

I gently extricate the candle from the beer bottle, and tenderly place it in my display cabinet, beside my grandmother’s candlesticks. For me, the Havdallah candle will always stand as a symbol – a goal to which I strive personally and spiritually. And although I haven’t quite reached that level yet, I have at least – so to speak – seen the light. And I’m keeping my goal in sight.

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