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Acclaimed writer and lecturer Francine Klagsbrun ...
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Acclaimed writer and lecturer Francine Klagsbrun draws on her extensive knowledge of Judaism and personal experience in applying the profound lessons of the Sabbath to life today. Using the Bible, Talmud, Kabbalah, commentaries, and legends, she probes such questions as “What does Sabbath rest entail?” “How do we let go of our work mentally and strive for holiness?” and “What does the Sabbath teach us about our relationship to nature and the environment?” She also examines the Sabbath from a female perspective, raising challenging questions about women's roles in relation to it. With warmth and erudition, she explains the “dos” and “don'ts” surrounding the Sabbath, the symbols of the Sabbath table, and the highlights of the day.
The Fourth Commandment is rich in history and commentary—investigating the symbolic importance of candlelighting (early mystics saw the two lighted candles as masculine and feminine aspects of God), the significance of Friday-night marital sex, the affirmation of freedom and celebration of creation that run through the day, and much more. This is a book for the contemporary seeker, at all levels of religious knowledge.
Author Biography: FRANCINEKLAGSBRUN is the author of more than a dozen books on social and religious issues, including Jewish Days and Voices of Wisdom, and was the editor of the bestselling Free to Be . . . You and Me. She is a columnist for The Jewish Week and Moment magazine and has contributed numerous articles to national publications. Among many awards, she holds an honorary doctorate degree from the Jewish Theological Seminary. She and her family live in New York City.
Copyright 2002 by Francine Klagsbrun
The Sabbath day. From all sides light, in every corner a spark. The symbol of revelation.
The last sentient act my mother performed on earth was to light the Sabbath candles. Ill with cancer, she had undergone a minor hospital procedure to ease some of her symptoms. It was Friday, the Sabbath eve, and she was eager to return home to light the candles that begin the Sabbath and to share the evening meal with my father. They were both deep into old age, she at ninety-four, he just turned one hundred. Their bodies were giving out, but their minds had remained intact and alert. In their seventy-two years of marriage, she had never been late in kindling the Sabbath lights, but this was January, the days were short, and she worried that she might not reach home before sundown. So she anxiously hurried her discharge along and blew me a quick kiss good-bye as an aide wheeled her into the ambulette that would carry her home. She made it on time. She lit three household candles in the set of brass candlesticks that had belonged to her mother, and said the blessing as she had so many times before. Shortly afterward she suffered such severe pain that she had to be given a massive dose of drugs. She died two days later, never fully emerging from her drugged state.
When I think of my mother's death, I like to believe that she may have been comforted a bit in her illness by that last ritual act. Although Jewishly observant, my mother rarely discussed her religious feelings, and was not much given to sentiment. Yet she loved candlelighting, and could not imagine a Friday evening without it. In this she was not alone. Shabbatlights, more than any other symbol, have represented to Jews in all times and places the seventh day of the week, the Sabbath of complete rest. Many who observe little else about the day kindle lights to mark its beginning, and on occasion non-Jews have also taken up the practice. The first-century Jewish historian Josephus relates that across the Roman Empire--in every city of the "Grecians," the "barbarians," and "any nation whatsoever"--people lit oil lamps at the start of the Sabbath in imitation of the Jewish custom.
For Jews, light surrounds the Sabbath like parentheses, enclosing this time and setting it apart from the rest of the week. Simple white candles usher in the day and a colorful twisted candle escorts it out, the one announcing the stoppage of all creative activity, the other its beginning again. Before we can speak about rites or rules, prayers or practices, we need to speak about the light that sheds its glow over the Sabbath day, illuminating its essence.
Traditionally, the woman of the house lights the candles that open Shabbat, circling her hands over the flames as if to draw their luster toward her before she covers her eyes and recites the blessing. Through the ages, poets and artists have tried to capture the emotional impact of that moment of lighting and blessing. To thirteen-year-old Ozzie, the protagonist in Philip Roth's story "The Conversion of the Jews," at that instant "there should be no noise; even breathing, if you could manage it, should be softened." At that instant, his mother, ordinarily tired and bent, looks "like a woman who knew momentarily that God could do anything." The Israeli poet Zelda saw in the candles "the mystery of the fire of sunset."
According to early mystics, the lighted candles represent the masculine and feminine aspects of God, which, joined together, create shalom bayit, peace and harmony in the home. Therefore they called the candles themselves shalom bayit. Others hold that the Shekhinah, the feminine aspect of God, disperses the candlelight as she spreads her wings over the world, sheltering it in divine peace. Indeed, people often speak of an almost palpable sense of peace that lighting the Sabbath candles brings, what the liturgy calls poetically "a canopy of peace" that envelops the home.
The early rabbis supposed that the matriarch Sarah was the first person to light a lamp in honor of the Sabbath. "As long as Sarah was alive," the medieval commentator Rashi (Rabbi Solomon ben Isaac) explained, "there was a lamp lit from Sabbath eve to Sabbath eve." When she died, those lights ceased, until her son Isaac married Rebecca, who kindled the lights again. Actually, the Hebrew Bible does not mention Sabbath lights and no biblical law dictates their kindling. But the Bible does include a command, its only one, about the need to kindle lights for sacred purposes. The command addresses Aaron, the brother of Moses, directing him to light the menorah, the seven-branched golden candelabrum, that stood in the wilderness sanctuary, and in later years would stand in the Temple in Jerusalem. The thirteenth-century Spanish commentator Nahmanides (Rabbi Moses ben Nahman) saw in that command to Aaron a promise for the future. Even when the Temple no longer existed, the promise held, lights would be kindled in its memory.
Nahmanides was referring mostly to the Hanukkah lights that celebrate the rededication of the Temple after the Maccabees, Aaron's descendants, reclaimed it from the Syrians, who had desecrated it. But the Sabbath flames also memorialize the ancient Temple and its candelabrum. With the Temple gone, the talmudic sages said, the home would become a center of holiness. The Sabbath lights, which cast an aura of sacredness in the home, bear out the promise of remembrance inherent in Aaron's obligation to kindle the menorah.
The Shabbat flames form a counterpoint to a different biblical ruling, this one forbidding the kindling of fire on the Sabbath. And herein lies some history. During Second Temple times, some two thousand years ago, the aristocratic and priestly Sadducees took that rule literally to mean that no lights at all were permitted from the beginning of the Sabbath through its conclusion. They and the Karaites, who followed their thinking about eight hundred years later, observed the evening and day in cold darkness. Scholars have found fragments of Karaite betrothal contracts stipulating that a woman may not kindle Sabbath lights, even if her husband is not a Karaite. The Pharisees, forerunners of the talmudic masters, interpreted the rule differently. They permitted the making of a fire just before the Sabbath (but not on it) and allowing the fire to burn so that people could enjoy the day in light and warmth. That permission meant also that women could light oil lamps before sundown to enhance the festive Sabbath evening meal. Later sages thumbed their noses even further at the literalists by turning the practicality of a Sabbath eve lamp into law and mandating that a blessing be said over the lights. By the twelfth century, the great scholar Maimonides (Rabbi Moses ben Maimon) could write, "Lighting the Sabbath lights is not optional . . . but compulsory. Even if you have nothing to eat, beg or borrow to find oil and light the lamp, for light is the essence of Sabbath joy." The Sabbath lights had come to define the day. In time, the light of oil lamps gave way to the candles that most people now use.
What is it about the Sabbath flames that gives them an air of transcendence, drawing us toward them long after we have ceased needing them for practical purposes? Partly, I suppose, it's the enchantment of light itself. Light makes it possible for the eye to see, and, say scientists, our brains receive more information through our eyes than through any other sense organ. The light that enters the retina affects our body temperature and influences our moods. So much so that some people experience deep depressions in wintertime, when daylight is scarce, and special lamps and light boxes are needed to fool the body into thinking it's springtime in December.
Light has always held special fascination for artists. Renaissance painters crowned their saints with halos of light and poked holes in the background of their canvases to let in the light of summer days. The French Impressionists often painted the same objects again and again at different hours of the day to capture the effects of the changing light. In nineteenth-century America, a group of landscape painters calling themselves Luminists focused their attention on the way light colored the sky and water and shaped the land's hills and crevices. Light had a spiritual presence for them, and they bathed their canvases in it.
Many early peoples also viewed light in spiritual terms. To them the changing light of each new season seemed magical and the power of light to make vegetation grow made it godlike. They prayed to the sun, the moon, and the stars, believing them to control the mysteries of the universe. To the sixteenth-century kabbalists light itself was one of the world's mysteries. The letters of the Hebrew word for light, or, they showed, have the same numeric value as the letters of the Hebrew word raz, meaning mystery.
The Sabbath candles embody the awe and mystery basic to all light. But they embody much more besides. In the interplay between their brightness and the shadows they cast, they seem a metaphor for themes of light and darkness that hover about the day. And in their golden luminosity they symbolize the light that in tradition infuses the Sabbath with warmth and sanctity and embraces all who enter it.
Shabbat begins in shadows. "The sun over the treetops is vanishing," wrote the twentieth-century Hebrew poet Hayim Nahman Bialik in a poem describing the onset of the Sabbath eve (a poem I sang in Hebrew as a schoolchild). Twilight has arrived, and as time wavers between day and night, the Sabbath lamps are kindled, pushing back the descending darkness.
"What is twilight," the sages asked. Rabbi Yose answered, "Twilight is like the twinkling of an eye, one (night) entering and the other (day) departing and it is impossible to determine it exactly." Intrigued by the twilight that brings on the Sabbath, the rabbis imagined all sorts of wondrous things that might have been fashioned in the chiaroscuro hours just before the first Sabbath of creation. Among them were the tablets upon which the Ten Commandments would be engraved. Among them also was the rainbow that would form an arc in the sky after Noah's flood, an emblem of God's pledge never again to destroy humanity with floodwaters. (The Sabbath lights have a connection to that rainbow. If you look at the yellow flame of a candle through a prism you will see a rainbow, a spectrum of colors that together create the appearance of a single light.)
On their most immediate level, however, the Sabbath lights connect us to all of creation and the light with which the world began. "Let there be light" is the first command given in the Bible, not to be heard by human ears but to establish a new cosmic order. Just as creation begins with light, so does the Sabbath, which celebrates the process of creation and its completion.
God's words bring the first light into being and that light illumined the universe from one end to the next, according to the midrash, the collection of talmudic legends and interpretations. It was a light, legend continues, that originated at the center of the earth, in the land of Israel. On that spot the Temple would later be built, and from that primal beam the Temple menorah would glean its light. In the biblical account this supernal glow remained the only source of light in the world for three days, until God formed the heavenly bodies on the fourth day. (A scientific tease: Astronomers note a faint glow of radiation that fills the universe and whose origin remains unclear. Some believe it is the oldest light in the world, left over from the Big Bang explosion that brought the cosmos into being.)
The Bible's order in the creation of light makes a powerful statement about its theology and later Jewish belief. The first light on earth does not radiate from the sun or moon, those balls of fire and ice so many early peoples worshiped as gods. Nor do trees and plants sprout because of them--vegetation begins to grow on the third day, before the luminaries come into existence. The message the Torah wants to convey is that the lights in the sky are no more gods than are the plants and fruits on earth. All depend on the one God who created the world and the light within it.
God also separates time into day and night, light and darkness. Like the lights and shadows that play off each other when a candle is lit, light and darkness play off each other in the rhythmic repetition of days created. As each new day comes into being, the Bible proclaims, "And there was evening and there was morning...." Those statements mean to inform us that the evening and the morning and the darkness and light that accompany them are part of a unified universe, under the domain of the same single God. This is an important teaching, for in other early religions, light and darkness often appear as separate gods, vying with each other for control of the universe. In Persian Zoroastrianism, for example, Ahura Mazda, the good spirit of light, struggles against Ahriman, the bad spirit of darkness, and as a result the original goodness and light of creation become mixed with evil and darkness.
No such dualism exists in the biblical description of the world's beginnings. The prophet Isaiah asserts in God's name, "I form light and create darkness, / I make peace and create woe." The prayer book echoes that thought in the Sabbath and daily evening service with the words "You create day and night, rolling light away from darkness and darkness away from light." Although light is often associated with righteousness and darkness with misfortune and evil, in Jewish thought God alone remains the source of all aspects of creation. In celebrating creation, the Sabbath attests to that oneness.
Yet Shabbat differs from the other days of creation. As the days progress in the Bible, evening and morning alternate with each other in a regular pattern. But with God's rest on the seventh day, the pattern disappears. Now we read nothing about evening arriving at day's end. Moreover, God blesses the Sabbath day and declares it sacred, the first time in the Torah that the word kadosh, or holy, is used. This blessing differs from the blessings animals and humans receive on previous days. This blessing is for the day itself.
Noting the omission of evening in the biblical description of the first Sabbath, the rabbis asked, "With what did God bless this day?" Some answered, "With light." When the sun set on the first Sabbath eve, they theorized, the primordial light--that light called into being on the first day of creation--continued to burn. Rabbi Levi said the light remained active for thirty-six hours, twelve hours on Friday, twelve during Friday night, and twelve on Saturday, the Sabbath day. Darkness would come again when the Sabbath ended, but the Sabbath eve and day were continuous light.