Jewish Wisdom for Goys & Gers


The 3 Candles: Dispelling Death’s Darkness

Death is like a night that falls between two days, one day being this present life and the other day–the life to come. When a loved one dies, he or she passes into the night and we are left peering into a dark void, a black tunnel. It may even feel as if the light of our life has been snuffed out as as a fearful darkness fills our world.

Judaism teaches us to embrace life and, whether we like it or not, death is a part of life. So how do we embrace death? Again, Judaism is replete with rituals, liturgies, and prayers that teach us how to turn our gaze from the darkness of death to the light of life.

Eighteen minutes before sunset of every Friday, we light two candles for Shabbat. Then at nightfall on Saturday, we light a  multi-wick Havdalah candle.

Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 263, rules that “One ought to take care to make a nice candle…and some make two wicks, one for “Remember the Shabbat day” (Exodus 20:8) and one for “Keep the Shabbat day” (Deuteronomy 5:12).  So we light two candles for Shabbat because each corresponds to a command regarding the Sabbath.

In Exodus, the Hebrew word for “remember” is zakhor’, while the Hebrew word in Deuteronomy for  “keep”  is ‘shamor’. Conclusively, the Torah lays out two renditions of the 10 commandments (better called the 10 statements), each with a different command about the Sabbath: remember and keep.

Interestingly, we welcome the Shabbat with a song that is entitled “Lekhah Dodi” (composed in the 16th century by Shlomo HaLevi Alkabetz). The first stanza reads “Shamor v’zakhor b’dibur ehad hishmi’anu El hameyuḥad,” which translates as  ‘Safeguard and remember in a single utterance, we were made to hear by the unified God’.

Accordingly, when God gave the 10 statements, both words–zakhor and shamor–were spoken simultaneously!

For this reason, when we commemorate the end of Shabbat with the “Havdalah” candle, wherein the wicks of “shamor” and “zakhor” are combined into one candle! We are declaring that we have not just remembered the sabbath, but we have also kept the sabbath!

Liberal Jewish denominations tend to emphasize “remembering”; while the more observant ones lay the stress on “observance.” But Torah teaches us that we need both, especially if we are going to be rehabilitated back to life after the death of a loved one.

Just as death is a night that falls between two days, Shabbat is a day that falls between two nights.

By lighting the two candles on the eve of Shabbat, we are drawing a distinction between light and darkness. The precedence of lighting the two candles has become such a symbol of Shabbat that Shabbat has taken on the character of a light amidst the other six days of the week.

Just as Shabbat enters with light, it also exits with an even brighter light. The Havdalah candle combines the wicks of “zakhor” and “shamor” within it, because we need a brighter light to guide us through the darkness of the week in the absence of the Shabbat Queen when she departs.

This is powerful! Shabbat teaches a subtle lessen in loss every week! We anticipate the arrival of the Shabbat Queen; then, after twenty-five hours, we are confronted with the sadness of her departure.

How do we then survive the week in her absence? By shamor and zakhor! We draw closer to God weekly by remembering how God rested after creation, and we are liberated to become more like God by keeping the Shabbat!

As we remember and keep Shabbat, God permeates our life with His light and allows the light within us to break through the darkness. We then carry this light with us throughout the darkness of the week.

Because of the death and loss that I have faced in life, at times I despair of life itself! Over the years, I have at times entered a black tunnel that seemed to have no apparent light at the end.

As I have suffered from the pain of losing friends, jobs, family, my home, and my country, grief and sadness have permeated the fabric of my entire existence. When the love of my life died suddenly and unexpectedly in my arms, the light of my life was extinguished completely.

But as I light the two candles every Shabbat, I am constantly reminded that there is a light at the end of my tunnel! There is hope! Light ultimately dispels the darkness!

As I remember God and all that He has done for me, as I keep the Halakhah and fulfill all the commandments, God breaks through my darkness and shines His light, like the Havdalah candle–even brighter!

Proverbs 20:27 states “The soul of man is the candle of God.” Only remembering and observing, together, can bring forth that light within us!

So let’s not just read God’s word, but let’s remember God in every situation and let Him enfuse our lives with light as we keep His commandments: Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path (Psalm 119:105).

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