Fall is a wonderful time of year. For many, it is a time of harvest and plenty, an opportunity to see the fruits of our labors. For those of the Jewish faith, fall means a time of celebration of many holy days, including Rosh Hashanah, or the Jewish New Year. Rosh Hashanah means “Head of the Year”. Just as our head (brain/mind) controls the rest of our body, Jews believe that their actions on this holy day will greatly impact the rest of the year. It is celebrated as a time of prayer, a time to ask God to grant a year of peace, prosperity, and blessings. It is also a time to celebrate and proclaim that God is King.
Tonight (Sept. 20, 2017), Jewish women and girls around the world will gather to light the candles to usher in Rosh Hashanah. As I have begun learning about Jewish holidays and mitzvot (commandments) associated with various holidays, I have discovered some beautiful symbolism and traditions that women of all faiths can learn from and appreciate.
In an article titled, “Women and Mitzvot”, Rabbi Dov Lev wrote, “Success in life is predicated on two distinct undertakings: On one hand, an organism must advance and expand. On the other hand, it must protect and nurture. These two undertakings are opposites, but both are necessary for success. . . The same is true on every level of societal and personal existence. It was with this theme that God created two distinct genders, to work together in unison to accomplish their ultimate goals.”
God, in His wisdom, created men and women differently, and “relationships can only be successful if gender distinctions are recognized and adhered to.” Men’s and women’s psychological and physiological needs are different, and because of that, a woman’s mitzvot are different from that of a man’s. Not only do those of the Jewish faith believe the idea that men and women are different by divine design, but the difference is embraced in every aspect of their faith. “Throughout the ages, Jewish women have imbued spirituality into the Jewish home. As such, certain mitzvot are set aside especially for women because of their special connection to the home.”
Women and the Mitzvah of Lighting Candles
The mitzvah of lighting candles has been given particularly to women. As soon as a young girl can understand the significance of Shabbat– the Jewish Sabbath– and can say the blessing (about the age of three), she should kindle her own candle. You may be wondering why females were given this specific mitzvah.
Rabbi Lev explained that women are the pillar of the family: “Since the beginning of mankind, all societies have recognized that a woman’s sensitivity and warmth are ideally suited for motherhood. Moreover, the extraordinary feeling that men can never experience – nurturing a baby inside them – puts women in the position of being the best, most loving caregivers for their children. For the preservation of the family structure, and by extension the overall health of society, the Torah encourages women to embrace this role.“
The job of lighting the candles is given to the woman of the home because it is the woman who most influences the spirituality there. By encouraging the study of Torah (the law of God), the meticulous performance of mitzvot, and through her nurturing presence, a woman can transform her home into a place of holiness, peace, and tranquility. It is thus fitting that she be the one to bring the extra measure of light and holiness with the Shabbat candles.
A Light In The Home
Lighting the Shabbat candles brings not only a physical light but also a spiritual light into the home. It brings peace, harmony, serenity and spirituality into the home and to all its inhabitants. This powerful time of lighting the candles is also an opportunity to ask for blessings for the house and the family. Jewish women are admonished to especially pray for the welfare of their children when lighting Shabbat candles. Here is the text of a traditional prayer that is said when lighting the candles:
“May it be Your will, Lord my God and God of my fathers, to be gracious to me (and to my spouse, children, parents) and to all my family. Grant us and all Israel good and long life. Remember us for good and blessing. Consider us for salvation and compassion. Bless us with great blessings. Make our household complete, crowning our home with the feeling of Your Divine Presence dwelling among us.
“Make me worthy to raise learned children and grandchildren, who are wise and understanding, who love and fear God – people of truth, holy and attached to God, who will dazzle the world with Torah and goodness and service of God. Please hear our prayers, in the merit of our matriarchs Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah, and ensure that the glow of our lives will never be dimmed. Show us the glow of Your face and we will be saved. Amen.”
Oh, imagine the impact if EVERY woman in the world, regardless of religion, daily offered up a similar prayer such as this, invoking the power of heaven to be upon her family and loved ones. Imagine the change in the world, the light in the darkness.
A Light In The Darkness
Several years ago, while I was in college, my roommates and I decided it would be fun to take a tour of a popular nearby cave. At one point during the tour, the guide led us into a massive, cavernous room. He then did something that surprised everyone on the tour, and flipped the light switch, plunging us into immediate darkness. Have you ever been just a little afraid of the dark? Have you ever been in a place that was so dark that you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face, even with your eyes wide open? At that moment in time, my answer to both of those questions was yes, so at that point of the tour, I may just have screamed a little bit at the unexpected blackness. Fortunately, another guide was across the cavern and lit a small match. Though tiny, that little match’s light immediately dispelled the anxiety of all in the group. Then, one by one, the guides began to light candles along the path and told our little tour group a story I can’t remember now, but I will never forget the overwhelming darkness of that cave.
I share this experience because if you’ve ever been afraid of the dark, or been in a deep, dark cave, then you know how welcome a ray of light can be. Even a small light makes a big difference in a dark place. Today our world can seem very dark. There are many searching for light, for any gleam of hope that dispels anxiety, fear, or depression. As women, we have been blessed with the divine gift of being able to light a candle to help those in spiritual darkness.
In a beautiful article, Women & Shabbat Candles, Leah Kohn exquisitely details being a light in the darkness:
“One need only consider how much we depend on light – whether physical or spiritual – to understand the importance of a . . . woman’s role in this regard. Light fosters communication and interaction between people. It gives us the ability to relate properly to one another. In a sense, darkness erases distinctions between people, whereas light creates a separation between entities, clarifying their boundaries and bringing out their individuality. At the same time, light brings things together by conferring a sense of unity and shared space. Darkness on the other hand is often associated with chaos.
Light creates physical clarity and spiritual harmony. In a room without light we trip over the same things that, with light we realize are far from obstacles, but are there to make life easier and more comfortable. This is true with people as well. When there is light between people, we enhance each other’s experience. When two people see things the same way, empathize with each other or share similar values, they are said to see things in the same light. This convergence becomes a basis for peace and harmony in their relationship. It is these very qualities that a woman invokes on Friday evening when she lights candles and ushers into her home a feeling of almost palpable peace and tranquility.”
Light The Home, Light The World
As a Christian, I do not necessarily light physical candles. Rather, we Christians believe we were born with the Light of Christ, which we must nurture and grow. It is that light that we are commanded to share. John 8:12 says, “Then spake Jesus again unto them, saying, I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life.” 3 Nephi 18:24 adds, “Therefore, hold up your light that it may shine unto the world. Behold I am the light which ye shall hold up—that which ye have seen me do.” The Light of Christ is divine energy, power, and influence that proceeds from God, through Christ, and gives life and light to all things, including to us.
Whether you are Jewish, Christian, or some other faith, we recognize the importance of having light in the darkness, and, more importantly, BEING a light in the darkness. President Thomas S. Monson pointed out, “If you want to give a light to others, you have to glow yourself.” (“For I Was Blind, but Now I See,” Ensign, May 1999, 56; Liahona, July 1999, 69.) As women, Daughters of Zion, we are bearers of light. We have more influence than we realize. As we keep the light in our hearts burning, we can, and do, shape and mold the world with our lights.I can’t help but think of a song by Melanie Hoffman, “A Light in the Heart”
A light in the heart is a light in the home,
A light in the home is a light in the town.
A light in the town is a light in the nation
And light in the nations is light in the world.
Keep the home lights burning bright.
Keep your light burning bright.
Shine your light.
Dear women of the world, please keep the home lights burning bright. Do not be afraid to share your beautiful light with those seeking it in an ever-darkening world.
To read more about Rosh Hashanah and Jewish traditions, check out these websites/articles:
By Wendi Mott