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Chanukah and Shabbat Candle Lighting: Different Words, Same Blessing
By Nina Amir
December can be a tough month for a Jew living in a predominantly Christian society. As a child, I remember seeing the Christmas decorations and feeling as if I was missing something quite wonderful. When my two children were young, they used to complain of similar feelings and would comment that their house was the only one on the block, maybe even in the neighborhood, with no outside lights shining in the dark, no Christmas tree sparkling in a window.
To appease my children's feelings of deprivation, I focused their attention on the lights burning in our menorah. I reminded them of the great miracle that happened at the rededication of the temple when the little jug of oil burned for not one day but eight, which is why Jews celebrate by lighting candles for eight nights. More importantly, I explained that to me the lights of our menorahs represented the struggle to live a Jewish life in world dominated by other faiths and to remember those who fought for our right to do so.
While some question the validity of the miracle story, most agree that the holiday of Chanukah arose from King Antiochus' attempt to force, on pain of death, not only the Jews but all people of different nationalities and religious backgrounds living in his kingdom to worship only Greek gods and to assimilate into the Hellenistic culture. When a small group of Jews, called the Maccabees, rebelled by waging war against King Antiochus' large army, they won what might have been the first battle for religious freedom.
Today, most Jews enjoy the freedom to worship as they please. However, just as many ancient Jews felt it easier to assimilate themselves into Hellenistic ways, many Jews find it easier to submerge themselves in more Christian-based ways of life and to stop practicing Judaism. At no time is this truer than between November and December each year, when at every turn we are confronted with Christmas decorations, music, presents, parties, and messages. While we have no need to take up arms to ensure that we can maintain our Jewish lives and religious practices, as the beneficiaries of the Maccabbee's struggle we have a responsibility to maintain our religious traditions.
As my family lights our menorah this year, I will teach them something new, something I learned only recently. In fact, while researching my latest book project about the Jewish women's role on Shabbat I discovered something about Chanukah that resonates with me particularly strongly given the current focus of my work.
One of the few rituals Jewish women have been honored to lead must be performed every Friday evening and every yom tov (festival). On Shabbat, as well as on holidays, women stand before two candles, light them carefully, and recite a blessing. They do this all over the world before the sun sets below the horizon using the same words and actions as their mothers, their mother's mothers
and, most of us think, the Jewish matriarchs. Most Jews assume that this ritual originated not long after the Hebrews covenant with God at Mt. Sinai. In fact, it dates back only about 900 years, and, had it not been for Jewish women taking the mitzvot of lighting a Shabbat lamp on as their own and then taking it one step further, this mitzvah might never have had a blessing to complete it.
Most rabbi's before 1000 C.E. professed that lighting a Shabbat lamp was a woman's task simply because she was at home while the men were in synagogue, and that light was not used for ritual purposes lighting it did not welcome in the Sabbath or the presence of G-d but to prevent the family from sitting in the dark during dinner.
European medieval women lit their Shabbat lamps without a blessing until the 11th century. At that time Northern European Jewish women gained enough religious status and freedom to choose to fulfill mitzvot that previously only men were obligated to perform. In the process, they realized that all of those mitzvot had required blessings to go with them. Since lighting the Shabbat lamp had become an obligation (one performed by both men and women), these women felt this mitzvah should have a blessing as well. With no other source to consult, they relied on the Talmud's blessing for the Chanukah menorah, a blessing more than 1,000 years older than the one we now use for Shabbat. They substituted the word "Shabbat" for "Chanukah," and, thus was born the Shabbat candle blessing. The ritual itself is possibly first documented by Rashi's granddaughter, Hannah, who describes her mother performing the candle lighting and reciting the blessing just as Jewish women do today.
Over the years, the Shabbat candle lighting ritual, as well as the lighting of yom tov (festival) candles, has become the purview of women, with men only taking on this mitzvoth if a woman is not present to do so. If it hadn't been for the religious freedom enjoyed by Jewish women at that particular time in history, Jewish women today might not have the wonderful opportunity to take on this weekly ritual as a spiritual practice; for indeed, it is that. Each time they light the Shabbat candles and say the blessing, Jewish women become priestesses creating a mishkan ( a holy dwelling place) and inviting the presence of G-d to dwell within it. By ushering in the Sabbath with this ritual, they create a sacred space within their homes and help themselves and their families have a spiritual experience.
Today my children no longer yearn for a chance to celebrate Christmas. Yet, each year I strive for ways to transform the lighting of the Chanukah candles from an empty ritual into a "meaning-full and spirit-full" holiday practice. This year, I will tell the story of how the Sabbath candle lighting ceremony was completed by using the Chanukah blessing. I'll relate the story of Jewish women's religious freedom, their desire to create a complete mitzvoth and traditions created and sustained over time.
As my family members light the candles on each of their menorah, I will remind them that by lighting them -- rather than putting up a Christmas tree and lights -- we rededicate ourselves to our religious freedom, rituals and traditions. After our candles are lit, we will place the menorah in four different windows to shine their light on the darkened world outside. As seen from the outside of our home, our Chanukah menorahs will glow as brightly as the Christmas lights on our neighbor's houses or the trees in their windows.
And when I light the Shabbat candles during Chanukah, I will remember that if it were not for this holiday and for religiously observant and deeply spiritual women who approached their religious obligations with great care and kavanah, I might not be doing so myself.
Nina Amir, an acclaimed author, journalist, editor, and speaker, focuses her work on Jewish spiritual and mystical subjects, teaching people to live their lives fully, manifest their dreams and transform empty religious rituals into meaning-full and spirit-full practices. Her two most recent book projects are Setting a Place for God, The Jewish Woman's Guide to Creating Sacred Space and Inviting the Divine to Dwell Within It and Celebrity Nosh! 90 Jewish Celeb's Share the Dish on Their Favorite Recipes. You can contact her by visiting www.purespiritcreations.com.
from the December 2006 Edition of the Jewish Magazine
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