Anyone familiar with religious practices can testify to the fact that candles play a crucial role in normative observance for many religions. It is not surprising to find an identical phenomenon in Judaism, the mother of so many contemporary beliefs.
In our practice, candles are present at almost every festive occasion. Perhaps, however, the two most familiar to us are the Shabbat candles and Chanukah candles. Yet if we examine the purpose of each, they not only serve different purposes, they are fundamentally separate from one another.
The Talmud teaches that Shabbat candles were instituted to create an atmosphere of tranquility within the home (Shabbat 23b). By illuminating the Shabbat table, the lights help prevent distress or bickering that darkness might promote. In the opinion of Maimonides, the great medieval Jewish philosopher, the tranquility that the Shabbat lights provide is so crucial that if one has only enough money to buy either a candle for Shabbat or wine for Kiddush, he must first purchase the Shabbat candle.
Chanukah lights are strikingly different from Shabbat lights. They serve not to emphasize private family tranquility, but rather to proclaim the miracle of the holiday to the public. Chanukah lights symbolize the entire drama of the Chanukah story, of the few overcoming the many, of the weak defeating the strong and, as such, constitute a public declaration to impress upon as many people as possible that the Almighty performed great miracles on our behalf. Therefore, Maimonides noted, “The commandment of Chanukah lights is precious since it publicizes the miracle and enhances the praise of God for all He did for us.”
Strangely, although both commandments to kindle lights seem to serve separate if not opposite purposes, the Talmud paradoxically appears to lump them together in the remark of Rav Huna, who said: “He who habitually practices the lighting of the lamp will possess scholarly children” (Shabbat 23b). This statement seems puzzling to us on two accounts. First, to what does the word “lamp” refer? Second, what is the meaning of the term “scholarly children”? The classical medieval commentator, Rashi, provides some clues.
Wondering to which “lamp” the Talmud was referring, Rashi surprisingly concludes that it was to both the Shabbat and Chanukah lights. Rashi, of course, felt no need to elucidate “scholarly children” since, for almost all generations of Jews, as People of the Book, the highest accolade has been the term “scholar,” which encompasses everything honorable, virtuous and worthwhile.
Obviously, Rashi recognized that the Shabbat and Chanukah lights shared a common denominator, and that both provide an educational message. Children are not raised in a vacuum. The first influence on their maturation process is their family environment. If within the family mutual respect, peace and tranquility prevail, the child has a chance to become an honorable Jew.
Rashi, however, recognizes that Judaism isn’t experienced only in the private domain as celebrated by the Shabbat lights. Rather, our faith promotes participation in public life as the Chanukah lamp vividly symbolizes. We place our Chanukiyah in our windows for public display that everyone can see. On Chanukah we aren’t simply private citizens; we have a community mission to inform others of God’s presence.
In this manner, Chanukah provides us with two crucial lessons. On the one hand, it teaches us not to practice Judaism only behind closed doors. We must be willing to proudly wear our Judaism in public. On the other hand, Chanukah teaches us a feeling of community responsibility. We must not only concern ourselves with our own religious development, but also with the community at large.
Rashi, therefore, understood that the fusion of the private lesson of the Shabbat lights that illuminate not just the table but the children educated at and by that table, combined with the message of the public Chanukah lamps that can inspire faith and freedom for all people everywhere, offer us a complete picture of Judaism.
Elazar Muskin is senior rabbi of Young Israel of Century City (yicc.org), an Orthodox congregation in the Pico-Robertson area.