Light is the Genesis of the world: the primary utterance of creation is
"Let there be light," and the first act of creation is the
distillation of light, its separation from darkness. The Midrash asks: Where was
light created from? And the answer is whispered: "G‑d cloaked Himself in a
white shawl, and the light of its splendor shone from one end of the world to
the other" (Bereishit Rabbah 3:4). In other words, light, fundamentally,
does not belong to this world; it is, rather, an emanation of a different
essence, from the other side of reality.
The way in which human beings relate to light is emotional, almost sensual
Light serves as the symbol of the good and the beautiful, of all that is
positive. The difference between light and darkness assumes such a general and
metaphysical significance, and the advantage of light over darkness is so
obvious and self-evident, that it serves as a sharp metaphor: "Wisdom
excels folly as far as light excels darkness" (Ecclesiastes 2:13).
a positive symbol is so prevalent in biblical Hebrew that redemption, truth,
justice, peace, and even life itself "shine," and their revelation is
expressed in terms of the revelation of light.
The symbolism of light goes even higher than that: Divine revelation itself
is a revelation of light, the righteous in the Garden of Eden "bask in the
light of Shekhinah," and even G‑d Himself is "my light and my
salvation" (Psalm 27: 1). Hence, too, in the language used by the
Kabbalists, all of reality is "lights" and "enlightenments,"
all the way up to "the light of the Infinite, be He blessed."
This light metaphor is not only an abstract and intellectual one. Light is
even personified, it enjoys its own existence -- "The light of the
righteous rejoices" (Proverbs 13:8). The way in which human beings relate
to light, too, is emotional, almost sensual -- "Truly the light is sweet
and a pleasant thing it is for the eyes" (Ecclesiastes 11:7).
The symbolic meaning of light as an expression of the positive aspect of
reality is not confined only to the realm of language. It is realized also in
the use of light and lamps as concrete means of expression, which symbolize and
point to an essence that contains holiness, in all its different appearances in
reality: in holiness and at the Holy Temple in the sanctity of place; in the
Sabbath and festivals in the sanctity of time; on special occasions in the
sanctity and importance of the event.
The Temple menorah, with all of its ornate and extremely elaborate
craftsmanship, was not there for any practical purpose: it stood in the Heichal,
a windowless hall only seldom frequented by people. Yet it was there as a symbol
of the holiness of that place, of its relation to light. This menorah --
"the sun's sphere" (Jerusalem Talmud, end of Chagigah) -- is a sphere
of sunlight, which shines through the walls and the curtains. No wonder, then,
that this meaning of the Temple menorah was conceived by the Jewish people as
the symbol par excellence of Jewish existence, as can be seen in Jewish
ornaments from all periods from synagogue mosaics in the Galilee to ornaments on
utensils in the Roman catacombs, and even, in a sense, to the synagogue itself
the place where an eternal candle burns day and night.
The same goes for the Sabbath and festival candles. Initially, the Sabbath
candle was lit for very prosaic reasons: to make light for those who eat the
Sabbath evening meal, so that they would not spend the evening in utter
darkness. But, from the very start, the significance of candlelighting has gone
far beyond that. The Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law) rules: "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)..." Indeed, it goes further: "If one does not have
enough to buy a candle for the Sabbath and wine for the kiddush of the day, the
Sabbath candle takes precedence" -- so much so that "even if one has
These lights convey messages: glory, the joy of victory, a remembrance of eternity, and an outburst of merriment
nothing to eat, he is to beg for alms to buy oil and light the candle" (Shulchan
Aruch, Orach Chayim 263). The candlelight, then, has turned into the very symbol
of the Sabbath itself, a sort of "light of the seven days" shining in
a sanctified niche of time. And just as the Sabbath enters with a light, so,
too, we bid it farewell with a light: the Havdalah candle, a torch with which to
escort the Sabbath Queen's departure.
Even the festival of Chanukah, which in the days of the Hasmoneans was
celebrated in many ceremonies, has, in the course of the generations, been
"summarized," and is now expressed by the Hanukkah candles, in the
ceremonial lighting of candles that daily increase in number to symbolize how
"light excels darkness" in the festival of victory, of purification,
of historic upheaval. From here the light spreads farther and farther to every
event that has something unique about it, from the "Water Drawing" (Beit
Hasho'evah) festivities in the Holy Temple, where enormous torches were
kindled to light all of Jerusalem, to the firetricks of the Jewish sages of
those days, the merry bonfire of Purim in talmudic times, and the bonfires of
Lag B'Omer -- a light of respect and remembrance to Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai.
The light of the memorial candle, too, although it is mingled with sadness,
expresses a symbolic light -- "The soul of man is the candle of G‑d"
(Proverbs 20:27). It is eternity, and not sadness, that is revealed in this
light. And against it stand the wedding candles -- the torches borne by the best
women during the chuppah -- a light of pure joy and hope.
The overall significance of light as an expression of the good and the
beautiful is, then, divided into shades and subshades of meaning: the general
light of the beginning of creation, a light that contains all of reality, is
divided into individual lights, each of which has its own identity, both in
terms of its mission and of the emotions that it expresses and awakens. Thus, on
the one hand, we have the light of the holy place -- which does not even have to
be seen, but just to be there. On the other, the light of the Sabbath candles --
which is to be used -- and the Hanukkah candles which, while they "are
holy, and we have no right to use them, but only to behold them," are meant
to be seen by as many people as possible. And the same goes for the messages
that these lights convey: glory, the joy of victory, a remembrance of eternity,
an outburst of merriment. Of course, naturally, we do not always have a single
element in its purest form, since sometimes one event or one light contains a
few aspects intertwined.
Yet above all, light is there in order to light
This multitude of meanings exists not only from the viewpoint of the
onlooker. The meaning of every light is embodied in a tangible form in the
material utensils of light: the oil and the wick, the candle and the lamp.
Halachah (Torah law), which deals very extensively with all these issues (see,
for example, the chapter in Shabbat), is the formal means by which the different
meanings of the various kinds of light find expression. In its technical
fashion, Halachah not only establishes external frameworks for ways of action,
but also materializes, realizes, and specifies the contents that were poured
into these things. The rule that states that one must not make, for private use,
a menorah in the likeness of the one that stood in the Temple, exists to
preserve the uniqueness of the Temple light, which must have no double, no
substitute. The statement that all the candles in that menorah were turned
toward each other further emphasizes that this light is not meant to illuminate
its surroundings, but rather to turn toward and illuminate itself only. The
difference between the single wicks of the Sabbath candles and the braided torch
of the Havdalah candle is the distinction between a light of calmness, of
repose, and of homeliness, and the stronger light of the torch, which, on the
one hand, accompanies the departing queen, and on the other, lights the darkness
that becomes more marked in her absence. The Chanukah candles stand in one line
to mark and count the days, and the shamash stands apart from them to
point out that, unlike the other candles, it is there for practical use.
Halachah, then, is a framework through which the abstract ideas find
expression; and always and everywhere have customs and aesthetics completed the
picture, according to the tastes of the various times and places. There are
also, of course, internal and external constraints, which create forms and
patterns of their own, constraints related to materials (fuels, and materials
for candlesticks and lamps) and considerations such as weather, and even bad
neighbors. Economical and geographical conditions forced Jews to find different
means of expression. The oil wick was sometimes replaced by a wax candle, with
all the external changes this entailed.
Nevertheless, the meanings and fine points of these matters have never been
lost. The Jewish artisan who created and designed the various light utensils for
holy services understood that their usefulness is rooted in their meaning. Their
use, and even their beauty, should express the precise idea contained in each
one of them. The artist's creative thinking tried to express that idea, and
sometimes even add additional layers of meaning -- from the Halachah and the
Aggadah, and quite a lot also from Kabbalah -- in order to complete the job.
Yet above all, light is there in order to light. Even the hidden Temple
menorah was diligently crafted so that its hidden light would be as bright and
perfect as possible. In Judaism, darkness has never had religious significance;
the curtain of darkness and mist is the curtain of kelipah; and to the
extent that it does have a role to play, it is, in the words of Sefer
Yetzirah, the existence of darkness underscores light, emphasizes the
yearning for it. Even the secret is the secret of light, as Rabbi Israel Baal
Shem Tov said: Or (light) in gematria is equal to Raz (secret).