Ceremonial fire has historically (and presently) held great significance among Indigenous Peoples. Jews are no exception. Our use of ceremonial fire dates thousands of years, since before the period of the Kingdom of Israel (1040 BCE-930 BCE), and continues to this day. Because of our forced displacement(s), however, many of us have lost touch with the spiritual and metaphysical purpose of these rituals.
The word fire, pronounced “esh” in Hebrew, appears 380 times in the Tanakh (“Hebrew Bible”), underscoring its deep significance. The first mention of fire appears in Bereshit (Genesis): “When the sun set and it was very dark, there appeared a smoking oven, and a flaming torch which passed between those pieces” (Bereshit 15:17).
For Jews, Hebrew is much more than our ancestral language. It is considered sacred, so much so that we know it as “lashon ha-kodesh,” or the “language of holiness/sacredness.” Early Jewish mystics believed that G-d created the world out of Hebrew letters; in other words, the Hebrew alphabet was the “building block” for Creation. As such, no word in Hebrew is just a word, but instead, deep significance can be found in each and every letter.
The Hebrew root for “esh” tells us the following:
Since ancient times, for Jews and for numerous other cultures, fire has signified the presence of G-d (or other deities, in the case of other Indigenous Peoples). The most evident example, of course, is in Exodus, when G-d appears to Moses behind a burning bush, via an angel. In the narrative of Exodus, the bush is engulfed by fire, but not consumed. As Moses begins to approach the bush, G-d tells him to remove his sandals, as this is sacred ground. Moses then turns away his face.
Let’s back up a little bit. Today, the “religion” of the Jewish People is known as Judaism. Its precursor was “Yahwism,” whose followers only worshiped the Hebrew G-d but didn’t necessarily reject the existence of the rest of the Canaanite pantheon.
Initially, YHWH was only one of the many deities that the Israelites worshipped. El, the most important Canaanite god, was the original “god of Israel,” the name Israel itself deriving from El (“Israel” roughly translates to “one who wrestles with G-d”). Over time, YHWH and the other gods merged into a singular G-d.
With this in mind, many scholars believe that the narrative of the burning bush was spliced together from a combination of ancient Yahwist and Elohist beliefs. The removal of the sandals has its roots in the Yahwist narrative, whereas the turning of the face and the presence of G-d in the bush come from the Elohist version.
To this day, when Jews recite the “Shema Israel” (“Hear, O Israel”), the centerpiece of Jewish morning and evening prayer, we cover our eyes. The reasons for this are multifold, but among them is the idea that we must cover our faces out of respect for the Divine Presence of G-d.
During the period of the sacred Jewish Temples (10th century BCE-587 BCE, 516 BCE-70 CE), Kohanim, or the inherited Jewish priestly class, were tasked with preserving the eternal flame, which was a gift from the heavens upon the inauguration of the Temple. The eternal flame burned on the Outer Altar. It was imperative that it remain aflame, never to be extinguished, a practice that can be found in many other other temples of other cultures. For example, the Cherokee Nation maintained an eternal flame at the seat of government, until they were ousted by the Indian Removal Act in 1830.
The eternal light is central to the story of Hanukkah and the miracle of Hanukkah, when, miraculously, oil that was meant to last for just one day lasted eight whole days, keeping the eternal flame alight until more oil was produced.
Since the destruction of the Second Temple (70 CE), synagogues worldwide have carried on the tradition by keeping a sanctuary lamp (“ner tamid,” translating to “eternal flame” or “eternal light”) above the ark. The ner tamid, like the eternal flame of the sacred Temples, is meant to draw parallels between G-d and fire/light.
While historically the ner tamid at synagogues was fuelled by oil, most today are electric lights. After the Holocaust, the ner tamid has acquired new significance, representing the souls of those murdered in the Holocaust.
In addition to showing us the Divine Presence of G-d, fire is also used for purification. Historically, Israelites — as well as many other ancient Indigenous cultures — carried out this purification through the burning of an animal sacrifice. Fire was believed to have descended from heaven, which was a sign that G-d desired these sacrifices.
During the Talmudic period (first-fifth centuries), it was believed that G-d did not demand any sacrifice beyond a “purified heart” and helping the poor. Instead, the practice of animal sacrifice in the Temple was meant to replace the idolatrous practices of some of the earliest Israelites, as stated in the Torah: “As Israel worshiped idolatry in Egypt, and used to bring offerings to the sei-irim (demons)...said G-d: ‘Always bring to me their offerings into the Tabernacle, and by that they will be drawn away from the idolatry.’” Once the Israelites stopped practicing idolatry, animal sacrifices would thus no longer be required.
Though Jews no longer practice animal sacrifice, fire is still a means of purification. Fire, for example, can transform non-kosher foods into kosher foods.
Every Shabbat since antiquity, Jews have lit candles to usher in the day of rest. The lighting of Shabbat candles is first mentioned in the Mishnah and Talmud. Back then, Jews would light an oil lamp with the purpose of dignifying the Sabbath. The oil lamp also provided lighting for the traditional Shabbat dinner before the advent of electric lighting.
The lighting of Shabbat candles is traditionally performed by a woman for a number of reasons. One of them is that when Eve persuaded Adam to eat from the tree of knowledge, she extinguished the “flame of G-d.” As such, it is the woman’s responsibility to reignite the G-dly spark.
When lighting the Shabbat candles, it is customary to cover our eyes and recite a blessing.
Beyond ushering in Shabbat, many other Jewish rituals and ceremonies involve the lighting of candles. Just as we welcome and dignify Shabbat through the lighting of candles, we mark the end of Shabbat on Saturday night with the lighting of the Havdalah candle. The candle is lit after three stars have appeared in the sky. Havdalah candles are braided, with several wicks. The reasoning behind the multiple wicks is that the blessing is in plural form, blessing G-d for creating “illuminations of fire.” The plural “illuminations” alludes to the different colors within fire.
According to Jewish tradition, during the first seven days of Creation, the world was illuminated by a great light that didn’t fade even at nighttime. After Adam and Eve ate from the tree of knowledge, the flame of G-d was extinguished. Anguished, Adam did not know what to do without light, so G-d gave him the wisdom to rub two flint stones together and create a fire of his own. This is commemorated with the Havdalah lighting ceremony.
During Hanukkah, we light a Hanukkiah (or “Hanukkah menorah”), which is a nine-branched candelabrum. Each of the branches holds a candle or an oil lamp. Eight candles represent the eight days of the miracle of Hanukkah; while the ninth candle, the “shamash” (meaning helper or servant) is used to light the other candles.
Yahrzeit candles (“soul candles”) are candles that are lit in memory of the dead. They are lit on the eve of the anniversary of the death. Yahrzeit candles are also lit on the eve of Yom Kippur and Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day). The concept of Yahrzeit candles dates back to the Tanakh: “The soul of man is a candle of the Lord” (Proverbs 20:27).
Jews are not supposed to blow out birthday candles for a number of reasons. According to Jewish mysticism, there exists an angel whose name is the same as the sound that comes out when you blow out, and we are not supposed to make use of the names of angels. Second, candles represent the soul of humans, and blowing them out snuffs them out.
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