Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Increase the Light

“When a person lights one candle from another, neither flame is diminished.” 
(Bemidbar Rabbah 13)
My favorite night of Hanukkah is the last night, when each of us lights our favorite menorah. That’s 45 candles: 8, plus 1 server to light the others, times 5 family members, burning for at least 30 minutes.  My spouse usually remarks that our dining room resembles the nave of a cathedral, which conjures memories of my childhood visit to St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City.  In the text that I quoted, the early rabbis use the physical properties of a candle’s flame to focus on light as a metaphor for wisdom. This is one message of Hanukkah, the celebration of which involves adding candles each night to increase the light.  Many religions prescribe candle lighting and singing to dispel the darkness of the winter solstice. When we light a flame in our own homes and houses of worship, and we keep one another in our prayers, I have no doubt that we will increase the light in the world and the warmth in our hearts.  

Tziporah, your delightful family tradition on the last night of Hanukkah makes me smile as I imagine all that flame! It also brings to mind these words from a familiar song: “If everyone lit just one little candle, what a bright world this would be!” That same song makes the connection you make between the light of a candle and a prayer that brings light into dark places. How much we need to heed that call to prayer in our world today: Darkness and evil can never be eliminated, I think, but I also believe with people of every faith tradition that darkness cannot prevail where the light of God shines. A favorite verse of mine from Christian scripture affirms, “The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” (The Gospel of John 1:5) In another account, Jesus speaks words that I see as applying to people of good will everywhere: “You are the light of the world.” (The Gospel of Matthew 5:14, emphasis mine) What an awesome calling to be light for one another!

Although the Islamic tradition does not call for physical lighting of candles, the notion of sharing and increasing the light brings to my mind many positive associations. I recall immediately the beginning of a Hadith that I have memorized. It is a Hadith about charity; the type of charity that is not limited to financial giving, but encompasses any form of voluntarily sharing one’s knowledge, time, advice and emotional support: “Charity does not in any way decrease the wealth.”* Many verses of the Quran and other Hadiths emphasize the superiority of light over darkness and the many forms in which each is manifested. Light is wisdom and blessings, and all that is of benefit to us. Light is also equated with prayer, guidance, knowledge, piety and righteousness; these noble qualities will all take the form of physical light on the Day of Judgment. There is one last, unique depiction of light that is visible to the angels and attracts them to visit its source: it is the light that emanates from houses where the remembrance of God is fundamental.

* Charity does not in any way decrease the wealth; and the servant who forgives, God adds to his respect; and the one who shows humility, God elevates him in the estimation of the people.” (Sahih Muslim, Book 32, Hadith 6264)


  1. Given all the other connections among the 3 faiths we have seen, it is curious that there is no candle lighting in Islam. I wonder if there is an historical/anthropological/cultural reason for this.

    1. The underlying reason is that Islamic practice and its way of life takes a cautious stand when it comes to symbols, as they are most often related to pagan cultures. Even in the Friday worship at the mosque, there is no ritual between sermon and prayer, or before or after them. The only thing that precedes them is the call to prayer. The Imam does not make a special entrance nor does he perform any special acts other than give the sermon and lead the prayer. As a matter of fact, Hajj is the only time when Muslims perform rituals, for example, throwing the 7 pebbles at the place where Satan was trying to dissuade Abraham [Peace and Blessings be upon him] from slaughtering his son. Salam, Yasmina