When we first moved into the new apartment, back in May of 2013, I promised myself a set of candle sticks for Friday night candle lighting. Usually I’m at synagogue for Friday night services and they light Shabbat candles for us there, but I thought it would be a milestone to light my own candles again.
I looked in a few brick and mortar stores, while we were looking for other things we needed, like shelving and couches and tables and other little things like that. But I couldn’t find anything. The ensuing online search was extensive, but I eventually found a set of candlesticks that I liked very much. And then I found out that the online store that advertised the special candlesticks had gone out of business, just leaving the web page up to taunt me. When the special candlesticks disappeared, I lost my nerve.
I used to be clumsy, or distracted, and sometimes I still am. I have memories of dropping lit matches into full garbage cans, dropping lit candles onto counter tops, setting tablecloths on fire, etc. My fingers would get numb and shaky in the presence of fire, and not act the way I’d trained them to.
I used to light the Shabbat candles in our house growing up. I’m not sure why my mom didn’t want to light the candles, maybe it was her way of rebelling against my father’s obsession with becoming more and more religious. So it became my job, and I didn’t feel like I could say no.
The fat white Shabbat candles never sat still in their candle holders, so I had to melt the bottoms a bit to make them stick in place. Lighting the wooden matches always made me anxious. If the strip on the box had started to wear down, because we got those huge boxes instead of pocket sized, I’d have to light the candle from the stove, and then worry about doing something ritually wrong by turning off the flame on the stove after the official Shabbat candles were lit.
I hated that fear of doing it wrong. I hated feeling like someone was watching me, just waiting to yell “Gotcha!”
There’s something universal about candles, in all religions, despite electric light being ubiquitous. The flickering, temperamental quality of candle light, or the heat or temporariness of it, seems to add meaning. The Sabbath is a day of rest, a day to stop doing things the way you always do them and be more conscious and aware, of your family, of nature, of love and joy. It’s a time to remind yourself that there’s more to life than work. I wonder if the flame of the candles is, in part, a symbol of how dangerous that rest day maybe be, or may feel, when you stop rushing around and start to really experience your life. There are a lot of shadows hiding behind our busy lives, and the light of the candles may illuminate them in a way we are afraid to face.
If I could make this ritual work for me, I’d want to light four candles: one for me, one for Mom, and one for each of the dogs. But I keep seeing the dogs getting burned and the apartment going up in flames.
There’s a custom in orthodox Jewish homes, and maybe in more liberal Jewish homes now too, of blessing each child on Friday night as part of the ritual of the Sabbath. I knew a family with six kids who did this, and it was a lovely thing to see. Each child went up to their father, in age order, and he closed his eyes and put his hands over the child’s head and said a blessing, including a special wish for each child.
Maybe I could adapt this ritual for my dogs, instead of doing candle lighting, and come up with a prayer to say for them once a week. Just the act of resting hands on their heads would have a calming effect. I could wish them good sleep, good poops, and exciting things to sniff.
And eventually, maybe, I’ll find another set of candle sticks that captures my imagination and help me over the hump. And maybe a fire retardant table cloth to put under them wouldn’t hurt.