What's in a candle?

(Photo: Getty/iStock)

Jewish academic and Hebrew scholar Irene Lancaster reflects on Chanukah and the symbolism of the candle.

Nowadays we tend to take candles for granted. For many of us in this country, candles first came into their own as serious players in the world of light during the 3-day week of winter 1973-4. A rare royal wedding had just taken place when we were plunged into darkness by strikes. Electricity was drastically rationed and candles then became precious commodities, their scarcity adding to their value and worth.

My favourite Jewish thinker, Abraham ibn Ezra, lived from 1089-1164. He was a great poet, but stopped once he had gone into self-imposed exile from Spain in 1139, escaping from the horrors of Muslim invaders. From then he wrote Bible commentaries, as well as works of grammar, science, philosophy and mysticism.

Something died in ibn Ezra after he was forced to flee his birthplace. But one of his most famous poems from that earlier time, depicting his abject poverty and bad luck in life, is all about candles:

'The heavenly sphere and constellations – bearers of good luck – veered off course the day I was born;

If I dealt in candles, there would be no sundown until I died.

Try as I might, I cannot succeed. For the stars in the sky have thwarted me.

If I dealt in shrouds, not one single individual would ever die, while I was still alive.

If I had a scheme to profit from arms and going to war,

All the foes in the world would be friends and fight no more.'

We can see from this most sarcastic and self-deprecating poem that life in mediaeval Spain was tough and cruel. It was a time of war. People were killed. And candles were essential.

Nowadays, candles tend to be used for decoration and mood-enhancement. Electricity is the order of the day. But with electricity prices rocketing at present due to the war with Russia, candles may well, once again, take their rightful place again as illuminators.

The importance of candles to an older world is evidenced by certain expressions that were still used in my childhood, but are now probably obsolete. One such was the phrase 'burning the candle at both ends', meaning concentrating so hard on a serious task that only when both ends of the candle had disappeared altogether was it impossible to continue.

Then we have the idea that something 'is not worth the candle.' A project or idea should simply be shunned because the expense incurred would cost more than the value of the project or idea itself.

And then we also have the opposite: 'nothing can hold a candle to' some project, idea, or activity.

The contemporary writer, Ann Wroe, in her 2016 book, Six Facets of Light, describes the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) and his relationship with candles. Not only was the candle essential for providing light for his experiments, but came to represent Coleridge's very being.

'The tallow of his body was consumed in living; the flame was his own breath, his life, with the colours of the spectrum sometimes luminous about it .... 'A Candle in its socket, with its alternate fits & dying flashes of lingering Light.'

When his great friend William Wordsworth (1770-1850) hurt his feelings, Coleridge felt 'like a Cold Snuff on the circular rim of a Brass Candlestick, without even a stink of Tallow to remind you that it was once cloathed and mitred with flame.'

The poet John Clare (1793-1864) was a 'flickering rushlight ... thrown on the pile ... that have glimmered their day & are dead.'

Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889) was 'sputtering but unextinguished.'

Walt Whitman (1819-1892) made 'diffusing, dropping, sideways-darting' sparks.

And Coleridge then considered the flame alone. ' ... the exquisite oneness of the flame makes even its angles so different from the angles of tangible substances. Its exceeding oneness and its very subsistence in motion is the very soul of the loveliest curve - it does not need its body, as it were.'

People may well think that apart from being the source of many a poetic insight, the most important use of candles is in religious ceremonies. However, although candles persist in religious ceremonies to this very day, it should be emphasized that when candles were first introduced to these ceremonies, many thousands of years ago, they were a precious commodity, and in the case of Judaism, the oil of the upcoming festival of Chanukah was especially precious.

Candles were for many, apart from the sun itself, the only source of light.

The olive tree from which the oil was extracted with which to light the candles is especially precious, and even today, when for eight days one extra candle is lit from a ninth candle which simply acts as the 'server', many people prefer to use precious oil for their Chanukah candles, which number 44 in all, excluding the 'server' candle which lights them daily.

The miracle of Chanukah is two-fold. The famous Maccabees (now the name of a well-known singing group) managed to overcome the wicked King Antiochus IV Epiphanes (reigned 175-164 BCE), the Syrian Greek monarch who wanted to destroy the Jewish religion, and enacted all sorts of defilements and desecrations to obtain his goal. But although the Temple in Jerusalem was unrecognizable, enough oil was discovered to last for eight days, a sign of spiritual as well as military victory, and the winter festival of Chanukah, meaning 'dedication' was inaugurated, which has been kept ever since.

But in 2005, the Chief Rabbi of Haifa, Shear Yashuv Cohen citing the example of the original Maccabees/Hasmoneans, tried with all his might to prevent the disengagement from Gaza, urging soldiers tasked with expelling the Jewish residents of that area to simply state that they were incapable of carrying out the order to do so.

Once the Knesset had approved the disengagement, however, Rabbi Cohen embarked on initiatives to at least allow the Jewish communities to remain in place under international auspices, living in peace with their Palestinian neighbours in Gaza. However, a meeting to discuss this possibility was cancelled at the last minute. Because of their unique and personal relationship, dating back to the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when Rabbi Shear Yashuv served as the IDF chaplain of General Arik Sharon's division at the Suez Canal, Sharon - who was now Prime Minister - invited his former friend to meet him.

The Prime Minister rejected Rabbi Cohen's proposal on the grounds that he had no faith in Arab assurances, or the ability of the international community to protect Israeli citizens in Gaza. He was afraid that the Jewish residents would be butchered by the incoming Arabs. Like Prime Minister Golda Meir, Prime Minister in 1973, Sharon simply didn't trust the Arabs. He therefore chose the least worst option of total expulsion of the Jews of Gaza, who many years earlier, including under left-wing Israeli governments, had been encouraged to settle there, in land that had always, until very recently, been part of Israel.

Rabbi Shear Yashuv, who was a poet, as well as being a Talmudic scholar and head of the Bet Din of the city of Haifa, wrote this poem for Chanukah 2005. It is entitled 'What the candle flames tell us', and in the original Hebrew, this poem is just as evocative as some of the descriptions by great English-language poets, cited above. This is my own translation, taken from the English version of his biography, which his family commissioned.

Watching the Chanukah flames die down after the disengagement had taken place earlier that year, and bearing in mind his own struggle against the powers-that-be, which reminded him of the original Maccabean struggle against the Syrian Greeks, which the festival commemorates, Rabbi Cohen stated:

'The sputtering flames hold a secret. They whisper that this past year has not proved to be, as we had hoped, a better year than its predecessor. It did not bring us the much hoped-for redemption or salvation. ...Israel's cry arose from the ground and pierced the air. We experienced a difficult and painful year..... In the doorways and windowsills, our Chanukah lights flicker.... Our own dimming Chanukah flames also remind us of another brighter flame: the flame of liberation.... Although the light is covered with dust, the odd flicker gets through here and there. The flames are also replete with anger. They whisper to us in burning anguish, blazing in fury at those who would lower our standing and diminish our national character.... It had appeared that a new era was beginning to dawn in Zion – an era of a new spirit in our heart, the spirit of the candles: faith, dedication and selfless devotion to duty. ... We have accepted Heaven's decision in love and faith that even these bad things will turn out for the good in the end, with G-d's help....

'Let us all therefore join in blessing our Creator.... Let us thank Him for the heroism of the Hasmoneans that has not left us; let us recite together a blessing for the sparks of light that glow even in the embers of our darkness. Let's give thanks for even the tiniest scintilla of heroism wherever it appears. Let's praise G-d for the heroism of Israel and the Jewish people, for the heroism of our IDF soldiers, past and future. Let us be thankful for the heroism of all those uprooted brethren scattered throughout our Holy Land that they love and that has been promised by G-d to us and to our future generations forever.'

Who knows how these prophetic words, written in 2005, will pan out in the days and weeks of 2023 and 2024. But one thing is sure. Since October 7, the people of Israel have been absolutely heroic. The IDF has been more than brave. The Jewish people know that they will never be destroyed. 'In every generation they may well rise to destroy us', but they never will. We will survive this latest atrocity by monsters. Israel is fighting for the survival of the free world, symbolized by the Chanukah story and the Chanukah menorah, known as the Chanukiyah.

May the miraculous festival of Chanukah, which this year starts on December 7, prove once again to be worthy of the mighty warriors who inaugurated this festival. And may be the people of Israel, bloodied but not vanquished, once again start to rebuild their communities. For as we know, the children of Israel, the banim, whom we cherish and love so much, are also our builders, the bonim, who always manage to extract the light out of the darkness of the world.