My grandmother did it, and my mother did, too. And yet, until Covid-19, I did not light Shabbat candles.
But my older daughter, Rhonda, an occupational therapist in a rehab facility, had become a front line worker. My younger, Leslie, was going through rounds of treatment for stage 4 breast cancer. I kept thinking: What if? What if?
I feared for my children’s lives. I could not Zoom, write, exercise, or even eat my way out of that fear. Pray, you say? To the God of Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah? It didn’t seem right. I feel like the world is teeming with prayers, many from folks who have kept the faith. But I’m not particularly observant. I drive on Shabbat. I don’t keep kosher. I worried: Why should my prayers count? Yet I had to do something to ease my terrible anxiety.
I remembered back to when my mother died. Though I hardly went to synagogue before she passed, I started going every day in order to say kaddish in her honor. I was drawn to the ritual, wrapped in the comfort of the ancient prayer. Her candles, I thought. Her ritual. Maybe they would help me. And so, I dug up my mother’s Lenox candlesticks, dusted them off, and found myself on a Friday evening lighting them and saying the blessing: “Blessed are you, Adonai our God, Sovereign of all, who hallows us with mitzvot [blessings], commanding us to kindle the light of Shabbat.”
The custom of lighting Shabbat candles goes back eons, when Jewish elders decided to light the house before sundown. They saw mitzvah as a lamp, the Torah as light. Candles are light, or a path to Torah. Plus, food tastes better when you see it. Engage the senses and make the Sabbath meal, which is served after the candles are lit, a true pleasure.
The following week, I posed the question to my daughters: What do you say we all light Shabbat candles via Facetime this Friday? (God bless technology!)
They opted in. But then the negotiations began: What time should we light? Finally, we arrived at a workable hour for all. My mother’s candle holders at the ready, I made the call from Queens to Staten Island and then to Seattle.
My daughters gathered their families around their screens. “Why are we doing this?!” said my grandson, as only a 16-year-old torn from his video game can say.
“Because we’re Jewish. And that’s what Jews do!” said Rhonda, working her mom mojo, tight and to the point.
We lit the candles and said the blessing. Rhonda had bought a challah, or what passes for challah in their Washington town with only two Jewish families: “…haMotzi lechem min haaretz.” We blessed the wine: “…borei p’ri hagafen.” Behind the burning flames, our FaceTime images smiled; we wished one another a Shabbat Shalom. My daughters and I remained on our phones while the rest of the family drifted away to their own interests.
Work, friends, the dreaded virus, the minutiae of our lives — our talk was the same as our regular, day-to-day conversations. Yet there was something different. Something special had been added to our post candle-lighting chat. A kind of peace? A sense of hope? An overall feeling that it was going to be OK? (The it being Rhonda’s safety; Leslie’s health.) I can’t put a finger on it, but whatever it was, they must have felt it, too. Because when it was time to say goodbye, Leslie offered, “Let’s do this again next week.” Rhonda was in.
It’s been two months now, and we’ve been lighting candles together every Friday evening. My grandson comes to table sans gripe. (Well, most of the time.) The thick of Covid has thankfully thinned in the rehab facility where Rhonda works. Leslie is responding to her new treatment. My anxiety has dimmed, but not my enthusiasm for our candle-lighting — or my daughters’ interest in it. “What time is Shabbat?” they text me each Friday. It makes me smile: I love how religious they sound, even though they are anything but. And that’s OK. Is it possible that their bond to their heritage shines in their cells, just as it shines in mine? Perhaps our traditions thread through the generations, into the Shabbat candles — that burning flame, enduring, constant.
Looking to create a Shabbat tradition in your own family? Check out the brand-new Kveller Shabbat Guide here!
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