(photo credit: Detroit Free Press/MCT)
The shortest Friday of the year comes upon us this week: the earliest time to light Shabbat candles and halt weekday toil. It starts at 3:59 p.m. in Jerusalem, at 4:11 in New York where my friend Bronya Shaffer lives.
This story could never have happened on a short Friday. Observant Jews know that you can’t squeeze much into a short Friday.
But on those last autumn Fridays, before our clocks are adjusted backwards for winter rhythms, it’s easier to lose track of the approaching sunset, to agree to one additional appointment with someone who needs advice, and to begin the final preparations for Shabbat a little late. And then, the last hour before Shabbat is conducted in fast forward.
My friend Bronya is a person of intelligence, gentility and piety. From the moment she lands in Israel, she is a sought out personal consultant and speaker about the toughest spiritual challenges.
On the first Friday night after she arrived in Jerusalem, she had promised to speak at a dinner for a group of lone soldiers at a communal dinner.
In that last rushed hour before Shabbat, Bronya realized she hadn’t received the exact address of the venue for her evening talk. The contact person wasn’t answering his phone. We discussed the possibility of her lighting Shabbat candles early with the stipulation that she wasn’t accepting Shabbat, so she would have time to find the place. This is a loophole that neither of us is fond of, but seemed like the safest choice.
I set up Shabbat candles for her. But before we expected it, the taxi we had ordered arrived.
The driver was trumpeting his horn below on the street, like the announcement of approaching Shabbat once sounded from the Temple courtyard.
In one of those precious Jerusalem moments, the bareheaded driver berated us – two women with covered hair – about not coming down the stairs with alacrity. Didn’t we know that he had to get home before Shabbat? Despite his irritation, he promised to help my friend and deliver her to her approximate destination.
I concluded the financial negotiation and paid him. Only on the way back up the stairs did I realize that Bronya had left without lighting her candles. Of course, she hadn’t taken her phone because it would soon be Shabbat.
I knew that she’d want me to light the candles for her, and so I did, when I lit my own, trying to send her a psychic message that they were taken care of.
In the meantime, in the cab, Bronya had realized her error and felt angry at herself. The driver let her off near the Ma’ayanot Synagogue in Sha’arei Hessed. She remembered the evening organizer mentioning that the soldiers’ dinner would be nearby. She went inside the synagogue. There were candles but no matches.
But as fortune would have it, Rabbi Shlomo Gestetner, whom she’d known for decades, walked in. He didn’t have matches either.
“Just go to my home,” he advised her, where his wife, Rivka Marga, was getting ready for Shabbat. (Thinking back on this, Bronya would later realize that lighting in the synagogue would have been a halachic misstep.) Rabbi Gestetner gave her directions in the old Jerusalem neighborhood of small streets.
Bronya set out, but with all the right turns and left turns, she was soon lost. The sun was sinking lower in the sky.
A grandmother many times over, Bronya had never missed candelighting since she began lighting as a child. The home in Crown Heights that she established with her late husband, Gedalya, is bright with many glowing candles on Friday night. She lights candles for her own 10 children and others, together with visiting family and friends, and strangers she welcomes in her home. Dozens of candles float in a glass tureen welcoming Shabbat.
Just when she thought she’d never find the Gestetner home, Bronya thought she heard someone calling, “Mrs. Shaffer, Mrs. Shaffer.”
A young woman approached her. “Don’t you remember me?” asked the young woman.
“I’m Elaine. I came to your home several years ago to make a documentary about women’s rituals around the world. I came to Crown Heights to see Jewish women’s rituals – particularly candle lighting.”
Bronya did remember, and appreciated the irony. Still, she explained her predicament.
“Why don’t you come with me to the friend’s apartment I’m staying in?” Elaine suggested. “There are candles all over the place.”
As they hurried to the stranger’s apartment, Elaine said she was so glad to have met Bronya again. “I always felt bad that when I was at your home in Crown Heights, you invited me to light candles, too, and I didn’t. You know I’m not religious and don’t go in for that kind of thing, rituals and all, but it wasn’t nice the way I said it.
“You were so emotional when you lit your candles. Your son had just joined the Israeli army and you felt so connected with mothers of soldiers praying for their sons and daughters.”
Indeed, the borrowed apartment had a cache of candles. Bronya heaved a sigh of relief and began setting them up. This time Elaine didn’t have a movie camera, but she wanted to take Bronya’s picture with a stills camera.“I’m not religious myself,” Elaine repeated. “I don’t do these things.”
Bronya turned to her. “I’m so grateful for your help in something so important to me.
Could you please bring me another candle? I’m going to light one for you.”
While Bronya was preparing the extra candle, Elaine mentioned she’d gotten married.
“I’d have to light two candles now,” smiled the filmmaker. “I was single when I met you, but I actually got married not long ago.”
“To a Jewish man?” asked Bronya.
“Yes,” Elaine answered. “I actually married a nice Jewish guy.”
In that case, Bronya pointed out, in the way only she can – encouraging, but never coercive – it would be a shame not to light candles. There was such a long and beautiful tradition of Jewish women bringing light into their homes.
The final time for candlelighting was now minutes away. Take-off. “I have an idea,” said Bronya. “Instead of you taking my picture, I’ll take your picture and then I’ll light my candles.”
Elaine shrugged and agreed.
With Bronya’s guidance, she lit Shabbat candles for the first time. As she said the last words of the blessing, “on the holy Shabbat,” tears were streaming down her face.
“I’ve never done anything like this before,” Elaine said.
Bronya hugged her and lit her own candles, sending up prayers for her loved ones and inhaling Shabbat peace.
Later that evening, while Bronya was speaking after dinner for the lone soldiers, who had invited her because of her own son’s IDF service, she told them how she took full responsibility for her mistakes. She should have been ready on time, jet-lag notwithstanding.
She should have lit the candles no matter how many times the taxi honked. Then she paused and looked at the young persons in the room.
“But have you ever noticed, that the Aibishter,” she said, using the Yiddish word for the “One on high,” “has a way of guiding you just where you need to be?”
The author is a Jerusalem writer who focuses on the wondrous stories of modern Israel. She serves as the Israel director of public relations for Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. The views in her columns are her own.