Light is the genesis – the creation of the world. The primary utterance
of creation is “Let there be light,” its separation from darkness. The Midrash
asks – from what was light created? The answer is whispered: “G-d cloaked
Himself in a white shawl, and the light of its splendor shone from one end of
the world to the other” (Genesis Rabba 3:4).
In other words,
fundamentally, light does not belong to this world. Rather, it is an emanation
of a different essence, from the other side of reality. Light serves as
the symbol of good and the beautiful, of all that is positive.
difference between light and darkness assumes such a general and metaphysical
significance, and the advantage of light over darkness is so obvious and
self-evident that it serves as a sharp metaphor: “...wisdom excels folly as far
as light excels darkness” (Ecclesiastes 2:13). Light as a positive symbol is so
prevalent in Biblical Hebrew that redemption, truth, justice, peace and even
life itself “shine,” and their revelation is expressed in terms of the
revelation of light.
The symbolism of light goes even higher. Divine
revelation is itself a revelation of light, the righteous people (tzadikim) in
the Garden of Eden are said to “bask in the light of Shekhinah [the Divine
presence],” and even G-d Himself is described as “my light and my salvation”
The use of light as a symbolic expression of the positive
aspect of reality is not limited to the realm of language. It is realized also
in the use of light and lamps as concrete means of expression. These symbolize
and point to an essence that contains holiness, in all its different appearances
in reality: in the sanctity of place (in the Holy of Holies at the Temple), in
the sanctity of time (on the Sabbath and Festivals) and in the sanctity and
importance of events (on special occasions).
THE TEMPLE menorah, for all
its ornate and elaborate craftsmanship, did not serve any practical
purpose. It was there as a symbol of the holiness of that place, its
relation to light. The menorah was a sphere of sunlight, which shone through the
walls and curtains. It is little wonder that this meaning of the Temple menorah
was conceived by the Jewish people as the symbol par excellence of Jewish
existence, as can be seen in Jewish ornaments from all periods.
goes for the Sabbath and Festival candles. Initially, the Sabbath candles
were lit for a very prosaic reason – to make light for those who eat the Sabbath
evening meal, so that they would not spend the evening in utter darkness. The
light of the candles has turned into the very symbol of the Sabbath itself, a
sort of “light of the seven days of Creation,” shining in a sanctified niche of
The festival of Hanukka is expressed by the ceremonial lighting of
candles, which increase daily in number – to symbolize how “light exceeds
darkness” in the festival of victory, purification and historic upheaval. So,
too, is the tradition for parents to escort their children to the wedding canopy
with candles or torches. They are a light of pure joy and hope.
overall significance of light as an expression of the good and the beautiful is,
then, divided into shades and sub-shades of meaning. The general “light” of the
beginning of creation, a light that contains all of reality, is divided into
individual lights, each of which has its own identity, both in terms of its role
and the emotions that it expresses and awakens.
Thus, on one hand we have
the light of the Holy place, which does not even have to be seen, while on the
other hand is the light of the Shabbat candles, which is to be used. The Hanukka
candles are “holy” – we have no right to use them, but only to behold them. The
same goes for the messages that these lights convey: glory, the joy of victory,
a remembrance of eternity, or an outburst of merriment.
This multitude of
meanings exists not only from the viewpoint of the onlooker. The meaning of
every light is embodied in a tangible form in the material utensil of light. The
difference between the single wicks of the Sabbath candles and the braided torch
of the Havdala candle is the distinction between a light of calmness, of repose
and of homeliness, and the stronger light of the torch – a light with which, on
the one hand, accompanies the departing queen, and on the other, lights the
darkness which becomes more marked in her absence. The Hanukka candles
stand in one line to mark and count the days, and the shamash
servant) candle, stands apart to indicate that, unlike the other candles, it is
there for practical use.
Yet, above all, the function of light is to
illuminate. In Judaism, darkness has never had religious significance.
The curtain of darkness and mist is the kelipah
(husk or shell). And to the
extent that light does have a role to play, it is, as the Sefer Yetzirah
that “the existence of darkness underscores light, emphasizes the yearning for
it.” Or, to put it in the words of the Hassidic master Rabbi Israel Ba’al Shem
Tov said: The Hebrew word for light (ohr
) has the same numerical value in
Gematria as the word for secret (raz
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