Candles and customs

In being the chosen people, Jews chose to connect with the unique oil from the olive, the product of a fruit rather than a seed, thus providing a unique constitution.

Hanukka candles in outdoor boxes light up the night in the capital’s Mea She’arim neighborhood (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Hanukka candles in outdoor boxes light up the night in the capital’s Mea She’arim neighborhood
Here we are again, immersed in the miracles of the Hanukka season and reconnecting ourselves with the earliest days of yore. As we delicately lifted our hanukkia from the mantle, we added candles to our shopping list.
Therein lay the link to our ancestors and defined the magic that we will pass on to our children. Did you purchase olive oil candles or make your own salt-covered wicks? Did you choose the exotic homemade candles from Safed or grab a blue box of insipid-colored candles and call it a day? In being the chosen people, Jews chose to connect with the unique oil from the olive, the product of a fruit rather than a seed, thus providing a unique constitution.
The Book of Exodus (27:20) is confident that Jewish readers will readily understand the instruction “And you should command the children of Israel and they should bring to you pure olive oil, hand crushed for illumination to keep a lamp constantly burning.”
It is certainly known as the “healthy oil” in the culinary department, but the reason families burn oil in the hanukkia is not for health benefits at all. In ancient times, the only option for the menorah was olive oil.
Of course, the miracle in the Holy Temple happened with oil because there were no insipid-colored candles in existence.
Even before that time, Jewish culture had an ancient connection to the powers of the golden liquid. Olive oil is the symbol of the deep and sublime reality of the soul and the Torah. In biblical times, olive oil was used to create light, but it was also the path to sanctification.
At the crowning of King David and King Solomon, there are records that they were anointed with oil, presumably on their regal clothes. To anoint means to smear or rub, so it’s hard to imagine ancient leaders subjecting themselves to this messy and slimy experience if oil were not recognized as a superior substance.
Long before the finest Israeli restaurants were imbuing us with the elegant flavors of heart-healthy olive oil, the Jews of Israel were proficient in the art of pressing olives. Olive oil has always been big business. The site of Ekron, probably located at Tel Mikne or Khirbet el-Muqanna, was home to the tribe of Judah, then to the tribe of Dan for more than 200 years. Excavations showed that these First Temple communities had built more than 50 oil presses. The tradition continues.
Some oil that you purchase this year will have been pressed from olive trees in groves that are more than 1,000 years old. The olive oil facility at Klazomenai, Turkey, dates back to 600 BCE.
The Gemara notes that any fuel may be used for kindling the Hanukka lights. If you cannot afford or obtain olive oil, any other oil or paraffin that burns with a clear flame can be used. Just don’t mix the two.
On the other hand, you can use oil candles on the first night and change to wax candles on another night – which works well if you are traveling and cannot purchase new supplies.
When olive oil is used for illumination, it must be chosen with these elements in mind: the color, the aroma, the bitterness and the pungency. Despite the varying range of natural antioxidants and pigments, we must have candle oil without adulterants. Oil-lamp oil has a free fatty acid content over 3.3% and is called “lampante.” Some oils are just too thick to draw a very high flame. That’s why ancient olive oil lamps leaned the wick to one side; it floated on the top. Overhead wick oil lamps didn’t come about until thinner oils were produced.
Olive oil won’t draw more than about an inch in height. This means that you won’t have much scent at all, which is important at Hanukka. A bad scent would make the hanukkia unkosher. Candles from the hanukkia must burn evenly, and you can adjust the wick to improve the light. But take care, as this is messy. On Shabbat, any adjustment is prohibited. The Rema, Rabbi Moshe Isserles, was a renowned scholar who lived in Cracow, Poland (1525-1572).
Among his many achievements were books he wrote on Kabbala, philosophy, astronomy and science. It was likely his writings that changed the course of European Jews on Hanukka. Probably because transportation was poor, olive oil was not easy to find. He therefore allowed for the use of smooth burning fuels, specifically candles.
Soon the use of candles became customary in Europe, and people became attached to this simple solution.
The children of that era, and many generations later, wanted to continue with the tradition of their parents and grandparents. Half the world’s Jewish population in the 18th century lived in Poland, and it is the subsequent generations of these families who are familiar with candles as opposed to olive oil for Hanukka.
There is a variety of candles that you can purchase today. The least expensive are white paraffin. These are made from a by-product of petroleum refinement, which is about as environmentally unfriendly as it sounds.
Paraffin wax starts life as sludge at the bottom of a barrel of crude oil. It undergoes bleaching and treatment by chemicals, and manufacturers will add color and fragrance, which increases the release of toxins when burned. Worse yet, Chinese suppliers are still prone to use a metal wick, which invariably includes lead.
Soy candles are somewhat healthier, but they still contain paraffin.
You can understand why 100% beeswax candles are increasingly popular. They have a clean-burning flame, a sweet odor, very little smoke and burn longer than paraffin candles. Many people find that these candles reduce allergies and hay fever because of the negative ions they release. When you have air pollutants suspended in the air, like dust, the molecules carry a positive charge. Beeswax candles negate this charge, and the pollutants fall to the ground.
Grandparents of long ago would have sensed, but little understood, the chemical and biomolecular structure of the candles they burned, yet it is this understanding that helps modern-day candle producers create the perfect hanukkia magic. You can buy a wide variety of candles: exotic, personal, simple and colorful. Ancient aromatic formulas are said to connect with specific spiritual frequencies and inspire spiritual wisdom. The ultimate choice is the legacy of your family.
Meanwhile, the light from the hanukkia is the generator of miracles in the world. The candle-lighting principle is simple. As you light your hanukkia, you can also think of a goal, visualize the end result, and focus your intent. This makes your wishes come true in the same way that people use birthday-cake candles. It never fails.
A burning candle is said to manifest the purest divine energy, and it brings God’s sacred purity close to us. Once a candle is lit, it picks up vibrations from its surroundings. This is one of the reasons that people use new candles every night of the holiday, but you don’t have to.
Now all you have to decide is whether you will light from right to left or from left to right…