The Temple menorah served no practical purpose; It was a symbol of the holiness of the place, its relation to light. 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: “God 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.
The 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 God Himself is described as “my light and my salvation” (Psalms 27:1).
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.
The same 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 time.
The festival of Ḥanukkah 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.
The 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 Ḥanukkah 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 Ḥanukkaha candles stand in one line to mark and count the days, and the shamash (helper or 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 says, that “the existence of darkness underscores light, emphasizes the yearning for it.” Or, to put it in the words of the Ḥassidic master Rabbi Israel Ba’al Shem Tov said: The Hebrew word for light (or) has the same numerical value in Gematria as the word for secret (raz).
A version of this essay first appeared the online edition of The Jerusalem Post on 12/20/2011.