We need to talk candles. I don’t get it. Someone recently gave me a candle to say thank you for some assistance. It was a lot of work. I was happy to do it for her, but the candle gift was confusing. When I brought it home, one of my children said, “Those are really, really expensive candles.” How expensive can a candle possibly be? Five dollars? Not even. She looked it up. Sixty dollars. I’m not worth that. I must have missed this new trend in wax. At that price, why would anyone ever light a candle?
It got me wondering. What is the most expensive candle you can buy today? That information was only one search away. Lalique makes a candle for, get this, $718.75 excluding VAT. This is a sale price. It wasn’t even a tall candle, like those shiva ones that go for a whole week. I don’t think you’d even get an afternoon out of it. But this is still not the most expensive candle. The most expensive candle is made by Luxury Soy Candles and is called “The Ultimate Luxury Candle.” It is encircled with a diamond bow necklace of 2.23 carats. The price for you? $5,000. If you want to light two for Shabbat, I’ll see if we can get them down to $9,000.
Here’s the irony of it all. Remember when you were a kid and you drank from the little yahrtzeit candle glasses that people saved after they used them? My bubbe had service for 12, minimally. When I finished using my $60 candle, it didn’t even make a good glass. I had to put it in recycling. What a waste.
But this insane discussion did get me thinking about the significance of candles in my own life. The mitzvah of candlelighting was, I believe, the first one I observed on my path to an intensified Jewish life. Those small two flames from thin, white Shabbat candles created a way forward, a light that grew into other mitzvot: prayer, study, full Sabbath observance, kashrut, a desire to go to Jewish day school. That cheap candle set of tin masking itself as brass held my Jewish future. I just didn’t know it at the time.
Now, candlelighting is pure joy without any of the hardship of the earlier years: the family arguments about religion, the nail-biting difficulty of learning to pray, the challenge of keeping Shabbat and kashrut alone as a young teenager. Today my daughters light candles. More importantly, that light eventually lit the way back home for my mother and grandmother, of blessed memory, as they made their way back to Judaism. All because of those candles.
On Friday afternoon, we rush to light candles at a very specific minute so that after we light them, time ceases to matter. We enter the sanctity of a time-free zone where our only clock for the next 25 hours measures the spiritual force we put into making Shabbat extraordinary. As someone always bound by the demands and confines of time, I take off my watch right before candle lighting to remind myself to step into that transcendent zone and leave this world behind for a little while.
We never know what one ritual in our lives can turn into. Robust Jewish life is not an all or nothing gambit. Think instead about the parents who “keep nothing” and decide to bless their children each Friday night. Creating that family moment of tenderness and holiness may one day turn into a whole Friday night dinner with guests. Or not. More than one serious Jewish philanthropist has shared with me that his or her charitable impulse was nurtured by a parent who cared about this one mitzvah. The parent had, from the child’s earliest years, insisted that a cut of the kids’ weekly allowance went to tzedakah. The pushke one day turned into a foundation. Perhaps that’s the thinking behind the rabbinic advice to make one mitzvah particularly beloved. We should personalize altruistic or spiritual behaviors. Sometimes something small when done right can easily become something bigger. So what’s your special mitzvah?
Of course, I was worried that since my early days of candle lighting, the price on those plain, thin, white candles had gone up, given this new, crazy candle fervor. Here’s what one of these candles will set you back. You can buy a box of 72 for $6.99. I don’t believe there is any VAT charge associated with them. My calculator renders each candle at about 9.7 cents. For less than a quarter, you can light Shabbat candles for several hours and bring extraordinary light into your home. No diamond necessary. The gem is in the light.
Erica Brown directs George Washington University’s Mayberg Center for Jewish Education and Leadership. Her column appears the first week of the month.