If you were forced to pick between only having Shabbat lights or only having Chanukah lights, which would you choose?
Would you choose the light of Chanukah, the light of good chasing away evil, the light of mysticism, the light of supernal realms revealing what’s hidden in our world?
Or would you choose the light of Shabbat, the light of home, the light of peace, the light of prayer?
The Shulchan Aruch, Code of Jewish Law, answers as follows:
If you were absolutely forced to choose one over the other, you should choose shabbat light. Why? Because, says the Shulchan Aruch, we need “shalom bayit” – peace in the home.
What’s the connection between Shabbat light and shalom bayit, and why does that trump Chanukah?
Shabbat candles were originally lit not to publicize miracles or tell a story. They had a much more simple purpose – before electricity, if you didn’t light a long burning lamp before shabbat started, you’d wind up spending a lot of shabbat in the dark. A shabbat spent bumping into each other, stubbing toes, is a grumpy shabbat. There can be no peace in the home when we are literally blind to those around us.
Chanukah candles, on the other hand, are the opposite. No utility. We are not permitted to use their light for any functional purpose; they exist only as symbol and message: miracles, perseverance, good triumphing over evil. Unlike the shabbat candles which are supposed to be placed deep in the home, Chanukah candles are meant to be placed on the edges of the home, even outside. Their light is for the world to see.
We all want to be that symbol, we all want to let our light radiate out. But the Shulchan Aruch is teaching an important spiritual principle, in addition to the legal one. Before you can shine for the whole wide world, make sure there is light in your home..
So as we get ready to light the Chanukah lights tomorrow, don’t forget to make sure we have our shabbat candles ready to go too. This is the time to rededicate ourselves to the forces of light and goodness in a world where there is so much darkness, but in order to do that we must make sure that our inner lights, the lights of home, of relationships, of our selves, are burning brightly.