Candles are some of the most ubiquitous magical tools around. Most people think of candles to some degree when they think about magic and witchcraft. They are beautiful. And they are most certainly magical. Any mundane candle can be used to herald magic into any given moment. Most witches work with candles to some degree. But what role does candle magic play in Judaism specifically? Let’s find out.
Shabbat is the Jewish day of rest which begins at sunset on Friday evening and lasts just past sunset on Saturday evening. Shabbat is ushered in with the lighting of candles. Traditionally this was done by the woman of the house as it is said that women have the responsibility of bringing peace and joy into the home. Many mothers encourage their daughters to light candles as well beginning at age 3 (the age when boys have their first haircut). Today the gender distinction for candle lighting isn’t as ubiquitous, and we often see men and non binary folks lighting candles as well.
It is said that the custom of lighting Shabbat candles goes back to our matriarch, Sarah. As the legend states, Sarah first lit Shabbat candles in her tent and they miraculously remained lit for the entire week. Once Sarah passed away, her daughter in law, Rivkah, began lighting Shabbat candles. Her candles, too, remained lit for the week.
Lighting candles is done to usher in the Shabbat Queen- the Shekinah, or feminine spirit of the Divine. The custom is for single people to light one candle and married people to light two. Some people also add a candle for each member of the family. The traditional time for lighting candles is no later than 18 minutes prior to sundown, although many people do not keep the strict timeliness of candle lighting. When lighting candles, it is customary to light the candles, wave the hands over the flame three times directing the light to the eyes, and then recite the candle lighting blessing while covering the eyes. Once Shabbat candles are lit, they are to remain lit until they burn themselves out. Many people buy special Shabbat candles, but any candle that will burn for at least half an hour past sundown is kosher for Shabbat.
Candles are used to end Shabbat just as they are used to usher in the day of rest. The Havdalah ceremony features items that involve all of our senses. The candle encourages us to utilze our sense of sight and feeling through vieiwing the flame and feeling its heat upon our skin.
The Havdalah candle is a multi-wicked braided candle. It can be simple or extremely intricate. In a pinch you can hold multiple small candles together with the wicks close enough to burn as one.
While there are other blessings and items used, I will discuss only the candle here. The candle is lit and held aloft while the blessing is said. Then each participant holds their hands up to the flame wiht their fingers curled inward to watch the flame’s flickers on their nails and through their fingers. Some people also have the custom of looking into the eys of those nearby in order to watch the glow of the flame there.
Almost every Jewish holiday begins with lighting candles. In most instances, the candles used for Shabbat are also used for holidays. This is because Shabbat is said to be the Queen of Jewish holidays coming each week to give us a holy day of rest.
Soul candles (ner neshama) are a special kind of holiday candle most closely associated with Yom Kippur. They are used for that holiday as well as other holidays, for healing purposes, and for mourning. Soul candles are, in my opinion, the witchiest form of candle magic in Judaism.
Soul candles were a ritual for women and gender non-conforming people to have an avenue within the synagogue during Yom Kippur celebrations. They would make the candles and then give them to the Rabbi for use during the holy day. The person making the candles would hire a feldmesterin (cemetery measurer- an older woman within the Jewish community) to take candle wick and measure around a single grave or an entire cemetery depending on if it was a Jewish cemetery or not. The feldmesterin would take the string and measure around the graves. Once the wick laying was done, the wick material used would be given to the one ordering the measuring. This would then be used as the wicks in the candles made.
Along with soul candles, Yahrzeit candles seem most witchy to me. Don’t get me wrong, all candle rituals within Judaism are magical rituals, but those that connect us with our ancestors are specially potent for me. And that include Yahrzeit candles.
These are candles that burn for 25 hours and are used for memorial purposes. They are lit on the anniversary of a loved one’s death as well as for special Yizkor (remembrance) ceremonies that occur at certain holidays throughout the year. In years past they would be handmade with the wicks laid by feldmesterin and thus, were themselves soul candles.
I would venture to guess that Chanukah candles are the most widely recognized form of candle magic in Judaism in the world. Of course this is due to the inaccurate comparison of Chaunkah with Christmas. These sweet little candles are used in the Chanukiyah (Chanukah menorah) to commemorate the miracle of oil.
The Ner Tamid is the eternal flame found in most synagogues. It is located above the ark and shines above the Torah scroll. It is meant to represent the eternal flame within the Temple. Today electric lights are most commonly used for safety reasons.
These are just the most common examples of candle magic within Judaism, and many witches choose to use candles as a daily part of their practice. Candles, whether part of these rituals or others, can be used for sending intention heavenward, for burning and releasing thoughts and words, or for diviniation purposes. However you use candles, it is my hope that you now see the beauty and magic behind the many ways candles are used within Judaism.