Friday, July 16, 2010

The Soul is the Lamp of the Lord: Candle Divination

We Jews love our candles. Candles accompany us from birth to death...and beyond. The linking of light to life cycle is probably inspired by the passage, "The lamp of Adonai searches the spirit of a man; it searches out his inmost being" (Proverbs 20:27). According to the Talmud, a light shines above the head of a soul while it awaits birth in the womb and the illumination allows the soul to see from one end of the universe to the other (B.T. Niddah 30b)[1]

David Sperber in his book The Jewish Life Cycle, traces one fascinating aspect of the Jewish love affair with candles - the mantic use of candles to determine when a soul will be extinguished. In the Talmud there is a tradition associated with Rosh ha-Shanah, the Jewish New Year. According to Tractate Horayot 12a, a person may divine whether he or she will live out the year to come by kindling a lamp in a draft-free location. If the lamp or candle burns until its fuel is utterly consumed, the person would live. If, for whatever reason, it gutted before the fuel was used up, that was a sign that death would come that year. Apparently, this belief became so widespread that separate custom of lighting a candle for Yom Kippur (the Yom Tov lights) became conflated with this idea. In order to keep panic from sweeping a household, it was decided in Eastern Europe that the synagogue sexton would tend all the candles together at the shul. That way, individuals would not know if any candles that extinguished prematurely among the multitude was their candle!

For a Jew who had the misfortune to see their candle go out, it was said that if they made special supplications for the remainder of Yom Kippur and rekindled the light after the holiday, and it subsequently completed burned up, it was a sign that their repentance had redeemed them and the evil decree was repealed.

Jews in Morocco had a variant belief. Two candles would be lit, one for each of a newlywed couple, and the first candle that went out would be a augury that that partner would die first.

Zal g’mor: To learn more, read the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism:http://www.amazon.com/Encyclopedia-Jewish-Myth-Magic-Mysticism/dp/0738709050

[1] This is a variation on the tradition that Adam Kadmon, the primordial human, shined with a supernal body and that he had the power to see the entire cosmos.