Candles and flames play a central role in Jewish life. We know them from yahrzeits and periods of mourning, because the Jewish soul is compared to a flame; we know them from the holiday of Chanukah, when we increase the amount of candles we light on the Menorah for eight nights; and of course we light candles to usher in every Shabbat and biblical festival, in order to enhance family life on our holy days.
Candles are also used on other occasions, such as when searching for chametz the night before Passover and at a chupah when the bride circles the groom seven times. We light bonfires on Lag B’omer, and we recite a blessing on a special multi-wicked candle to mark the conclusion of Shabbat.
But there is one lighting of candles mentioned in the Talmud that’s a real head-scratcher.
The context is in the laws of tzaraat, biblical leprosy, which is considered the harshest form of ritual impurity a person can contract. It is so harsh, that if someone stricken by tzaraat (a “metzora”) enters a home everything in that structure becomes impure as well. But what happens when a metzora enters someone else’s house? Does he cause all of that person’s belongings to become impure?
So that Talmud says that it depends on whether the metzora was invited by the homeowner or if he showed up uninvited. If it’s the former, then indeed everything in the house becomes ritually impure. But if he wasn’t invited and just showed up on his own, the homeowner is provided with a window to tell the metzora to leave. That window is referred to as “the amount of time it takes to light a candle.”
While seemingly an odd form of time allotment to ask someone to leave, the idea behind it is that the homeowner might be in the middle of lighting his Shabbat candles and thus would need an extra moment or two to expel the intruder. And once that’s the time frame given, it is extended to other situations—even when the homeowner isn’t lighting Shabbat candles—as the window to send the metzora away before the owner’s property becomes defiled.
The purpose of lighting Shabbat candles is to usher in a sense of peace and tranquility to the home. Of course, the flame has spiritual significance, but in order to actually bring the peace of Shabbat into the home, a physical candle must be lit. This isn’t accomplished by meditating on something spiritual or divine, it has to come through actually lighting a flame on a wick.
In a way, this is symbolic of Judaism as a whole and the many mitzvahs we are obligated to observe. The intent and mediation associated with each mitzvah is certainly important, but only as part of the actual fulfillment of the mitzvah. Just like you can’t expect your thinking about a candle to cause your home to be illuminated, you shouldn’t expect to have the spiritual benefit of a mitzvah without physically doing the mitzvah.
So when it comes to tzaraat—which, being the harshest form of impurity a person can experience, is symbolic of the furthest a person can be from holiness and spirituality—the only way to counter it and prevent it from taking over, is by lighting Shabbat candles. Not just thinking bright thoughts, but actually lighting the candle.
That’s why, even when it isn’t Shabbat and the homeowner is not in the process of lighting candles, he is reminded that the way a Jew counters the darkness and impurity of the world around him, is by bringing more light into the world.
And that is achieved by the tangle performance of mitzvahs, every single day.