“Creator of the Fire’s Lights”
“Creator of the Fire’s Lights” Light and Fire in the Jewish Circle of Life and Festivals
Alternate Text

“And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.” The biblical story of the Creation commences with the separation of darkness from light and the creation of the luminaries – the sun and the moon – that provide spatial and temporal orientation: “God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness.” In the history of human development, the point in time when man discovered fire and began harnessing it is regarded as a pivotal moment in the evolution of culture. Considering Jewish culture, the circle of life, and the cycle of Jewish festivals, light and fire are central to both religious and secular ceremonies: From the Sabbath table, the Sabbath candles and the havdalah candle, through the lamps and torches of Hanukkah, the ritual of burning the chametz (leaven) before Passover, the bonfires at Lag BaOmer and the flames of memorial candles symbolizing the souls of the departed, fire becomes a recurring, ever-present physical and symbolic motif. The containers for fire and the various forms in which fire appears on different occasions are used to cast its flame, whose captivating presence kindles our emotions and sparks reflection on our culture, our place in life, and our inner light. The diverse artifacts in the exhibition – ranging from ancient oil lamps to traditional items and modern, conceptual exhibits – provide an insight into the place of fire and its significance for Jewish culture, from antiquity to the present day.

The Jewish week begins and ends with a symbolic reminder of the Creation. The light of the Sabbath candles creates a sense of peace and tranquility in the home: “Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done.” The flame of the havdalah candle – lit to usher out the Sabbath while the “Creator of all the Fire’s Lights” blessing is said – symbolizes a return to mundane, weekday activities. These candle-lighting ceremonies, which take place within the home, mark the moment when the family gathers together. The spellbinding flicker of the flame helps us put aside our disagreements and dissipates all bad feelings.

During the festival of Hanukkah, fire moves from the household to the public sphere as the Hanukkah candles are lit and the light of the intimate, the personal, the family and the home is cast outward. The ceremony, which illuminates countless Hanukkah lamps in the windows of homes, is a unifying force that spreads light and expels darkness, both figuratively and symbolically, making the Hanukkah lamp an object of great significance in Jewish culture.

Prior to the Passover festival, fire is used to cleanse the home and its surroundings from chametz, when participating in preparing the home and the community for Passover provides an opportunity for a new beginning. At Lag BaOmer – a festival whose origins are shrouded in mystery – the community-home setting is replaced by that of the natural world and the mystic power of fire is celebrated by gathering around bonfires that were lit in ancient times on the tops of hills and used (among other things) as beacons to transmit messages between different communities.

Together with the ritual and physical function of fire, the symbolism of the flame and a person’s inner light are also an inherent part of Jewish tradition. A person’s soul is likened to the flame of a candle, illuminating us both inwardly and outwardly. Throughout our life, we have an opportunity and a duty to share our inner light with others. At death, family and friends light a memorial candle whose flame reminds us of the soul and the light that has been extinguished.

Although its origin is not entirely certain, a quotation attributed to Rabbi Kook states:

Each of US must know that a candle burns within us – a unique candle with its own distinct light.  Each of us must understand that we must strive to reveal the light from within and combine our lights into a great flame that will illuminate the world.

The exhibition is held in memory of Yael Wiesel, of blessed memory, the museum’s curator who passed away suddenly while working on it. She was a shining inspiration and a guiding light for all around her, whose flame was extinguished long before its time.

Merav Rahat