Monday, February 01, 2010

Lighting candles for Jewish saints

So Dreaming Of Moshiach has taken the offensive in defense of worries that she is promoting idolatrous practice. She writes, in her latest post:
It has been brought to my attention that there are unfortunately uneducated Jews who think that lighting a candle for Tzaddikim other than on their Yartzeit day is chas vechalila idolatrous practice.

The following is proof that it has always been the Jewish tradition to light candles for loved ones and Tzaddikim anywhere and anytime...
Here is the thing. Indeed, one commenter suggested this, and there might be merit to it, or there might not be. But my concerns, at least, are not about the practices, but rather about what happens when one combines practices with dubious beliefs. This is just as some meforshim explain the move towards kohanim offering sacrifices. Beforehand, on a private altar, the person bringing the sacrifice might have incorrect thoughts, and end up offering to the demons of the field, the se'irim. Have them all bring to a central place, and the kohen will have the appropriate intent.

Lighting a candle in honor of a deceased tzaddik, making a party in honor of Devorah, praying at a kever -- independently, these might be perfectly fine practices. But if the person doing it believes that he or she is davening to the tzaddik; or that the tzaddik is not a mere meilitz yosher, but independently evaluates requests and fulfills them himself; or that the tzaddik takes the corporeal form of a bird and goes out on missions, then, these beliefs may well combine with the practices to transform the practice into an idolatrous one. The candle might very well be intended as an offering to the deceased, who benefits from it, and can bring benefits to the one who burns it. The meal in gratitude can be idolatrous, as it would be if the Table for Eliyahu meant the same thing.

I did not attack the customs themselves. This is not because I think that they are unassailable. Rather, if I did that, I could be readily dismissed as taking a 'rational' approach as opposed to a 'mystical' approach, such that it is a legitimate machlokes. Rather, I will grant the legitimacy of the practices, but point out what happens when you combine them with this meshugga beliefs. This is an answer, also, to the first anonymous commenter on the post, who accused me of arguing from ignorance of the well-established Sefardic customs. I was not attacking the customs, but rather the practices when combined with these particular beliefs.

That is not to say that the commenter who said that candles lit not during a yahrtzheit were avodah zarah was entirely off the mark. She may indeed be quite correct. Lighting a candle during a yahrtzheit is quite possibly derived from avodah zarah, though of course all sorts of explanations arose to justify the practice. But that was justified particularly for Yom Kippur and for the anniversary of the death. As far as I can tell with fairly limited research, lighting a candle during other times that the yahrtzheit is not universally practiced. And if not universally practiced, then there may well be some legitimacy in questioning whether it is avodah zarah, much like Catholics light candles to particular saints. I am not saying it is certainly wrong, or that there are not probably sources nowadays to back up the practice.

In terms of yahrtzeits, see this, to the right.

In terms of Dreaming Of Moshiach's "proof", as far as I can make out, she combines quotes from various sources to make her point. One citation from Rabbenu Bachyah about the Neshama benefiting from the light of the Menorah in the Beis HaMikdash (see here
, page 37), which is not a particular declaration that one should light candles for the deceased. The Ben Ish Chai about this. The Mishna Brura talking about lighting candles particularly for the duration of Yom Kippur. And finally, the only portion that directly addresses the question of lighting on a day other than the Yahrtzeit -- an unattributed statement that one can:

אפשר להדליק נרות לעילוי נשמות הצדיקים בכל עת ובכל זמן, ולבקש מהקב`ה שבזכות הצדיק יקבל הקב`ה את התפילה.
You can light candles le iluy nishmot of the Tzadikim anytime and anywhere and ask HKB'H in the zchut of the Tzaddik, HKB'H will accept your prayers.
This is lifted from "Menasheh Yisrael" of Hidabroot. (In fact, other quotes, such as the Rabbenu Bachya quote also seem to be lifted from there as well.) Fine, but the post would have been much stronger were there a primary source, such as the Ben Ish Chai, or Mishnah Berurah, as was given for the other points -- especially if the claim is that it has always been the Jewish tradition to do this, anytime and anywhere!


Devorah said...

I don't think DOM was going on the offensive, she was responding to your offensive the other day.

That quote from the book says:
"This association of the flame with the soul is certainly pre-Christian".

So the Xtians didn't invent it. They probably took it from the Jews.

Some people light 5 candles during the shiva, one for each level of the soul.

it is a misconception that people (may) pray to the tzaddik/person for whom they are lighting the candle. That's like saying if you say mishnayos in the name of a deceased, you are also praying to them. Totally ridiculous.

We believe that a tzaddik has influence in Heaven whereas we may not. Therefore we pray at a tzaddik's grave, and may light a candle in his/her honour. It doesn't mean we pray TO them, G-d forbid, we pray to Hashem. We just hope that the tzaddik can intervene on our behalf.

joshwaxman said...

"I don't think DOM was going on the offensive"
Agreed. though the best defense is a good offense.

but in trying to establish a response, she claimed the ability to *prove* that lighting candles for the dead anytime and anywhere has *always* been Jewish tradition.

however, the purported proof showed no such thing. there was no evidence that Tannaim did this. (Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, in the source *I* cited, was a special case, as according to that aggada he returned to make kiddush every week). there was no evidence Amoraim did it. there was no evidence Rishonim did it, and the Rabbenu Bachya which was cited was not proof to this. indeed, the very practice of lighting candles, during Yom Kippur and Yartzeit, which is the minimal case, appears during the time of the Acharonim. So to counter a claim by "uneducated Jews" by "proving" that it has *always* been the case is extremely questionable.

also, she cites Ben Ish Chai and then, indirectly, a secondary source referring to an idea in Mishna Brurah, but there is nothing particular to those quotes that it means times even not during the Yahrzeit or Yom Kippur. Gor that, she anonymously cites one person writing today, as if this shows conclusively that this has always been the case.

i agree with the pre-Christian association. but this does not demonstrate a concrete practice of lighting candles. meanwhile, there is an explicit gemara in Avodah Zarah about lighting pyres for the dead being forbidden -- and this is then allowed particularly for Jewish kings, not for any random tzaddik. and meanwhile, we see no reference to the practice until it first became prevalent among Christians. there are then two ways of dealing with this. we can claim they got it from us, or we can say that we got it from them, but then in attempted justification of the practice of the hamon am, some people cited the Jewish, pre-Christian idea, as an apologetic. to me, the latter seems much more probable, given the evidence we have.

regardless, my concern was not towards the practices (mine here was just a response to the purported "proof"), but how the practices combine with particular belief. as you wrote, "Therefore we pray at a tzaddik's grave, and may light a candle in his/her honour. It doesn't mean we pray TO them, G-d forbid, we pray to Hashem. We just hope that the tzaddik can intervene on our behalf." but that did not seem to be DOM's belief, when she said that Miriam and the Abir Yaakov were evaluating the tefillot in order to b"h fulfill them.


Devorah said...

Judaism see similarity between a candle's flame and a soul. The connection between flames and souls derives from the Book of Proverbs (chapter 20, verse 27): "The soul of man is the light of God." Just as a flame is never still, the soul also continuously strives to reach up to God. Thus, the flickering flame of the Yahrzeit candle helps to remind us of the departed soul of our loved one.

joshwaxman said...

absolutely, that Judaism draws this parallel, based on Mishlei, ki ner Hashem nishmat Adam. but while this background is absolutely true, this was an explanation offered to a practice with no recorded history, and which became prevalent at the same time the Catholics were doing it, and using the same name (Jarzeit) that the Catholics were using. i am not convinced that the practice really draws from this Jewish background. there are plenty of newfangled practices which arise from the surrounding culture, or for other reasons, and which are subsequently rationalized on the basis of existing doctrine.


Devorah said...

So, G-d forbid, someone close to you dies. Chas v'shalom. What will you do?
I'm guessing you would still light a yarzheit candle.

joshwaxman said...

yes, in almost all likelihood, as an accepted Jewish practice, and given the emotional blow. i am certainly not consistent. and i wouldn't really criticize those who do it, and it has assumed a fairly neutral or even positive Jewish meaning. still, i wouldn't surmise that it has always been a Jewish practice.

i will similarly play dreidel, even for pennies, on chanukkah, even though it was initially a form of gambling on chanukkah condemned by contemporary rabbis, and even though i know the story of playing dreidel as a cover for learning Torah was a very late rationalization, and adaptation of another, similar Jewish story.

my goal here (at least in this post) is not to attack the existing practice. but at the same time, in the interest of emes, i would challenge assertions that this has *always* been Jewish practice...


Anonymous said...

While not objecting to these minhagim at all, I would point out that they are not observed by all Sepharadim. Though certainly in the minority, some Sepharadim--those of the so-called western communities for example--such as the Portuguese exile community traditionally do not observe them.



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