The Meaning of the Flame: B'nei Mitzvah Are Not a Birthday Parties B Mitzvah! The Bar Mitzvah & Bat Mitzvah (R)evolution continues

The flame is a primary Jewish metaphor for the soul. Judaism enjoins us to be careful lest we put out the flame of someone's soul through careless or deliberate words or acts. A few decades ago a Christian caterer started the idea of a candle-lighting ceremony for bar/bat mitzvah parties, thinking it's a nice, normal thing to do at a birthday party. Bar/bat mitzvah is NOT a birthday party in intent, it is about crossing the threshold from childhood to empowered Jewish young adulthood. Besides, Jews don't light candles on Shabbat, no less blow them out! Nor do we blow out Hanukkah or Yartzeit candles. So what could we do that would be more authentically Jewish to honor family & friends?

First, let's learn more about candles in Judaism - we use a lot of them! Since candle flames are the Jewish ritual representation of the nature of the soul, it is customary to light on the anniversary of a family member's death, a yartzeit (in Yiddish yar=year, tzeit=time) candle to commemorate the travel of their soul from this plane of being.

For Shabbat or holiday candle-lighting, one customarily lights a pair candles, which mystics see as representing the feminine and masculine qualities within every human and similarly (really holographically) in the Cosmos or God. Some hassidim and mystics in other parts of the spectrum, like myself, recite an ancient verse before holy day candle lighting and lovemaking:

L'shem Yichud Kudsheh Brikh-hu u'Shekhinteh,
"for the sake of the unification of the Holy One, Blessed Be, with Shechinah," meaning that through this act may the fruits of masculine and feminine integration come to be - whether children, creativity, inner wholeness or world peace, be the intended results.

Blessing the Shabbat with candles can be understood in a symbolic way in order to appreciate the gift of having an expanded soul-life on Shabbat. A student once asked: "The Torah says that God made Shabbat first and then taught it to us. Momma, so what does God do for Shabbat candles?" The answer "God has us, our flickering souls are God's delight." (Yes, this is essentially a famous midrash). 

In the old-country candle-making was a spiritual activity. A babushkeh (Ukrainian grandmother) told us in her country girls used to gather with their mothers and aunts in the cemetery and roll out wax Havdallah candles on the hot stone grave markers, dedicating their candle-making to the souls of those gone from embodied life upon whose graves they were working.

Candles are very authentic Jewish prayer tools. Imagine a mirror on each side of my Shabbat candles, reflecting infinite pairs, as though every one of our ancestors and every Jewish person around the planet senses we are lighting with them.

Lubavitch Hassidim sometimes light five candles each morning, in individual shoe boxes of sand. (The sand is for fire safety.) Each begins meditating in front of the candles as a start to their weekday morning prayer practice. These  candles represent the Jewish mystical tradition of the five levels of the soul.

And on Hanukkah the freeing of the Jewish soul is represented with eight days of candle lighting. It takes a whole menorah to represent the Jewish people.

Dayenu - Isn't it "enough" that Shabbat candle lighting as a routine is comforting? In our fast-paced rapidly changing world some dependable, low-demand, comforting structures in time are welcome.

TRY THIS: So one idea to try while preparing for Bar Mitzvah or Bat Mitzvah, after you've said the blessing for candle lighting if it is a holiday, perhaps Hanukkah, or a Friday night family B-mitzvah dinner, you might try having those at the table take turns saying this sacred phrase from psalms to one of the family or guests: "In your light I see light." (B'oraykh neer-eh or) If you have a grandchild or best friend, have them say this to you, say it back to her or him, keep it going, perhaps take turns with others.  What do you feel with each person? What is new, or difficult, or awkward, or hopeful in the connection that happens through the verse? This fulfills the mitzvah of Hakarat HaTov, gratitude, acknowledging the good in the inner circle of our lives.

AND FOR A SATURDAY NIGHT BAR/BAT MITZVAH TRY THIS: As the Sabbath ends, we light a beautiful braided, multi-wicked Havdallah candle to symbolize how our souls braided closer together while enjoying sacred time and community....the flames dancing around the wicks reflects the dancing our souls have done together that particular Shabbat. Gather your guests in a circle as you prepare to do the Havdallah ritual, the bar/bat mitzvah student holds the candle and invites one tier of those present to dance into the circle, hold their hands up to receive the light and dance back to their place in the circle. "I invite my cousins to dance in, we are so honored you are here!" Next tier might be: "I invite my grandparents to dance in (or come forward to the handle), it means the world to us that you are here. We love you so much!" and so on with parents, friends, teachers, neighbors.

These make a nice transition from a birthday cake, which counts how old you are, which isn't at all the point of bar or bat mitzvah, which is about whether you know and live a mitzvah-centered life.