Service of the Heart (עבודת הלב): Exploring Prayer

This week's column was written by Rabbi Samuel Barth, Senior Lecturer in Liturgy and Worship, JTS

"These lights themselves are holy." 

Soon we light the candles of Hanukkah, which symbolize so many things. In this reflection, let us turn aside for a moment from the complex history and theology, and allow ourselves to enter the realm of kodesh—that which is holy. Hanerot Halalu (Siddur Sim Shalom, 193) is a curious text that we read, or sing, after lighting the hanukkiyah. It is not a blessing or a prayer, for it is not addressed to God; rather, it is a reminder to all who are gathered around the Hanukkah lights that we should not make use of them for any worldly purpose, for they are holy (kodesh hem).

There is a curious comparison with Shabbat candles: we might imagine that Shabbat is even holier than Hanukkah, for all normal work is prohibited—and during Hanukkah, life goes on as normal, with the addition perhaps of doughnuts and gifts. But concerning the candles of Shabbat, not only is it permitted, it is even praiseworthy to make use of them to read or to see the faces of our family and guests at the Shabbat meal. Our use of Shabbat candles affirms that on the most holy of days we do not need to sit in the dark.

The lights of Hanukkah create for us a small island of holiness on these days in which we remain engaged in work and all the myriad things that make up our lives. The blessings before lighting the candles affirm our connection with the past, with the struggles of political independence and spiritual identity upon which Hanukkah is based. The recitation of Hanerot Halalu reminds us to seek holiness and purity—once bound up with the Beit Hamikdash (Holy Temple) but now embedded in the texts and rituals of Jewish life. These small and flickering flames perhaps embody only too well the way in which we discern true holiness. On one hand, the moment of holiness may be fleeting, small and flickering; on the other hand, "small and flickering" is still real and present. 

There are philosophers of prayer who suggest that we create our spiritual reality through the words that we say and the affirmations of our mind and heart. As we say these words, we are reminded of holiness, and perhaps we create it too.

As always, I am interested to hear comments and reflections on these thoughts about prayer and liturgy. You may reach me at sabarth@jtsa.edu.