Faith and Phenomena: The Wonder of the Irrational in Judaism

My Bubbe Leah’s Candlesticks

Here in Israel, we have just completed the annual Jewish fall holiday schedule. Now we get to focus on all of the day-to-day challenges that we said we would tackle “after the holidays.”

And yet we are still left with the positive feelings of the holidays, this shiny Jewish new year with its promise of fresh starts and manifold blessings. One of the most wonderful gifts of Judaism is the literal sanctification of the every-day. 

Jewish dietary practices, for example, recognize the holiness of life and the need to give thanks for our daily bread.  Like so many other areas of Judaism, Kashrut can be seen as a long list of arcane strictures or as an opportunity to sanctify our everyday experiences.  I choose the latter.

Beyond the rules, there is a beauty to Jewish practice that is intangible, amazing, and almost impossible to share. This is the wonder of the irrational.  And sometimes when we are lucky or just caught off guard, a bit of the irrational can creep into our well-ordered lives. 

This past Shabbat I had one of those irrational, wondrous experiences. 

Last week we lost my late father’s remaining brother and the last of the generation.  It has been a challenging time in the world and at home; COVID has made travel difficult and separated families.  Like so many others, we have suffered the loss of people who are incredibly important to us, and yet far away geographically.  The last time I saw my Uncle – everyone’s favorite uncle and a fixture in my life growing up – was at my father’s funeral in November 2019, pre-pandemic.

Even at times of great loss, we are blessed by the rhythm of Jewish holiday observance.  The morning that I learned of my Uncle’s passing I was able to take comfort in Sukkot services and the undeniable joy of the holiday.  The next day was also Erev Shabbat (Friday night), and we lit the candles as usual.  We use 4-hour candles, fulfilling the requirement that candles burn for at least 3 hours. 

4-Hour Candles for Erev Shabbat (Friday night)

On any given week, one candle may not burn down, leaving a layer of wax at the bottom.  Last week I had just cleaned out the candle holders (glass inserts that protect the candles from drafts), and did not manage to do it two weeks running, so there was about an inch or so of wax at the bottom of the left hand side.  

In the rush of preparation for Erev Shabbat, I just put the new candle on top, without really thinking about it, like I had done countless times in the past. This time something very different happened.  

Overnight I felt the strong presence of my late Uncle, buried in Michigan the day before. I awoke early on Shabbat morning, and walked into the kitchen, only to see that the left hand side candle was still burning bright.  

Assuming that it was something like 6:30 am Saturday morning at that point, this 4-hour candle had already burned for 12 hours.  I wish I had had the presence of mind to look at my watch – it might have been later – but I was transfixed by the still-burning candle.

Fascinated and still feeling the strong presence of my late Uncle, I watched as the candle continued to burn for what seemed an eternity, finally igniting the wick from the previous week for an amazing blaze of light before burning out.

I don’t take photos on Shabbat so I am writing not to capture the image in words, if not visually.  Understanding that no description can fully convey what I saw and felt, I can only add that my experience was both wondrous and comforting. 

Whatever your faith / practice, I hope that you have the faith and fortune to experience the wonder of the unexplainable.

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