The First Candle

Last week, a group from our Women’s Club gathered to celebrate Chanukah (a little early).  As part of my teaching, I prepared eight meditations on the theme of light.  I looked up the word in a thesaurus and discovered that the many synonyms for this word made interesting concepts on which to create a theme for each day.  The group suggested that these would make a good blog post, and so I will attempt over these next eight nights of Chanukah to share with you eight reflections on the theme of light.


Light – Polished / Resplendent / Rich

Chanukah is a great time to indulge in the tradition of chiddur mitzvah, beautifying the mitzvah.  Our tradition derives the concept from Rabbi Ishmael’s comment on Exodus 15:2 “This is my G-d and I will glorify G-d.”  Rabbi Ishmael wrote, “Is it possible for a human being to add glory to his Creator?  What this really means is: I shall glorify G-d in the way I perform mitzvot.  I shall prepare before G-d a beautiful Lulav, a beautiful Sukkah, beautiful tzitzit and beautiful t’fillin.” (Midrash Mechilta, Shirata, chapter III)  The Talmud adds to this list with a “beautiful shofar and a beautiful Torah scroll which has been written by a scribe with fine ink and fine pen and wrapped in beautiful silks.” (Talmud B., Shabbat 133b)  The midrash suggests that it is not only the mitzvot that are enhanced by making them beautiful and special, but also the Jew who performs them (Midrash Song of Songs Rabbah 1.15).

When you go to a Judaica store, it is easy to observe that beautiful and interesting chanukiot are a typical way to observe the tradition of chiddur mitzvahThey come in every shape, size, color, and theme.  But, Chanukah is a messy holiday.  Even if you purchase “dripless” candles, it is difficult to really keep your chanukiah (or Chanukah menorah) clean and looking fresh.

So, as we approach this first night of the holiday, let’s concentrate first on shining the light on our chanukiot and on the many ways we can make our holiday polished / resplendent / rich.  Remove last year’s wax, buy some beautiful dripless candles, polish up your menorah to make it look new.  If you are like me, you’ve probably received a lot of Chanukah themed gifts over the years.  By the time you receive them, it’s too late to use them and quickly they get put away and forgotten.  Get them out!  You’ve got eight days to use your  Chanukah themed hand-towels, mugs, socks, and apron.

Chiddur mitzvah isn’t only about appearances, though.  You should try to appeal to all of the senses: sounds, smells, tastes, textures, colors.  There is more to Jewish music for Chanukah than “I Have a Little Dreidel.” Ready for a new generation of cool and contemporary tunes to light the menorah by?  Check out “Chanukah Today.”  You can get the CD hereor purchase mp3s for download here.  You can also visit oysongs.comto look for new music.  Or if you just want to listen, I highly recommend Jewish Rock Radio (they also have apps).  Go to YouTube and view some of the fun videos.  Two of my favorites are by the Maccabeats and Six13.

So, as we approach this first night of Chanukah let your senses be your guide.  May this first night be polished and fresh, may it bring you joyous sights, sounds, smells and tastes.

Happy Chanukah!

Color, Faith and Fiber

My mother is an incredibly talented artist.  For many years now, she has used her talents for the sake of chiddur mitzvah – beautifying the mitzvah – of tallit.  She painted her first tallit for the occasion of my Bat Mitzvah.  It was purple flowers on white silk, a simple, but lovely design.  Over the years, she has made many more tallitot in addition to the chuppahs for the weddings of all three of her daughters and the ketubahs as well.  I personally own 25 unique and beautiful tallitot and many more are in the hands of friends, colleagues, and congregants.

In recent months, my mother decided to make a tallit for the new cantor in her congregation.  He asked her whether she would make a p’til t’cheilet.  In Numbers 15:38-39 we read: “The Eternal One spoke to Moses saying, “Speak to the people of Israel, and bid them that they make fringes in the borders of their garments throughout their generations, and that they put upon the fringe of the borders a thread of blue;  And it shall be to you for a fringe, that you may look upon it, and remember all the commandments of the Eternal One, and do them…”

Have you ever seen a tallit with a string of blue in the tzitzit?  They are rarely seen here in the United States.  The process for producing the correct dye has been lost to the generations.  In ancient times, purple and blue dyes were hard to come by and extremely valuable.  The dyes became the colors of royalty.  The Romans ruled that only royalty could wear garments colored with these pigments and that the colors themselves could only be made in imperial dye houses.  The Jewish industry for creating the proper dyes for tallitot was driven underground and eventually lost.

In recent years, archeological and chemical research has yielded an answer to the question of how to produce the dyes and there are several groups in Israel that are making them.  We cannot be entirely sure, however that these are indeed the correct colors.  In addition the pre-dyed strings are exorbitantly expensive ($70 for a set of strings).  The expense is justified considering the labor involved in properly preparing the dyes and also considering that t’cheilet is supposed to be rare and valuable.

My mother’s cantor said that he did not need “real” techelet.  He asked her to color the string with regular blue dye.  Is this blue sufficient?  It will certainly cause others to ask the question and learn about the commandment to wear t’cheilet.  It will help the cantor himself to be inspired by the blue color and its association with sky and water, with holiness and majesty.  But it is not “true” t’cheilet.

According to, true techeilet comes from Murex trunculus, a type of snail.  Although it produces a purplish dye, instead of blue, leading many to believe that this was not the correct animal, the dye, when exposed to uv rays (as found abundantly in the mediteranean sun) develops into a beautiful sky blue.  There is a decent amount of archeological and chemical evidence to suggest that this may indeed be the true source for techeilet.  According to the Talmud and the website,  “The dye’s color was “similar to the sky and sea,” it was steadfast, extracted from the snail while still alive, and was indistinguishable from a dye of vegetable origin, called kala ilan (indigo). “ Indistinguishable?  If you can’t tell the difference, wouldn’t it be better to use the dye from the vegetable source?

Blue was important.  It was the color of royalty because it was beautiful and rare, because it was the color of an infinite sky and the vast sea.  Blue obtained from rare snails was even more precious.  The Talmud tells us that the snails could only be found every 70 years, that the dye needed to be extracted from live snails, that it was rare and valuable.  So, if we dye our tzitzit with ordinary blue dye, we get the color, but nothing else, not the value, not the intention, not the miracle of the dye itself.  This was a dye that appeared clear until it soaked into the wool and was exposed to the sunlight.  It’s transformation into blue was itself almost magical, and certainly inspiring to all who witnessed it.

If we buy this techeilet, however, we are not witness to its creation.  We spend the money, but end up with string that looks to us, just blue.  It has a sense of wonder because of its source, but we cannot really know whether it was made from snails or from chemical dyes.  We wouldn’t know the difference.  What about using the vegetable dye that is molecularly identical?  Would that be close enough?

Is it the letter of the law, or merely its color?

Crafting Spiritually

Good news!  TBT will be holding a fabulous cabaret night with music and food this Saturday night.  More good news: I will be leading Havdallah to lead us into the festivities.  Even more good news: We don’t have enough spice boxes for every table to have one.  If we pass around a single spice box, it will never reach every table before we finish the ceremony.  So it occurs to me that this is yet another perfect opportunity for some creative spiritual crafting.

The tradition is that on the Sabbath we gain an extra soul.  As we say farewell to the Sabbath and our extra soul, we smell spices in order to give us a measure of comfort, to bring some of the spice of Shabbat into our week, and to wake us gently into our weekly responsibilities.

There are a lot of beautiful Havdallah sets that one can purchase to beautify the mitzvah of separating the Sabbath from the rest of the week, but I think that crafting this one piece of the Havdallah set and putting one on each table for our guests to use will help others think of ways to bring their own creativity into ritual.

May your Shabbat be filled with spice and may you carry that spice into a beautiful week to come!

Knitting as a Spiritual Practice

I have enjoyed yarn crafts for almost my entire life.  For the past several years, I have become a passionate and dedicated knitter.  Knitting keeps me calm in stressful meetings; it helps me stay focused on what is happening; it relaxes me after a difficult day.  Knitting inspires my creativity as I think about color, design, and texture in the hopes of creating new and beautiful things.  But knitting is, for me, also a deeply spiritual practice.

When we knit we take something that is almost useless and turn it into something appealing and functional.  The practice of knitting teaches patience.  The finished object that I see in my mind’s eye is months from completion, yet stitch by stitch it gets closer.  When facing a task in life that seems daunting, I remember the baby blanket that I crocheted for by niece.  It was months of the same stitch in the same yarn.  At first it looked so incredibly bland and boring.  But when it was complete, oh when it was complete it was a work of art and, more importantly, it kept her warm in her first fragile months of life in the NICU and when she finally got to go home.

Knitting also helps us learn the skill of when to give up and let go, and when it is worthwhile to go back and fix.  I always loved the idea that Native Americans believe that a work of craft (usually beading, I believe) should have one error in it, a place for the spirit to move in and out of the art.  I use this idea to allow me to let small mistakes go and become a part of the design, a piece of what makes the knitted object unique and handmade, as opposed to sterile and stamped out.  This is an important lesson in the art of life, as well.  It makes me wonder if the reason that humans are so imperfect, even though we are made in the image of G-d, is that it is our imperfection that made us G-d’s special hand-crafted art-work.

A big error in our art should not be let go, however.  Sometimes it is worth the effort to rip back a lot of rows of knitting to fix a large and glaring mistake.  (Knitters call this “frogging” because you “riiiiiip it, riiiiiip it!”)  Frogging can be a heart-wrenching activity.  You watch the hours of loving work unravel in a kinked mess of yarn.  What may have taken weeks to create comes out in minutes.  Yet, without being willing to let it go, the finished object may not have fit, may not have been functional, may not have been beautiful.  A glaring mistake in life can be even more difficult to undo.  Addictions, for example, can take years to recover from, but the recovery is still a painful necessity in order to be able to move on and make something beautiful out of life.

Knitting helps us envision a future more idyllic and more complete than the present.  It is like the prayers at the end of the worship service.  “May the time not be distant, O G-d when…”  As long as we can see that perfect future when nations live at peace, we can work towards making it a reality.  I’m casting on for that future right now.

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