Memorial candles are woven into all aspects of Yom HaZikaron: lit during public ceremonies, by bereaved families at gravesides on Har Hertzl, and of course in homes up and down the country. But why do we use a candle to commemorate the fallen heroes of Israel? What inspires us to shed light in a day full of darkness?
As evening closes in on the night of April 24, we walk soberly to the ceremony. We bow our heads and take our places. The Israeli flag is lowered to half mast, the Memorial Prayer is said, and the candle is lit.
Maybe one candle is lit. Maybe 19 candles are lit to represent the 19 Israeli victims of terror since the start of 2023. Maybe 8 candles are lit to represent the 8 wars Israel has fought in. But you can be sure that at least one flame will cast light across the downturned faces of those at the podium.
We go home and light a candle. Maybe it’s for someone we knew and lost, maybe we have signed up to one of the many schemes to honor forgotten Israeli soldiers, or maybe we light a symbolic candle and keep it aflame for 24 hours to commemorate the collective tragedy of the Israeli people.
The next morning we walk to Har Herzl, and amidst the tears and the families desperately holding each other for strength, we see candles. Some are on top of graves, some sit in little boxes for protection against the wind. Some are held by friends and loved ones as they recite the Mourner’s Kaddish Prayer.
The symbolism of these candles, woven into all aspects of Yom HaZikaron, may seem clear – a light in the darkness. But this doesn’t fit with Israel or Judaism’s cultural use of candles in other areas of popular custom. Candles are lit to celebrate incoming sabbaths and festivals. Candles are held while walking a bride down the aisle to her groom. Candles are lit on Hannukah to celebrate ancient miracles.
So why do we also use a candle to commemorate the fallen heroes of Israel?
Despite the many differences that persist between different world cultures, one seeming constant is the mourner’s candle. In Catholicism, lighting a candle is a way to strengthen the bereaved. Lighting a candle to remember the dead is a Catholic custom that dates back centuries, allegedly to Jesus himself, who used candle light to guide his followers, hence the belief that lighting a candle guides the dead closer to Christ. For Buddhists, candles are used in meditation services after death. It is said to focus the meditations on the memories of loved ones and reflect inner thoughts and feelings towards them as the bereaved reminisce and mourn. Dating back even further, Pagans would place white candles on memorial altars to harness their natural energy and send it to the dead, and to aid with channeling the memory of past spirits and family members.
Interestingly, in both China and the Philippines, mourners mark death with candles too, and similar to the practice in Israel, once a year a candle is lit to remember the loved ones that they have lost. But their candles actually mark a visual representation, with different colors indicating different relatives. For Filipinos, pink candles are lit for girls, blue candles for boys, and red candles for those whom one loved most. Meanwhile, in Chinese tradition, there are generally three colors used for memorial candles: white is used during the first year, yellow is used for the first anniversary of the death, and red is used every subsequent year after that on the anniversary of the death.
In Judaism there is also a strong historic precedent to light candles for the deceased.
There is evidence of Jews lighting candles to honor the deceased as far back as the Mishnaic period, approximately 2,000 years ago: the Mishnah states that one cannot use the “fire of the dead” for the Havdalah blessing on Saturday night because candles symbolize the dead not the living. Additionally, we find that Rabbi Judah the Prince, who was the compiler of the Mishnah, requested that his family “leave a lamp lit in its place” after he passed away. In the 1870s, the Chaffetz Haim adjudicated that all Jews should light a candle on the anniversary of a death as lighting a candle “constitutes atonement for the departed soul.”
During the Middle Ages, another aspect was added to this bereavement ceremony – the Mourner’s Prayer. Each year on Yom HaZikaron the Mourner’s Prayer is recited across the country. The President and Prime Minister recite it at state ceremonies, individual families recite it at gravesides, and usually a family member of a fallen soldier or terror victim will also publicly recite this prayer to a large and televised audience. In 2015 Racheli Frenkel made history by being the first woman to publicly recite this prayer in the state service, after her son was amongst the three boys kidnapped at the start of Operation Protective Edge. The country watched on as her emotional prayer pierced every heart up and down the country. Everyone, including the most religious of rabbis at the ceremony, responded “Amen.”
The origin of the Mourner’s Kaddish Prayer was compiled by rabbis as a means to memorialize the dead. Its recitation is neither a biblical nor a rabbinic commandment, but a long-held tradition which, like the candle, brings comfort and peace to mourners.
Use of the memorial candle, which is usually lit just before the Mourner’s Prayer, is often dated back to the Book of Proverbs. In Chapter 20, Verse 27 it is said that “the human soul is the candle of God” – lighting candles is a powerful and evocative ritual, as the candle is believed in the Bible to be a tangible symbol of the soul.
Lighting a candle on Yom HaZikaron in Israel is both political and personal. Political figures from Shimon Perez to President Herzog have been invited to light memorial candles as the world watched on. And for individuals who either light candles for their own loved ones, or volunteer to light a candle for those who have no family to mourn them, it is a deeply meaningful part of the Yom HaZikaron proceedings:
Nehemia Sharabi, a kibbutznik and zoologist, was shot while guarding his post during his service as an army reservist, leaving behind a wife and three children. His commander called him “an exemplary soldier, a friend to everyone, a modest person who knows his own way.”
Eliezer Kolberg, devoted only child to his Holocaust survivor parents, worked as a laborer to support his family. During the War of Independence, he was a member of the brigade who first attempted to break through into besieged Jerusalem, where he fell in battle.
Yigal Ezra, Tel Avivian from birth, served on the southern front during the Yom Kippur War. After he fell in battle, his family set up a scholarship fund in his name and wrote of him: “That smile … modest. You want to know what he thinks? Just look into his wise eyes. You want to know what Yigal thinks? Just turn to him and ask him. He will not erupt. Yigal will not scream. Great nobility was inherent in him. I loved to look at his black, laughing, intelligent eyes, his face – the face of a child.”
Maybe this year we can keep these courageous young men, and the so many others whose stories are not known, in our thoughts as we light the Yom HaZikaron memorial candles. When a soul departs from the world, it leaves behind a dark void, which the memorial candle serves to replenish. Rabbi Bechayei ben Asher explained, over 800 years ago, that a departed soul will also derive joy from the candle’s light because the Bible states that “the light of the righteous will rejoice.”
Those who are partial to the symbolism of Kabbalah hold by the idea that a candle is a physical representation of a human, the wick and flame representing the body and soul. When a candle is lit, both the wick and flame burn upwards, representing the fact that the body is subsumed by the soul and is at its essence energy whose goal is to return to the world around it.
A flame has three components: The inner blue flame, which surrounds the wick and burns the fuel, the bright body of the flame, which provides the light, and lastly, the glow that surrounds the flame. In Kabbalah it is believed that these three parts correspond to the three components of the soul that are most closely associated with the physical body: nefesh – the burning spirit, ruach – the energy which illuminates a person’s spirit, and neshamah – the aura of a soul. The revered Kabbalist, Rabbi Bahya, wrote that “it is known that the soul enjoys the lighting of the candles and it walks with grace and happiness, spreads and expands due to the enjoyment of the light.” The Kabbalists say that fire is the most refined matter in our material reality, thus approaching the spiritual, and by lighting a candle they believed themselves to be bringing delight and benefit to the souls of the departed.
The National Library of Israel collections include images of Jewish memorial candles from all over the world: Tunisia, England, Germany, but most of all Israel. From mourning the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, to the victims of the most recent operation in Gaza, candles are lit for each Israeli who has died at the hands of terror and war.
This year, Yom HaZikaron falls in the midst of turmoil. Just earlier this month a new bout of terrorism spiked after clashes on Temple Mount, and rockets from Lebanon and Gaza placed the lives of Israeli citizens in danger, as the country prepared to add yet more names to the ever-growing list of victims.
For each of these names a candle is added too. Candles are unique because they do the opposite of hate. Terrorism and war put out the lights, extinguish happiness and indiscriminately snuff out hope, serving as an ending. A light, however, can give and give without loosing any of its own power. One candle can light up a whole room, and can be used to light many more candles without any expense to its own brightness.
On April 7, Molotov cocktails were thrown into Israeli homes, terrifying and harming innocent families. On April 8, rockets were launched at Israel with burning bright orange paths trailing behind them. On April 9, fires were started in fields in Northern Israel, destroying crops and even killing a few poor chickens resting in their coop. Fire can be used to hate and kill. But less than a month later, one by one, candles will be lit in homes, schools, and cemeteries across Israel, bringing together families and friends to unite in their collective pain and channel their loss into a meaningful ritual.
Yom HaZikaron is about so much more than the struggles of Israel’s past, and the struggles it still contends with. It’s about hope for a brighter future, that peace can and will finally arrive. That there is always a light at the end of the darkness. And that is why we light a candle.