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Shabbat Candles during the Inquisition

This week under The Shabbat Project more than one million Jews will circle the world with light – the light of the Sabbath candles – as Jews of every affiliation do their best to keep Shabbat together. The small flames of their Shabbat candles will shine in homes and hearts from South Africa to the South Bronx, from Mexico to Mozambique.

Glowing Sabbath candles or lamps are one of the central symbols of Judaism throughout the world, throughout the centuries.

The flame of Shabbat candles mystically transforms a home into a place of holiness, transcending time, uniting Jews in every generation with those who have come before and those yet to come.

Two flames remind us to keep and to remember (shamor v’zechor) the Sabbath, the Divine Presence, the eternity of our people and our heritage.

In a world when we can simply purchase candles or olive oil or colored paraffin and then light them right in the middle of our beautifully adorned Sabbath table, it is hard to comprehend that during many times in our history, Jews actually risked their lives to light up the darkness with their two flames.

Observing the Sabbath at the Risk of their Lives

In the upcoming musical production, “HIDDEN – The Secret Jews of Spain”, a co-production of OU Israel and the Women’s Performance Community of Jerusalem, one of its characters, Luciana Lombroso of Avila is sent to the Inquisition prison in 1715 when a neighbor spies her lighting two candles in clay pots on a Friday night.

“Observance of the Sabbath is the most persistent crypto-Jewish custom,” according to historian David M. Gitlitz. “Reverence for the unique holy nature of the Sabbath was one of the central tenets of crypto-Judaism….” Achad HaAm wrote, “More than Jews have kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept Jews.” This was certainly the case with medieval Spain’s crypto-Jews.

The secret Jews during the Spanish Inquisition kept Shabbat in the best way they could – some preparing their food on Fridays, bathing and changing their clothing and linens, refraining from work on Saturdays, joining together for clandestine communal prayers, or when things were most difficult, keeping the Sabbath “in their hearts”.

Above all other Jewish rites, lighting the Sabbath lamps was the most treasured, just as it was the most dangerously visible. Even the church’s Edicts of Faith (documents published by the Inquisition to identify Judaizers and backsliding Christians) name the lighting of Shabbat candles/oil as one of the characteristics of secret Jews.

Being witnessed cleaning out their Shabbat lamps on Friday afternoon, lighting candles behind a closed door or under a table, or even changing wicks for their lamps was enough to accuse new-Christians of Judaizing and send them to the Inquisition prison.

The secret Jews prayed from their hearts as they lit the tiny wicks, “May our candles burn clear and white now and forever.” (Coimbra 1583) “Praised be the Name of G-d.” (Majorca, 1600s) “Blessed are You, my true L-rd, Hashem.” (Cataluna)

This week, as we light our candles or oil for the Shabbat-felt-around-the-world, may we remember how fortunate we are to do so in freedom and pure joy.

Enter the world of crypto-Jews in “HIDDEN – The Secret Jews of Spain”, a musical production. Tickets:
“HIDDEN” is a co-production of OU Israel and the Women’s Performance Community of Jerusalem. The epic musical takes the stage on November 11 in Jerusalem at the IASA Theater.