My Grandmother’s Candlesticks


These candlesticks were sent over from family in Hungary around 1930, on the occasion of my grandmother’s engagement to my grandfather.  Beautiful – silver, ornately engraved, with her initials, SW, swirled letters incorporated into the design on the rounded base.  My grandmother gave them to me many years ago, upon the birth of my eldest daughter.  While my grandmother was not really a religious person, she lit Shabbes candles, and was thrilled for me to have her candlesticks to use with my own family.  I still get excited each time they gleam when I finish polishing them, like new, ready for the Shabbat lights.

This week’s retelling in Torah of the completion of the Mishkan (its initial accounting of the building plan occurred just chapters earlier) is no mere listing of a giant building project with all its component parts completed and accounted for. Beginning with a reminder to observe Shabbat (as a covenantal reminder after the Golden Calf incident), it rather recounts a joyous moment when kavanah [intention] was carried through so that the finished product could be sanctified and used for the holy purpose to which it was envisioned, as the people gave the “offering of their hearts to God” (Exodus 35:29).

There are two stages to the actual building of the Mishkan.  First, we are told four times in these chapters that the entire people had to participate, to be so moved to bring and donate materials.  Well, the Israelites brought so much ‘stuff’ that Moses had to put a stop to their donations!  Perhaps they were just ready to clear out the clutter of their tents!  Seriously, most cultures are enamored with ‘stuff’ – we can touch it, hoard it, sell it, buy it, trade it; stuff reminds us of where we have been, brings good memories and tough ones; objects and possessions can be very useful items, simply clutter, or potentially dangerous.  Baruch Spinoza, a Jewish philosopher, teaches that things are not ‘good’ or ‘bad’ in and of themselves.  Based on the Talmudic comment: “With earrings they sinned and with earrings they were restored to God’s favor”: the same jewels can be used for lowly or exalted purposes. Possessions have no intrinsic moral value. Indeed, whether they are good or bad depends solely on the way we use them. They are the stuff of both idols and sanctuaries.

The second stage of building involves artistry and skill, also indicated at four different times in the verses; for that, artisans are appointed, under the direction of Betzalel.  It wasn’t sufficient that everyone brought or gave what they could for the building of the Mishkan; it was crucial that the project had a beauty that would enhance and evince the deeper meaning of the construction.  The ancient principle of Hiddur Mitzvah is literally the enhancement of carrying out mitzvot using beautiful and adorned objects to bring greater meaning to the ritual.  I think that this is further demonstrated in the connection of root letters between Art – in Hebrew, Omanut אמנ-ו-ת    and Faith – in Hebrew, Emunah אמ-ו-נ-ה. Even in Kabbalistic tradition, Tiferet – Splendor (the 6th sefirah) is at the center of the Divine Emanations of creation.  Art enhances faith, beauty brings out wonder; this spurs faith in a Creator of Beauty and of the inspiration in humankind to continue to create things of beauty which add meaning and depth to our lives.  This artistic building endeavor here in Torah is a spiritual counterbalance to the building of the Golden Calf, which arose out of the spiritual struggle and despair of a people who feared they were abandoned.

Maimonides, in the work known as The Eight Chapters (the introduction to his commentary on Pirkei Avot) speaks about the healing power of beauty and its importance in counteracting depression: “One who suffers from melancholia may dispel it by listening to singing and all kinds of instrumental music, by strolling through beautiful gardens and splendid buildings, by gazing upon beautiful pictures and other things enliven the mind and dissipate gloomy moods.” (ch.5) In short, as we read this week in Torah, art is restorative to the soul.

So each week as my family and I welcome Shabbat lighting candles held in my grandmother’s candlesticks, I smile knowing that my grandmother is still with me, and faith and tradition are once again woven together through splendor.


1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. ka
    Feb 21, 2014 @ 16:58:46

    Beautifully said, thank you ,


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