Toward the end of the book of Esther, we read, “The Jews had light and gladness, happiness and honor” (Esther 8:16), which also came to be a part of our havdalah liturgy, and thus a weekly part of experiencing Jewish time.
We often imagine light to be the opposite of darkness, and in that imagining, have associated light with “good” and darkness with “bad.” These ideas of light/good and dark/bad have also been mapped, often unconsciously, onto our racial imaginings, in which white joins light/good, while Black joins dark/bad. When the book of Esther and the ritual of havdalah invite us to celebrate light, how do we reckon with this problematic binary? A closer look at light itself, with some assistance from Hillel and Shammai, reveals a more complex reality.
In Mishnah Berachot 8:5, we read an early disagreement between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai about what the appropriate blessing is to say over the havdalah candle. In Shammai’s version, the liturgy uses the phrase “me’or ha’eish/the light of the flame” while Hillel uses the phrase, “me’orei ha’eish/the lights of the flame.” As is almost always the case in debates between the schools of Hillel and Shammai, Hillel’s practice became the norm and remains the blessing that is part of havdalah to this day.
The debate unfolds in the gemara about the difference between these two liturgical choices. “Beit Shammai holds that there is one light in a fire, and Beit Hillel hold that there are many lights in a fire” (Berakhot 52b). If you have spent time looking closely at a flame, be it a havdalah candle or otherwise, you can likely imagine arguing both in favor of Shammai or Hillel. On the one hand, a flame is a flame–there is one flame that rests on a wick. On the other hand, a closer look at a flame reveals not a single light, but multiple lights. Rashi, the medieval commentator, tells us that the many lights that Beit Hillel refers to are the “flame of red, white, and green-ish.”
Light, for our ancestors, was never just the white light of a fluorescent or halogen bulb, but rather the full spectrum of colors. By standardizing Hillel’s “lights of the flame,” our tradition lifts up the multiple colors that are present in light. So when we recite “layehudim hayta ora/the Jews had light” on Purim or as part of our weekly havdalah liturgy, we can move beyond the binaries of good/light/white and bad/dark/Black, and be reminded of the dancing, multicolored lights of our ancestors, as well as the dancing, multicolored lights of the Jewish people.
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To celebrate five years of this sacred work, we are designating the month before Purim as a time in which we fulfill the line from the Book of Esther, “The Jews had light/ Layehudim hayeta orah.” During this month, we will publish and distribute materials related to light and Purim.
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