Candles and Kiddush
The seder consists of 15 parts, laid out in order at the very outset of the ritual. The first is Kiddush, the blessing for the wine and the sanctification of the day. Yet, many Jews commence the seder ceremony by lighting the festival candles. What gives? Why the discrepancy?
Candle lighting is a relatively late addition to our holiday rituals. Not historically part of the seder, women lit 2 or more lights 18 minutes prior to sundown. They mark a boundary separating ordinary time from sacred time.
We start our seders after nightfall traditionally. But because many Reform Jews do not light candles prior to sundown for shabbat or holidays, candle lighting has become the opening ritual of the seder. (I know Orthodox Jews who do the same.) It has appeared on the first pages of each Reform haggadah before kiddush, as well as Hoffman’s commentary: My People’s Passover Haggadah. Our family uses the relatively recent A Different Night, by Noam Zion and David Dishon. A non-denominational haggadah, it, too, opens with candle lighting.
In practice, candles get everyone’s attention to start the seder and the holy time. Preferably, the candles should be long enough to cast light for the entire ceremony. Neither biblical nor Talmudic, we light them after reciting a blessing.
Kiddush follows candles in many modern homes, which actually sanctifies the wine and the day. The first blessing, over the wine, functions like any blessing for food. “… Creator of the fruit of the vine,” we recite, just as we would recite “… who brings forth bread from the earth for bread, or “… who creates all kinds of spices” for spices in havdalah. But the next blessing, the longer one, sanctifies the day. Why and how?
Leviticus 23:7 declares the first day of Passover to be a sacred occasion. But how do we make it so? How do we distinguish sacred time from ordinary time? Indeed, verse 2 preceding it states that all of the festivals are sacred. For Judaism, we proclaim it so with words. It’s a performative, like when the rabbi says, “You are now husband and wife,” and those words dramatically and permanently transform the couple’s status in the world. The Kiddush proclaims that God sanctifies us with commandments, elevates us, gives us sacred times to be close to God and celebrate our covenant. Wine symbolizes joy, the psalmist in Psalm 104 and the Rabbis tell us. Kiddush declares Passover to be a time of freedom, a holy event, a remembrance of the exodus from Egypt. It’s a joyous celebration not only of freedom but of declaring ourselves to be servants of God. Reciting kiddush, we declare this to be holy time, special for God and the Jewish people.
As blessings must be accompanied by actions, we drink the wine, two blessings over a single cup. We distinguish between weekday time and the holiness of the anniversary of our freedom from bondage, which changed the Jewish people forever.