When someone dies, candles are lit in the house of the people sitting shivah. What is the connection between the neshomah of a person and candles?
This is a very profound question. A discussion of the neshomah is required to properly address this issue.
The posuk in Mishlei (20:27) states, “Ner Hashem nishmas adam – A man’s soul is the lamp of Hashem.” Shlomo Hamelech understood that there is a direct connection between the neshomah and a ner. The Maharal in his sefer Ner Mitzvah discusses whether one is permitted to use wax candles for the mitzvah of ner Chanukah. In the middle of this discussion, he defines the meaning of a ner.
A ner is a kli, or vessel, which contains a pesilah, wick, and shemen, oil. The physical ner together with the physical pesilah and shemen have the unique capacity to create ohr, light. The Maharal refers to ohr as something which is to be considered “bilti gashmi,” lacking a physical sense of existence. The speed of light is considered, in our terms, instantaneous. Such a quality defies the sense of parameters of Olam Hazeh. Zeman, time, is a creation of our world and, therefore, that which is not subject to its limitations represents something metaphysical and from a realm beyond.
The word zeman comes from the word zimun, which means development and preparation. Time is the framework through which everything in Olam Hazeh develops to its fruition. Similarly, the posuk in Mishlei (6:23) refers to the Torah as “ohr.” The Torah is something which is totally spiritual in nature, and its holy source is beyond our physical world. It is within this context that the unique capacity of a ner can be appreciated. It is composed of physical elements, yet it creates metaphysical ohr. The neshomah of a person possesses a similar quality.
A person is a composite of a body and a soul, a guf and a neshomah. There is no way for the spiritual neshomah to relate to and be revealed in our world without being expressed through the physical guf. The guf is considered the kli to be mekabel the neshomah. The neshomah is considered ohr, as its source is absolutely spiritual. Just as the ohr is a separate entity from the ner, so too, the ohr of the neshomah is separate from the guf, although it is basically housed in it. Thus, the neshomah is ohr and serves as the tool to create additional ohr through the actions of the guf in its avodas Hashem.
The Maharal in Chiddushei Aggados on Maseches Rosh Hashanah adds an additional insight into the comparison between the two.
The Maharal writes that the soul of a person emanates from the yesod of aish, fire. In our terms, there are four basic yesodos, or foundation elements, from which all creations are composed: afar, earth; mayim, water; ruach, wind; and aish, fire. The yesod of afar is anchored in the ground, while the yesod of aish emanates from heaven above.
The Sefas Emes writes that the reason fire flickers upward is due to the desire of all fire to reconnect with its shoresh, which is in shomayim. The inherent yearning for the soul of man to reconnect with its roots in heaven and serve its Creator is built upon this profound point. There is an additional idea that demonstrates the soul’s quality of ohr and aish.
Rav Tzadok Hakohein, in Resisei Laylah, writes that the yearning of the soul to reconnect with its shoresh is the basis for the process through which a person dies. When Hashem decides that a person is to die, Hashem reveals to that person a tremendous ohr, and, due to its brilliance, the neshomah shatters its connection to the guf in its quest to connect with the profound revealed light.
In the course of human existence, the neshomah is commanded to stay with the guf. Due to the revelation of such a dimension of ohr, however, the neshomah leaves its physical shell to become part of its shoresh. Rav Tzadok adds that similar to the smaller flame that becomes absorbed within a mighty inferno, such is the destiny of the soul. Thus, the merger between body and soul is dissolved, as the soul seeks its shoresh in shomayim.
When a person dies, the neshomah has left the guf and gone back to its shoresh. The guf is afar and has likewise been returned to its source, the ground. Seforim explain that in some sense the neshomah of the person is considered present and is also comforted with the words of nechamah that are said to the mourners. The neiros are lit and ohr is produced to acknowledge the loss of that which represents the ohr of a person, his soul, and the capacity to produce additional ohr through his actions while he was alive.
One of the words that refer to the soul is nefesh. The Vilna Gaon writes that the word nefesh, which is composed of the letters Nun, Pey and Shin, stands for ner, pesilah and shemen. Just as the ner, with its wick and oil, produces ohr, so does the soul of a person give a Yid the capacity to create spiritual light amidst the confines of our physical world.
May we soon be zoche to the time when Hashem will wipe away death and the tears that flow as a result.
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