The whole of a Jew’s life span is marked by lights. The following are practices honoured throughout Jewish history, many of them still popular and current.
There was a custom to kindle lights at the time of a boy’s b’rit milah; the Midrash says that when Moses was born the whole house was full of light. The sages link the creation of light, which God said was good (Gen. 1:4), with the birth of Moses, about whom the Torah says, “he was good” (Ex. 2:1).
A child might have a Hebrew name that mentions light, such as Uriah, “God is Light” (Psalm 27 commences HaShem Ori – “The Lord is my Light”). Another “light” name is Ner, the name of King Saul’s grandfather. Boys might be called Shraga, Aramaic for light. From the Greek Phoebus came the Yiddish Feivish, Feivel, or Shraga Feivish (sometimes Shraga Feivel).
A well-known surname is Lapidus or Lapidot, “torches”, because Lapidot, Deborah’s husband, prepared wicks for the Menorah. In more recent centuries Jewish surnames have included Licht, Lichterman, etc.
When a father took his child to Cheder for the first time, he would bring a candle with him, presumably because the Book of Proverbs says, “The Torah is a light” (Prov. 6:23).
Parents would be amongst those who, in the words of the prayer for the congregation, donated ner lama’or (lights for illumination) to the synagogue. Their children’s eyes would light up when they saw the synagogue illumined with oil lamps or candles. It is said that the Chafetz Chayyim would not allow electric light in his synagogue because the congregation would be deprived of the mitzvah of donating the oil or candles.
At a wedding the bride and groom would be accompanied to the chuppah by unterfuhrers bearing lit candles or oil lights. The wedding feast would be brightly lit up too.
At the time of death, candles would be kindled. A light would burn throughout the shivah, and the anniversary of death would be observed with a Yahrzeit light. The verse quoted in this connection was, “The spirit of man is the light of the Lord” (Prov. 20:27).
Chanukah is a once-yearly festival of lights… but lights have always been with a Jew throughout his or her life.