synagogue with candles

Erev Yom Kippur – A Chanuka Miracle?


Chapters From Israstory 08.10.19
Erev Yom Kippur – A Chanuka Miracle?
09 Tishri 5780 (October 08, 2019)

גמר חתימה טובה

{Disclaimer: This story is true. Some names have been changed to protect people’s privacy. Also because I don’t rightly remember everyone’s name. }

Preface: A Chanuka Miracle? On Yom Kippur? Maybe we shouldn’t call it a miracle, exactly. Maybe it wouldn’t meet the strict criteria for miracles. But what happened on Erev Yom Kippur about 30 years ago was sure amazing for everyone who was there.

Magic carpet
Yemenite Jews On The Magic Carpet

Part 1: Moshav Bitha – ” in quietness and in confidence shall be your strength…” Isaiah 30:15

Moshav Bitha is an agricultural community a couple kilometers outside the town of Ofaqim, in the Negev, in Israel. The community was settled around 1950 by Yemenite immigrants who had been brought in during “Operation Magic Carpet.”
The Jews from Yemen brought with them a rich tradition of studying Torah and abiding by Torah law. Their ways had been passed on from generation to generation since the destruction of the First Temple (about 587 BCE).

About 30 years ago, when this story takes place, many of the people living on Moshav Bitha appeared to have adopted the secular, non-religious way of life. They appeared that way. But underneath the appearances, they really retained what they had learned from their parents.

Moshav Bitha had and still has a large central synagogue with an upper floor gallery for women and children, and a ground level floor for men and children. No special place inside just for children. The bimah – a small raised stage from where the chazan (cantor) leads the service – is in the center of the ground floor, facing the ark (a closet where Torah scrolls reside). Rows of chairs with little desks in front of them surround the bimah. There is even a row of chairs in front of the bimah, facing the ark.

Of course all the synagogue services are conducted by men, as required by Jewish Law. And the women are happy about that. It means the women don’t have to go to synagogue as often as the men do.

But on Yom Kippur?

On Erev Yom Kippur (Yom Kippur Eve) about 30 years ago, the houses of Moshav Bitha were empty and the synagogue was full. Not overcrowded, but full.

Part 2 – Preparations – Shabbat Shabbaton – the Sabbath of Sabbaths

As with any Jewish holiday, for Yom Kippur you have to prepare ahead of time. In every household on Moshav Bitha, families cleaned the inside and straightened up the outside. They turned off lights and turned on only the lights that would be necessary. For on Shabbat you can’t ignite a flame and you can’t complete an electric circuit. It’s even heavier on Yom Kippur.

For the synagogue, extra prayer books were made accessible both in the women’s gallery and on the ground floor. Some men had reserved their seat by placing their talit (prayer shawl) on their seat. Others placed candles on a shelf near the ark. Two of the candles were for the holiday. A few smaller candles were to remember family members who had passed over the past year.

One member, an electrician named Yosi, set up a timer that would automatically switch off the lights at 10:15 PM, and switch them on again at 6:00 in the morning.

The men who would lead the services prepared the Torah scrolls ahead of time. They also set machzorim and other Torah reading aids on the bimah.

A final preparation: Every family ate a big meal a couple hours before sunset. They lit candles in their homes, and walked to the synagogue. The synagogue lights came on and shone brightly before most of the people entered the synagogue. Just before the service began, someone lit the holiday candles and the small memorial candles next to the ark.

People filled the synagogue. In the women’s gallery young and old sat side by side. Some children were able to sit. Others moved around. Men filled the seats behind and on either side of the bimah. A friend of mine, Shlomo, sat in his favorite place, in front of the bimah.
Everything was ready. Everyone was prepared for this most auspicious day of the year. And, unusually, everyone was quiet. Very quiet. Almost silent.

Almost silent . . . .

No that wasn’t the miracle. People have been quiet before.

Part 3 – A Unique Problem

The services were going very well. The chazan chanted the Kol Nidre and everyone listened and quietly chanted to themselves. Special prayers for Yom Kippur were led by different men. As the evening wore on, the people of Moshav Bitha became more and more submerged in the things they were saying. When the congregation would recite something together, it was like one fervent voice reaching up.

Then the lights went out..      

Electricity failure? No. Some boys went outside and reported that lights in the nearby houses were still shining.

Had the automatic timer switched off the lights at 8:30 pm?

“Yosi, what’s happening?” one man said so all could hear.

No answer.

“He can’t fix it.” others offered, “It’s Yom Kippur.”

“We need to find a non-Jew, ” said another man. “There is an Arab over in the next moshav. How long will it take for someone to run over there?”

“No!” said a woman in the gallery. “It would be an awful shame to desecrate Yom Kippur just for some light.”

That was the end of that discussion. Nobody was going out to find someone to repair the electric lights on Yom Kippur.

It took about 5 minutes of nobody saying anything for people’s eyes to adjust to the darkness. It wasn’t complete darkness. Dim light from the candles next to the ark spread even up to the women’s gallery. Some men seated closer to the ark were able to make out the words in their prayer books, and they read them – chanted them softly.

Part 4 – A Unique Solution

My friend, Shlomo, who was seated in front of the bimah, stood up and stepped up onto the stage. He raised his prayer book above his face. He turned so his back was not toward the ark, but so that the candles would shed light on his prayer book. And he started chanting out loud, like a chazan.

The congregation joined in. Most people could not actually make out the words in their prayer books. But a funny thing about the Yemenites – they pretty much knew the words already.

One of the memorial candles went out just as the chazan joined Shlomo on stage, prayer book raised above his face. The congregation grew louder.Inside the synagogue

Then a truck driver named Eli got up there and lent his booming voice to the leaders. He was joined by Yehuda the shopkeeper, and Noam, a high school teacher. Another two candles flickered out. The chanting of the congregation grew even louder and more fervent.

Before long what you could see from the back of the synagogue was a silhouette of seven men standing on the stage, candles behind them, prayer books raised, and mouths open in song and supplecation. The last small memorial candle flickered out, leaving only the two holiday candles burning.

For the next 30 minutes, the prayers in that synagogue might have had the power to move a mountain. But there are no mountains close to Moshav Bitha, so that is something we will never know for sure. What is certain, however, is that when one of the holiday candles melted and flickered out, the prayers contained a certain urgency. But nobody even suggested speeding things up. If the last candle went out before the service was over, that’s just something the people of Moshav Bitha would have to live with.

The candle did not go out. It stayed lit – very short, but lit – while the leaders and congregation finished the service, made announcements (“I hope the lights go on tomorrow..”), and left the synagogue.

Conclusion – Shedding Light On The Day Of Atonement

Shlomo was one of the last to leave. At the exit he took a last look at the still-burning candle.

Then he turned to me – yes I was there – and he said, “Did you see that miracle?”

I nodded. The last person left the synagogue. Seconds before the gabai closed the synagogue door, I saw the last candle go out.

גמר חתימה טובה


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