The match hisses as it strikes against the box, the smell of sulfur filling the air as the flame bursts to life. Touched lightly to the wick, it flares briefly on contact and then dies down. With the candle now lit, the match is placed gently on a tray, left to extinguish on its own.
Two hands reach out and slowly sways towards and away from the flame in a circular, welcoming motion. Eyes are covered, a blessing is recited quietly, and then a hearty “Shabbat Shalom!” rings out. The holy Shabbat Queen is here. Shabbat has begun.
Lighting Shabbat candles is a Jewish tradition that goes back thousands of years to our Matriarch Sarah herself. According to Rashi, a commentator on the Torah, Sarah lit Shabbat candles every week, and they continued to burn throughout the week until the next Shabbat. It is a beautiful tradition that we carry on today.
But we don’t just light candles before Shabbat. We also light a candle after Shabbat to signal the end of the holy Sabbath departing; and we light candles before every major Jewish holiday including Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret/Simchat Torah, Passover and Shavuot.
Although lighting Shabbat candles is not a Torah commandment, it was added many years ago as a Rabbinic obligation, and we still observe it today.
A Jewish Flame
Fire is one of the most basic elements on earth. Its properties are both frightening and attractive, unpredictable and nourishing. Fire both draws us close and pushes us away.
A flame represents so many things, and in Judaism it is particularly symbolic.
In Judaism, fire represents the human soul, and G-d’s connection to us. In Proverbs 20:27 it says, “Ner Hashem nishmat adam”, the flame of G-d is the human soul. By lighting fires, we are reviving our souls. Which is why many synagogues have a Ner Tamid, an eternal flame constantly burning.
The candle represents the extra soul we are given on Shabbat, and we light a candle for Havdalah- the prayer we say at the end of Shabbat, because we are sad to say goodbye to our departing soul. We also light candles for a Yartzeit- the anniversary of a death, to remember the soul of the departed.
Judaism is rich with fire, and particularly the weekly Shabbat candle-lighting tradition.
In days of old, one of the reasons for lighting candles before Shabbat was in order to have light in the house, because we cannot kindle a flame on Shabbat. The Rabbis maintained that lighting a fire before Shabbat would help increase light and joy on Shabbat, especially enjoyment people get from seeing their food. Now with electricity it is not necessary, but still it brings ‘oneg Shabbat’, enjoyment of the Sabbath.
We light candles to have ‘Shalom Bayis’- peace in the home, and delight of Shabbat. In Isaiah 58:13 it says that if we refrain from doing work on Shabat and call it a delight, then “you shall delight with the Lord, and I will cause you to ride on the high places of the land”.
Those who keep the Sabbath, the Sabbath will keep and protect them.
We also light Shabbat candles to bring light not only into our homes, but into the dark world. Even a small bit of light can dispel a lot of darkness. And elevating the mundane world into a spiritual one is the whole purpose of creation.
Who Should Light
Lighting Shabbat and holiday candles is primarily a woman’s mitzvah- commandment, as the Akeret Habayit- mainstay of the home. But if a woman is not home, a man or anyone else can light the candles so there will be candles burning on Shabbat.
There used to be a tradition in the Jewish communities that young girls would light with their mothers. Today in some communities girls light candles from the age of three, or as soon as they understand the meaning of it. Girls light first so their mothers can help them with lighting.
A married woman lights two candles, one for herself and one for her husband. Another reason why we light two candles is for “shamor” and “zachor”, the words we said when we agreed to keep the Sabbath. ‘We will keep’ and ‘We will remember it’. We honor this by lighting two candles in the home.
Most women today have the tradition to add a candle for every new child that is born into the family. Single girls light only one candle out of respect for their mothers.
If someone is a guest in another's home, they should also light a candle if that is their tradition. For one who is traveling they can light two candles instead of the amount they usually light.
When to Light
Lighting candles starts from “Plag Haminchah,” the time of the midday prayer on Friday, which is approximately 1¼ hours before sunset. It is the earliest time one can light and bring in Shabbat. The latest time that one can light is right before sunset.
Because we want to make sure that we don't desecrate the Sabbath, we make sure to light at least 18 minutes before sunset. You can find the Shabbat times for your city online. (The only difference between Shabbat and holidays is that on holidays which don’t fall out on Shabbat, candles can be lit after nightfall from an existing flame.)
In a Jewish home you might hear this time called “Shkiah”, literally sunset. Or licht bentschen, Yiddish for light blessing, or licht tsinden- light kindling. It is a particularly stressful time when people are rushing to do last minute preparations for Shabbat before the clock runs out.
It is good to prepare the candles well ahead of time, and some have the tradition for the man of the house to set up the candles.
It is customary to place coins in a charity box before lighting to remind ourselves to think of others and to help those in need. It is also like giving a gift to our “King”, G-D, before making a request.
How to Light
After setting aside the charity box, it is time to light the candles. A match is lit, or a ‘helper candle’ so as not to burn oneself. Mothers help their children light, and then light their own candles.
Once the candles are lit we place the match or candle down without putting it out. After we light it is already Shabbat and we cannot put out a fire on Shabbat.
Then one waves their hands towards the candles in a circular motion. Some have the tradition to do it three times. This is an order to welcome in the Sabbath Queen and let her know she is welcome in our home. Some say it is also an act of drawing light inside oneself.
We then cover our eyes. While traditionally in Judaism one first says a blessing and then performs a Mitzvah, when lighting candles it is already Shabbat once we light, and by saying the blessing first it would be considered desecrating Shabbat. Therefore we first light the candle and then we cover our eyes so as not to have enjoyment from it. Some say the blessing quietly or out loud together with their family while their hands cover their eyes. And once we lift our hands and see the candles it is now Shabbat.
While our hands are covering our eyes, it is a very auspicious time to pray and ask G-D for anything that we need. Mothers usually take this time to think of each one of their children, their spouse and their home and ask G-D to bless them in all areas of their lives. They ask for continued peace and harmony and prosperity. They commune with G-D and also thank him for everything that he has given them.
Once we lift our hands from the candles we wish each other “Good Shabbos!” or “Shabbat Shalom!” and now it is now Shabbos.
Where to Light
It is customary to light the candles in the same room where the meal will take place, generally in the living room or dining room. At the Shabbat meal we look at the candles when we recite the blessings over the wine, as it is good for the eyes and brings healing.
It is also pleasurable for the home to have the candles burning while we are enjoying the Sabbath meal. Therefore it is important to use candles that will burn at least a few hours so they will still be burning while we eat the meal. Be sure not to use candles like birthday candles or even Hanukkah candles because they burn out very fast.
While there is no specific rules when it comes to what kind of candles to use, some people use white candles and some people use oil with wicks, but anything is okay. Some people use tea lights and some people have fancy candelabras, called "leichter" in Yiddish, but the main thing is the act of lighting itself which is holy. Anything extra is just to beautify the mitzvah.
Reciting the Blessings
There is one traditional blessing that is recited before Shabbat and then a different blessing for holidays.
Baruch atah, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech haolam, asher kid'shanu b'mitzvotav, v'tzivanu l'hadlik ner shel Shabbat Kodesh.
Translation: Blessed are You, Lord our G‑d, King of the universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments, and commanded us to kindle the light of the holy Shabbat.
There is a standard blessing for most holidays:
Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech haolam, asher kid'shanu b'mitzvotav v'tzivanu l'hadlik ner shel Yom Tov.
Translation: Blessed are You, L-rd, our G‑d, King of the universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments and has commanded us to light the candle of the Holiday.
And when the holiday falls out on Shabbat we say l'hadlik ner shel Shabbat v'shel Yom Tov- to kindle the light of Shabbat and the holiday.
Some holidays get special blessings:
For Rosh Hashanah:
Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech haolam, asher kid'shanu b'mitzvotav v'tzivanu l'hadlik ner shel Yom Hazikaron.
Translation: Blessed are You, L-rd, our G‑d, King of the universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments and has commanded us to light the candle of the Day of Remembrance.
For Yom Kippur:
Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech haolam, asher kid'shanu b'mitzvotav v'tzivanu l'hadlik ner shel Yom HaKippurim.
Translation: Blessed are You, L-rd, our G‑d, King of the universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments and has commanded us to kindle the Yom Kippur light.
We also add the Shehecheyanu blessing before every holiday except for the last day of Passover.
Baruch atah, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech haolam, shehecheyanu, v'kiy'manu, v'higiyanu laz'man hazeh.
Translation: Blessed are You, Lord our G‑d, King of the universe, who has granted us life, sustained us, and enabled us to reach this occasion.
Some people add the Yehi Ratzon prayer after saying the blessing.
Yehi ratzon milfanecha Adonai eloheinu v'elohei avoteinu Sheyibaneh beit hamikdash bim'heirah v'yameinu v'sein chelkeinu b'sorah-secha.
May it be Your will, G-D and the G-D of Fathers that the Holy Temple be rebuilt speedily in our days, and grant us our portion in Your Torah.
It is a good time to add prayers for sick people and pray for their speedy recovery. Other additional prayers may be added according to family or community tradition.
Lighting candles before Shabbat and holidays increases peace and tranquility in the home, and acts as a separation between the mundane weekday and the holy Sabbath. It adds a bright ambiance and causes joy and delight. It makes for a beautiful meal with family and guests.
If you don’t already, consider lighting Shabbat candles, and experience the deep feeling of calmness, harmony and wholeness it brings.
Sit and watch the flames for a few minutes. Listen to the silence and let your soul do the talking.
From Elijah Candles we wish you and your family: Shabbat Shalom!