Lighting Sabbath Candles
By Avi Lazerson
Perhaps nothing brings to mind Jewishness more than the lighting of the Shabbat candles. Who does not picture in his mind a Jewish mother lighting the candles as the traditional begining of the Shabbat?
The custom of lighting candles to honor the Shabbat is very old and dates back to the Talmud. We find that the rabbis considered the lighting of the candles important for two reasons. One is that the Shabbat should be a day of joy and pleasure. If the house was dark, a person would end up stumbling and that would take away from the enjoyment of the day. The second reason is that light enhances enjoyment of the food. If you eat in the dark, you would not have full appreciation of the food. For these two reasons, a person is required to place a candle on the table where he eats, plus a light in the other rooms that he might go into to avoid stumbling.
Although the obligation to light candles is an obligation for the entire household, the actual lighting of the candles is given to the woman. It is her special mitzvah to bring peace and joy into her house. Therefore if the husband desires to light the candles, he must ask permission from his wife. The only exception to this rule is the custom for the first Shabbat after the wife gives birth, for husband to light the candles for his wife.
It is the wife who lights the candles next to the Shabbat table and makes the blessings on them. The husband is responsible that the rest of the home be properly lit.
Although only one candle is sufficient to provide light in the house for the Shabbat meal, the custom is to light two in remembrance of the two expressions in the Torah pertaining to the observance of the Shabbat: "remember" and "observe". Yet various customs have sprung up regarding the number of candles. Some women light just two (as mentioned), others light a specific number such as seven or ten, and still others light one candle per person in their immediate family. Another custom is that if the woman forgets to light the Shabbat candles, she adds one candle for the rest of her life.
The requirement to have Shabbat candles is so great that even if a person has very little money and after acquiring bread for the meal, he only has money enough for either wine or a candle, he should buy the candle. It is preferable that he makes kiddush on the bread and eat in the light, rather than make kiddush on wine and eat in the dark.
How are the candles lit?
Lighting the candles is the woman's way of accepting upon herself the Shabbat. A man generally accepts the holiness of the Shabbat in the synagogue prayers.
The blessings for the mitzvoth are generally said prior to the performance of the particular mitzvah. In the case of lighting the candles, since the lighting signifies the acceptance of the holiness of the day, a problem comes up. If the woman were to make the blessings before lighting it might be interpreted that she accepted the holiness when she uttered the blessings before lighting the candles. That would mean that the lighting of the candles would be after she accepted the Shabbat. Of course it is forbidden to light a candle on the Shabbat. Instead, the ladies first light all of the candles and then after extinguishing the match, they make the blessing. They cover their eyes with their hands as they make the blessing so as not to derive benefit from the candles. After the blessings they open their eyes and take in the light of the Shabbat.
from the January 2006 Edition of the Jewish Magazine