It seems there is something special about the act of lighting Shabbat candles. It is a touching picture: the woman bent over the flames in prayer, a kerchief covering her head.
One of the strongest symbols of the Jewish people, candle lighting encompasses what is central in Judaism: the Jewish home. It is a moment steeped in tradition, as one may remember one’s own mother lighting…or one’s grandmother…or the Jewish women who have been lighting candles every Friday night for 4,000 years. It is a powerful link to Jews everywhere, one that, until recently, remained unbroken in every home, in every land.
Customs vary, but in a family there are always at least two candles burning: one for the wife, and one for the husband — a symbol of Shalom Bayit (peace in the house). Many add one candle for each child, as each is an additional blessing, each a source of new light coming into the world.
Lighting the Shabbat candles is one of the special mitzvot for women (although men are also obligated to light).
Why is this important mitzvah assigned to women? Because it is light, and that is the essence of a woman.
It is the woman who brings light into the home, providing the atmosphere in which she, her husband, and her children can live and prosper. The tone, the feel, the look…it is from her. When she is happy and positive, even the most depressed husband or tired child will absorb her energy and be lifted.
And, to the contrary, if she is unhappy and the home has a feeling of negativity, it can affect the whole family. She is the core of the family unit. It is the power of the Jewish woman, for it is the woman who sanctifies space.
Historically, it was the Jewish women, not the men, who agreed to accept the Torah first at Mount Sinai. And today, it is the woman who transmits the essence of our Jewish heritage into every home.
So this is how the Shabbat begins, with special light, a special understanding as to who we are and why we are here. Shabbat is our time to connect with God, when we stop creating in order to recognize that there is a Creator. The entire week we are caught up in a hectic pace, where it is easy to think only of personal accomplishments and individual achievements.
Yet, once the candles are lit, it is the time to remember that everything is a blessing.
It takes but a few seconds to do, but it is by far one of the deepest expressions of the Jewish soul: to recognize the Almighty and appreciate this special gift that He has given to us all — a gift we call Shabbat.
1. Lighting time varies, depending on the time of year and city location, but must always be done before sunset. There are special calendars that you can buy at your local Jewish bookstore that will list all the candle lighting times for the year. Or download one for free at aish.com. If you don’t have such a guide, simply check your local newspaper for the time of sunset and subtract 18 minutes. That is candle lighting time.
This, however, is only the preferred form of candle lighting. If one did not light candles 18 minutes before sunset he/she can still light candles up to a few minutes before sunset.
The reason why we light candles a few minutes early is in order to avoid any possibility of starting Shabbat late. Think of it as a train leaving the station. If you’re one minute late, you missed it. There is also a mitzvah to add to the beginning and end of Shabbat.
By the way, though most communities light Shabbat candles 18 minutes before sunset, local custom may vary. For instance, in Jerusalem, the custom is to light 40 minutes before sunset.
2. It is customary to use white candles, although any can be used, as long as they will burn for two to three hours. Do not use Chanukah or birthday candles as they burn too quickly.
3. The candles should be lit in an area where they can be seen, but not in a place where a breeze could extinguish the flames or cause them to burn faster, or where children could reach them. (There’s more than one story of children innocently blowing out the candles, as if they were on the top of a birthday cake!)
4. Always let the candles burn naturally; never extinguish them yourself. If for some reason a candle goes out before completely burning down, don’t worry, you have already fulfilled the mitzvah.
5. Once lit, the candles should not be moved until after Shabbat.
6. Many have embraced the custom of depositing a few coins in a tzedakah (charity) box just before candle lighting time.
7. While women usually begin Shabbat upon lighting the candles, men usually begin Shabbat as part of the synagogue service.
Blessing over the Candles:
Arms are motioned three times, hands drawn over the flames as if to bring the light toward you, then covering your face as the special blessing is said:
Baruch ata Adonoy Eloheinu melech ha-olam asher kid’shanu be’mitzvo’tav ve-tzivanu lehadlik ner shel Shabbat.
Blessed are You, God, King of the Universe, Who made us holy with His commandments and commanded us to kindle the Shabbat light.