Dear Rabbi Fried,
I’ve often wondered why the woman is the one who lights the Shabbat candles in the home on Friday night. Also, why is it that some women light two candles and some light more?
Thanks for your time,
The mitzvah of lighting candles on Friday afternoon before sundown for Shabbat is one of the most beautiful and profound mitzvot performed in the Jewish home weekly. Jewish law cites three reasons why we light the Shabbat candles: Firstly, it is a great honor to usher in the “Shabbat Queen” with the lighting of candles. Secondly, it brings greater enjoyment to the home when it is illuminated with extra light for Shabbat. Thirdly, it adds to the shalom bayit, or peace in the home, to have enough light (especially in the days when all they had were candles or oil lamps).
The Kabbalists add a further dimension. On Shabbat we are endowed with an “additional soul,” in a sense a heightened, expanded soul which is capable of containing within it all the extra holiness and spiritual energy we are showered with on the Shabbat day. A soul is the embodiment of God’s spiritual light in this world; hence the verse says “the candle of God is the soul of man.” Through the soul of man God illuminates His world. In order to celebrate the expanded or additional souls which we are endowed with on Shabbat, and the spiritual illumination they provide to the world, we mark the day by lighting candles. (There are opinions in Jewish law that one should light an oil candelabra rather than candles, as the oil lit in the cup signifies the soul in the body which illuminates the body and the surrounding world.)
The reason for two candles is to celebrate the two phrases that God used in the Torah to keep the Shabbat: zachor, to remember it, by performing the positive acts of Shabbat such as lighting candles, eating the festive meals, and reciting Kiddush; and shamor, or to guard the Shabbat (i.e., not to transgress it).
Many light more than two candles, as they have a custom to add a candle for each child born into the family. This can be understood, as we mentioned, that each additional soul adds illumination to the world, and we celebrate that new Jewish soul each week by adding a candle. Also, imagine the powerful message expressed to a child when he is told that a candle is lit for him each week, because he or she is a beautiful soul which illuminates the world.
It is also the custom for the woman to recite a special prayer, after lighting, that her children should be upright, scholarly and proud Jews. This is based on the Talmudic statement that one who is careful with lighting Shabbat candles will be rewarded with children who are Torah scholars. The rivers of tears that Jewish mothers have shed for generations at the time of this prayer is said to be the main reason we still have a Jewish people with its Torah today.
The mitzvah of lighting applies to men and women, but the first right to light goes to the women. This is because the first woman, after partaking of the forbidden fruit, gave it to the first man, causing the concept of death to enter the world. In the words of the sages, “she brought darkness to the world, let her bring light to the world.” The concept of death, the loss of a soul from the world, is darkness. The Shabbat candle is light, like a soul. All the daughters of Chava, Eve, join hands throughout the generations to perform this amazing tikkun, and collectively repair the world through their lighting the Shabbat candles.
The story is told of a group of Jews stuffed in a cattle car, overcome with despair as Shabbat was rapidly approaching and many knew that this would probably be their last Shabbat in this world, one they would be forced to spend in darkness. Suddenly a courageous woman managed to reach her only bag, and pull out of it her last prized possession, her beloved candelabra. She lit the candles for all in that car, lighting up their faces with a smile, and providing all with a ray of hope that better days and better Shabbats are yet to come. As they joined in the joyous singing of “Lecha Dodi,” that special woman won the war of light over darkness, as she ensured her place among the great heroines of our people and joined the eternal tikkun of Shabbat candles.