The other night, when Tami and Abby joined us for Shabbat dinner, a couple of questions were asked regarding the custom of lighting candles soon before the onset of Shabbat, and at the time I offered only perfunctory answers to the questions. In this communication I would like to reply in a more thoughtful way, not only to the questions that were asked but, more broadly, to some questions that could be asked about the origin of the custom. Please don’t consider this an authoritative treatise; I am only relying on my own recollections and impressions, and you may find it worthwhile to research the subject on your own.
First, keep in mind that “Sabbath candles” is the common translation of “ner shel Shabbat”, and a better translation might be “Sabbath lights” or, better yet, “Sabbath light.” What is important is not the candle or the flame but the light. Two thousand or more years ago, when the custom originated, candles were not widely available and oil lamps were ordinarily used as a source of light. The object of the blessing recited prior to lighting the candles Friday evening, before sundown, is singular: “Blessed are you, Adonai…who has commanded us to kindle the light [singular] of the Sabbath.” What, exactly, is the connection between “light” and “Sabbath”? Let us consider the socio-economic situation of the Jewish people in the Land of Israel, or in Babylonia, two thousand years ago: A candle, or oil for a lamp, was a luxury; and most families would eat their evening meal (the principal meal of the day) before sundown during most days of the year; or, during the shorter days of the year, they would eat in darkness. The Sabbath day, however, was a day of celebration and even poor people would splurge by purchasing oil for the lamp, so that they could eat their meal in comfort and dignity. That is the origin of the custom. But there are, of course, “halachot” or rules pertaining to the Sabbath candles, and “aggadot” or traditions that have become associated with the Sabbath light (to which I will refer shortly.)
The ritual of kindling the Sabbath light is customarily assigned to the woman of the house (the “akeret ha’bayet”), since the ritual is intimately associated with family life. Among the many b’rachot that are associated with the performance of mitzvot, the b’rachah that is recited in association with the Sabbath light is anomalous in that the performance, i.e., the kindling of the lamp or candle, precedes the b’rachah. Once the woman has pronounced the b’rachah she has, ipse facto, accepted the arrival of the Sabbath and she is not permitted to kindle any light; so, in this case, the b’rachah follows the act. And that is the halachic reason why the woman will cover her face as she recites the b’rachah – to maintain the fiction that the light was kindled only after her b’rachah (that is, as if she is seeing the light for the first time!)
There is another explanation, relying on an aggadah, which is (in my estimation) philosophically very powerful, pertaining to the custom of the woman covering her face while reciting the b’rachah. Remember that in the account of Creation, as told in the first chapter of Genesis, God’s first act was the creation of light; yet it was not until the fourth day that he created the sun and the moon. What, then, became of the first light, the primordial light, which henceforth would not be needed for mankind? The midrash informs us that God “concealed” the primordial light, placing it in a heavenly place where it would be reserved for the righteous individuals of this world when they should depart this world and arrive in the “world to come.” The Sabbath day itself has always been considered by the rabbis as “a taste of the world to come” — and the light kindled for the Sabbath is, by that same reckoning, a sample of the primordial light that awaits the righteous in the “world to come; and the woman of the house covers her eyes because it is not yet her time to bask in that light. A beautiful aggadah, and affecting, no?
The blessing that is recited over the kindling of the Sabbath light is, as I have mentioned, included in the category of “birchot ha’mitzvot”, that is, blessings that are recited in conjunction with the performance of various mitzvot. (The other categories being blessings of gratitude and praise to God, and blessings for the enjoyment of God’s bounty.) It is understood that all of the mitzvot, positive and negative, six hundred and thirteen in all, are derived from the Torah. But where in the Torah do we find any mention of kindling a light to mark the beginning of the Sabbath? Well, we don’t; this mitzvah was actually ordained by the rabbis of the mishnaic era. It is one of seven mitzvot – over and above the six hundred and thirteen derived from the Torah – that are designated as “mitzvot d’rabbanan”, or rituals that were considered by the rabbis to be so important, so fundamental to Jewish observance, that they were to be treated as if they were derived from the Torah. (Some of the other “mitzvot d’rabbanan” include the recitation of the ma’ariv or evening prayers, the ceremony of havdalah, the reading of the Megillah on Purim, and the kindling of the Hannukah lights.)
Beyond halachah, and beyond aggadah, the recitation of the b’rachah over the Sabbath light has always been a most intimate moment for the woman of the house, a time when she may express her personal wishes and prayers for herself and for members of her household. There is a formal prayer for the occasion, which may be found in the Art Scroll siddur and in other siddurim, but many women prefer to pray from their own hearts. I have vivid memories from my own childhood of my grandmother and mother silently offering their personal prayers immediately after reciting the b’rachah on the Sabbath light. On many occasions I observed, as my grandmother or mother removed her hands from her face, that her eyes and her hands were moist with tears. Little did I know, as a boy of six or eight or ten, what thoughts might have moved them to tears: but, as an adult, I surely know that their thoughts were with their parents and grandparents, brothers and sisters, uncles and aunts, who had suddenly vanished from the face of the earth. For my part, I pray that none of you will ever be burdened with such thoughts.
Oh, yes, one of you did ask: what is the correct number of candles to be lit for the Sabbath. One is actually sufficient, but traditionally the number is two (with reference to the two versions of the the Fourth Commandment that are found in the Torah, one in Exodus and one in Deuteronomy) or more (counting each member of the household.) The Sabbath is God’s creation and it will occur every week, candle or no candle – but by the act of lighting a candle we become partners with God in the creation of the Sabbath.
Elliot Wilner is a retired neurologist, having practiced for 35 years in Montgomery County, and a member of Congregation Beth El of Montgomery County in Bethesda.