The rabbi in my synagogue tells me that my daughter should begin lighting Shabbat and holiday candles when she can say the blessing on her own. When I told this to my very traditional grandmother, she told me that the custom is that girls do not light candles until they are married. Can you please enlighten me?
In Genesis we read the story of Abraham, following the passing of his wife Sarah, sending his servant Eliezer to find a wife for Isaac, his son. During Sarah's lifetime, she would kindle the candles on the eve of Shabbat, and our Sages say that they miraculously continued to burn until the next Shabbat.
Eliezer found Rebecca, a relative of Abraham, and he brought her to Isaac. The verse describes Isaac bringing her to his mother's tent, and our Sages say that when Isaac brought her into his mother's tent, he found that the candles that she lit on the eve of Shabbat lasted an entire week, too.
"And he took Rebecca into the tent of his mother Sarah"—and she lit the Shabbat candles, and only then—"she became his wife." This indicates that she lit the candles even prior to her marriage.
We find records indicating that young girls would light the Shabbat and holiday candles as recently as several generations ago. We also find that many rabbinic families have continued to keep this custom.
It was only during the World Wars that the custom of young girls lighting candles stopped being observed. At that time candles became scarce, and even the heads of households could not easily obtain candles. Therefore the custom of young girls lighting candles was forgotten.
In today's day and age, this is no longer an issue. The Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory, encouraged all Jewish girls to light their own Shabbat and holiday candles with the consent of their parents.
Until marriage, girls light one candle. And the Rebbe encouraged parents to purchase a special candlestick just for the girl.
Girls should light their candle first, before their mothers. Their mother should be present to assist as needed, and to supervise the lighting so the child doesn't, G‑d forbid, cause a fire. (After the mother lights her own candles, it would be forbidden for her to handle fire or its accessories.)
Normally, when doing a mitzvah for the first time, the Shehecheyanu, a special blessing commemorating joyful events and dates, is recited. Since it's not clear-cut whether this rule applies to the first time a girl lights Shabbat candles, the Rebbe advised that a young girl light candles for the first time on a holiday, when the Shehecheyanu is anyways recited after the candle-lighting blessing. Alternatively, the girl should wear a new item of clothing so she can make the blessing on that, while keeping the lighting of the candle in mind.
In conclusion, you can rest assured that the lighting of the Shabbat and holiday candles by young girls is an age-old custom. Perhaps you can also tell your grandmother that in this day and age, with so many negative forces pulling on our children, one more good deed will only help dispel the darkness.
Wishing you much nachat from your daughter,
Chana Raizel Zaklikowski
P.S. A girl under the age of bat mitzvah lights a candle primarily for educational purposes—and the adult members of the household do not fulfill their obligation of Shabbat candles through her candle. The mother should continue to light her own candles, or, if the mother is not present, the father should light candles in addition to his daughter's.
Sources: The Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory, Likkutei Sichot, vol. 15, p. 163. Aruch Hashulchan 263:7. Neshek, by Rabbi Shalom Ber Levin.