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The Meaning Behind the Flames

The Meaning Behind the Flames

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My mother bought me a gift: a glass cube in the center of which is carved the image of a woman lighting candles. This gift stands sparkling next to my Shabbat candlesticks. Every week, when I hurry to kindle my Shabbat lights, I feel the warmth of my mother’s love.

Sometimes, I marvel at the powerful simplicity of the image engraved within my gift. Over centuries the image of a woman lighting Shabbat candles has been captured in every medium—canvas, glass, silk, clay, silver. What makes this image so evocative, so powerful and eternal?

Every week, when I hurry to kindle my Shabbat lights, I feel the warmth of my mother’s loveTo try and understand this, let’s go to where the mitzvah, the commandment of lighting Shabbat candles, is first mentioned. In Parshat Yitro, G‑d gives us the Ten Commandments and tells us to remember (zachor) Shabbat.1 In Parshat Va’etchanan, Moshe repeats the commandments and tells us to safeguard (shamor) Shabbat.2 This is a warning not to violate the sanctity of the day. Our sages tell us that at the time the Torah was given, G‑d uttered the words shamor and zachor simultaneously, to teach us that both are equal parts of the Shabbat commandment. To commemorate this, the sages instructed us to kindle lights. The minimum mitzvah, as they instituted, is to kindle one light. Nevertheless, the universally accepted custom is to kindle two lights, thus hinting at both dimensions of shamor and zachor.

The commentary Ohr Hachayim3 explains why the first mitzvah of Shabbat is the kindling of lights. Why don’t we make kiddush first? Shabbat is actually a celebration of the Creator and His Creation. G‑d’s creation of the world follows a seven-day cycle, which peaks each Shabbat and begins anew. At Creation, the first thing that was brought into being was light. Therefore, it is appropriate to kindle lights at the start of Shabbat in commemoration of the first light that was created.

Now let us look a little more deeply into what this light was. The light was not sunlight, for the sun and the other luminaries were created on the fourth day of creation. The Gemara4 tells us that the light created on the first day enabled a person to see from one end of the world to the other. Then, when G‑d saw that corrupt generations would arise, He took this light, hid it away, and saved it for the righteous people to come.

Now, while most of us cannot see this light, the spiritual glow that comes into the home upon kindling Shabbat lights is certainly available to us all. As my six-year-old daughter observed one Friday night when we were all seated around the table eating the freshly baked challah, “Mummy, why is the light in the house different on Shabbat?” I looked around the living room. The cream and beige room was bathed in a soft, golden light. How could I have thought it was simply a glow cast by my candles?

Now that we know why kindling lights is the first mitzvah we do as Shabbat approaches, let us look for the meaning behind the flames.

We kindle Shabbat candles for kavod Shabbat and oneg Shabbat: to honor and to enjoy Shabbat. Candles are lit to lend an air of dignity to the gathering and to brighten the meal, which cannot be enjoyed in the dark. Rashi5 explains that “. . . without light there can be no peace, because [people] will constantly stumble and be compelled to eat in the dark.”

Light is referred to as peaceRashi’s words tell us something else too. As a result of bringing light into the home and helping us practically, light also brings peace. Does this mean only that because people can see they won’t bump into each other, they will eat with ease, and therefore everyone will be at peace? What is the deeper meaning?

Light is referred to as peace, because it gives us the ability to distinguish between different things, and thus to perceive the uniqueness of every person. When we have light, we can recognize the sublime qualities inherent in each other, and in this way we have peace.

Peace, shalom, comes from the word shalem, which means completeness. When people relate to each other in a way that they see the whole person and are not caught up in the differences between them, the externalities that so often irk and irritate, then they can get along with each other peacefully. Peace is unity: it is the joining of separate parts that leads to completeness. Peace is what I feel when, at the end of a day of frenzied preparations, I kindle the lights and then sit down with my daughters, each one so very different from the other, and sing Lecha Dodi, the song that welcomes in Shabbat.

There is another way in which kindling lights increases peace. The Talmud6 tells us that a woman who regularly kindles Shabbat lights is rewarded with children who are Torah scholars. Rashi expounds on this idea using the verse, “For a candle is a mitzvah and the Torah is light.”7 This means that through the mitzvah of lighting candles, she will merit the light of Torah. The Gemara8 also tells us that Torah scholars increase peace in the world. Hence the connection between the Shabbat candles and peace.

Let us now look at some of the more practical applications of kindling Shabbat lights. Shabbat lights are usually kindled by lighting wax candles or wicks floating in oil. Why not simply switch on an electric light? After all, technically, switching on an electric light ought to be sufficient.

But a candle is special because it is similar to a soul. First, just as the flame depends on the material candle, the soul depends on the body to express its potential in this world. Second, a flame gives light, which is in essence intangible, like the soul which is intangible. Finally, just as a flame is always reaching upwards, a soul is always striving to reach upwards to higher levels and to its source.

Although a woman lights two flames, the light created is unified into oneThe Shulchan Aruch9 states that it is preferable to light with olive oil, for it burns with a particularly bright and steady flame. Today there are candles that burn as well as olive oil, so many consider them to be as good as olive oil.

Even so, many people continue to light with olive oil. Why? The Gemara10 compares Torah scholars to olives and olive oil. It has been posited, therefore, that those who light particularly with olive oil will be rewarded with sons who are Torah scholars.11

Another reason for using olive oil is that only pure olive oil was used to light the menorah in the Beit Hamikdash. Since our candles recall the menorah, many people like to use olive oil.12

One more reason is also mentioned in the Talmud.13 Just like an olive tree never loses its leaves, the nation of Israel will never be destroyed.

We have looked at the origins of the mitzvah, the meaning behind it and the practical aspects. Now let’s try to understand why this mitzvah was given to women in particular. Practically, the woman is the hostess who ushers in Shabbat, because she is usually more often present in the home than the husband and generally looks after household matters.14 But we can go deeper. Bearing in mind that light helps us to see the beauty within each other, we can understand why this mitzvah is particularly suited to women: a woman has a very strong ability to see the good in others. Just as a candle lights up the tiniest crevices, a woman is willing to peek into the darkest cracks of the souls of her husband and children to find the good. In fact, when searching for leaven on the eve of Passover, we use a candle at night, because this way we are able to peer into the tiniest cracks and check that they are free of leaven.

Furthermore, candle-lighting is the perfect opportunity for a woman to focus on enhancing her relationship with her husband. Although a woman lights two flames, the light created is unified into one. This reminds her that while she and her husband are two distinct bodies, they are one soul.15 Our Sages tell us that a husband and wife were a single united soul under G‑d’s throne before they came down to earth. It is the work of a lifetime for the couple to unite the two halves, and after 120 years to return the soul whole to G‑d. Kindling lights thus reminds a woman of one of her key roles.

So much for women on an individual level. What about women on a national level? Our sages teach us that in the merit of the righteous women we were redeemed from Egypt. What did they do? Pharaoh was intent on destroying the Jewish people. To achieve this, he disrupted family life by separating the men from their wives and sending them into the fields to do backbreaking labor. At the end of the day, their wives would draw pails of water, which G‑d miraculously filled with fish, and go to their husbands in the fields. The women would wash their husbands’ feet, serve them the fish and revive them. At a time when they were being methodically decimated, the women were willing to perpetuate the Jewish nation. Their belief and hope in the future, despite the horror around them, was the impetus that transformed the darkness of the exile into the light of the Exodus. Today, when we continue the work of these women and light Shabbat candles, we are helping to transform the darkness of exile into an eternal light of deliverance.

While she and her husband are two distinct bodies, they are one soulIn conclusion, let us see how especially beloved the mitzvah of kindling lights for Shabbat is to both G‑d and Jewish women. The Midrash16 tells us that G‑d says: “If you kindle the Shabbat lights, I will show you the marvelous radiance that will shine upon Jerusalem.” Why are we promised such extraordinary merit? To teach us how dear the Shabbat lights are to G‑d.

Similarly, Shabbat candles are beloved to Jewish women. History is replete with stories of the sacrifices that women made to light candles during the Inquisition and in the ghettos.

Let us see to what extent candle-lighting has become associated with our nation. On January 1, 2000, the New York Times ran a Millennium Edition. It was a special issue that featured three front pages. One had the news from January 1, 1900. The second was the actual news of the day, January 1, 2000. And then they had a third front page—projecting envisioned future events of January 1, 2100. This fictional page included things like a welcome to the fifty-first state: Cuba; a discussion as to whether robots should be allowed to vote; and so on. And in addition to the fascinating articles, there was one more thing. Down on the bottom of the Year 2100 front page was the candle-lighting time in New York for January 1, 2100. Reportedly, the production manager of the New York Times—an Irish Catholic—was asked about it. His answer was right on the mark. It speaks to the eternity of our people, and to the power of Jewish ritual. He said, “We don’t know what will happen in the year 2100. It is impossible to predict the future. But of one thing you can be certain—that in the year 2100 Jewish women will be lighting Shabbat candles.”

Since this mitzvah is so beloved to G‑d, and since women have upheld it with strength and devotion, it is no wonder that every medium of art has tried to capture this spark of eternity. May we merit to perform this eternal mitzvah and to reap its rewards.

Footnotes
3.
Torat Avot, Kobrin (as cited in Dovid Meisels, Shabbos Secrets (Israel Book Shop, 2003)).
4.
Chagigah 12a.
5.
Commentary to Talmud, Shabbat 25b.
6.
Shabbat 23b.
8.
Berachot 64a.
9.
Orach Chaim 264:6.
10.
Jerusalem Talmud, Shabbat 15:3.
11.
Machazik Berachah, cited in Yalkut Yosef.
12.
Boruch Leff, Shabbos in My Soul (Targum/Feldheim, 2007), p. 249; Agra d’Kallah, Tetzaveh.
13.
Menachot 53b.
14.
Mishneh Torah, Hil. Shabbat 5:3.
15.
Simcha Bunim Cohen, The Radiance of Shabbps (Artscroll, 1986), Overview.
16.
Yalkut Shimoni, Behaalotcha.
Rhona Lewis was born and grew up in Kenya. She moved to Israel in 1991 and now lives in Beit Shemesh, where she divides her time between caring for her large, happy family and writing. She is currently working on a book of her memoirs.
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Ronit NY March 21, 2011

trying something new I have never lit a Sabbath candle in my own home (I believe I only would light one, as an unmarried woman). This article really makes me want to give it a try for the first time this Sabbath. While I am not observant, I aspire to be more spiritual and incorporate more Jewish practices into my life. Reading how important this act is for G-d, women and the world, I am inspired! This article points to hopefully the first of many steps to leading a more spiritual life. I can't wait for the Sabbath to arrive! Reply

Welcome to our candle-lighting section, where you will find the details and practicalities of lighting Shabbat candles, along with the meaning, spirituality and power of doing so . . .
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