In the commandments of the Torah, one finds numerous examples of gender distinction and difference. While many of the Torah’s commandments apply equally to all, there are nonetheless specific commandments that apply only to men or only to women.

From the perspective of Kabbalistic and Chassidic analysis, each of the commandments has an inner dimension that reflects a hidden spiritual reality. Often this is referred to as the mystical intention, or kavanah, that animates and inspires each of the commandments. 1

The experience of the bride is often associated with the collective experience of the entire Jewish peopleWith this in mind, one can expect to find an articulation of the nature of gender expressed in the different commandments that are gender-specific.

One such example of a commandment that is designated for women is the mitzvah of lighting Shabbat candles.2 This gender-specific act is exceptionally rich in its history of Kabbalistic interpretation, and readily lends itself to a detailed depiction of the feminine in general and women in particular.3 Although a host of interpretations exist as to the inner significance of women lighting Shabbat candles, certain recurrent dimensions are continually emphasized. The following will present merely one fundamental set of reflections that are developed throughout Kabbalistic and Chassidic sources.

To begin with, one must meditate on the abstract formulation of the inner dimension of kindling Shabbat candles. As with many of the commandments and customs in Judaism, Arizal (Rabbi Isaac Luria) provides a mathematical model that is to serve as a symbolic shorthand for recording, in a cloaked manner, the essence of these mystical intentions. Without going into a detailed discussion of the nature of the mathematical structure of the Torah, it should suffice to say that the normative methodology of Kabbalistic exegesis frequently employs mathematical tools when formulating an interpretation. The basis for these kinds of interpretive moves stems from the tradition of relating Hebrew letters to numbers.4 Thus, words that have numerical correspondence are understood to possess both linguistic and conceptual relationships.

In the case of the Shabbat candles, Arizal emphasizes the key ingredients that make up a candle, or ner in Hebrew. In this instance, he relates the candle to several pairs of divine names. The formula consists of the union of three pairs of names, the first of which is the union of the Tetragramaton (comprised of the letters yud, hei, vav and hei) and the divine name “I will be” (Ekyeh), which is numerically equivalent to 26 plus 21.5 The second pair also involves the Tetragramaton; however, in this union it is bound to the divine name Elokim, which is numerically equivalent to 26 plus 86. The third and final pair includes, once again, the Tetragramaton coupled with the divine name Ad‑nai, which is numerically equivalent to 26 plus 65. To summarize, altogether these six names (26, 21, 26, 86, 26, 65) equal 250, which is the numerical value of the word “candle” (ner) in Hebrew. Thus, the candle that a woman lights before Shabbat contains, according to Arizal, the structure of the union of six divine names in three pairs.6

The function of the name is merely a means of identification for the otherIn order to understand what is being suggested here, a brief introduction to the Kabbalistic use of divine names must be made. As a general principle, each name denotes a specific relationship. For example, a person may be called by many different names: daughter, sister, wife, mother, student, teacher, etc., depending on the one with whom that person is relating, and in what context. So, too, G‑d is called by many names. In Kabbalah, these names designate various modes of divine manifestations in specific relationships. Nonetheless, a person would not suggest that his or her different names imply that that he or she is multiple persons. Moreover, none of these names identify his or her existential essence. Likewise, G‑d is One and Unique, despite the endless number of names used to describe G‑d’s self-expression. The function of the name is merely a means of identification for the other.7

What, then, do the names in the above formulation signify? First of all, the Tetragramaton, which appears repeatedly in each of the pairs, represents G‑d’s essential name or identity. The four letters permute to spell the word havayah, which means “Existence.” In other words, this name represents G‑d being manifest as Existence itself. The letters themselves form the roots of the words in Hebrew for “past, present and future,” indicating that this name reflects G‑d above time, bearing past, present and future as one. In sum, the Tetragramaton reflects G‑d’s unchanging nature—the very superstructure that founds all of existence.8

The name Ad‑nai comes from the word for “authority.” This name denotes the power to exercise divine influence in a manner that may be properly received. This reflects G‑d’s interaction with concrete reality—setting up the physical so that it is able to integrate with the spiritual. The numerical value of this name, 65, equals the word “chamber” or “palace” (heichal in Hebrew). Thus, the outermost dimension of divinity is a form of self-projection onto creation. By way of a parable, one dimension of G‑dliness is likened to a king who possesses a castle: the castle has nothing of its own character, but rather is merely a receptacle that is “filled” with the character of the king. The building is an externalization of the king himself manifesting his intention and will.9.

The name Elokim, which first appears in the opening verse of the Torah, is employed throughout the account of creation. Because of this, Kabbalistic sources refer to Elokim as the name through which G‑d set up and installed the fundamental structure of all creation. Furthermore, in Kabbalah, the name Elokim generally relates to nature, for the Hebrew word for nature (hateva) is numerically equivalent to the name Elokim (86). Thus, this name reflects G‑d as manifest through nature—that which configures a structured economy of divine influence.10

All redemptions are modeled after this essential redemption—that is, they are redemptions from limitationsThe name Ekyeh was first used in connection with the redemption of the Jewish people from Egypt. Moses asks G‑d what he should do when he declares to the people that G‑d is taking them out of their exile and they ask: “What is His name?” The response that G‑d gives is: “Thus you will say to the Children of Israel: Ekyeh (‘I will be’) has sent me to you.”11 Thus, the name “I will be” is considered to be the one identified with redemption—the ability to go beyond limitations.12 In Kabbalah, this name is sometimes called by the name of “mother.” Just as the image of the condition of exile is compared to a fetus constrained within the limitations of the womb, so too, redemption is portrayed as the birth process. The ability to give birth, to release from limitations, is a process of becoming, of coming into being, of declaring “I will be”—all of which is facilitated by the mother.13

In light of this, these three pairs of names can be understood as three unions, or “marriages.”14 Here, the constant term in each of these pairs (the Tetragramaton) is considered to be the bridegroom, while the dynamic terms that vary according to the situation are representative of the bride. When the relationships between all of these names are played out, each possesses certain advantages over the other. Ultimately, both categories of names are required, both the static and the dynamic. This difference sets up a positive tension between the masculine ability to stay fixed and the feminine ability to produce change.

In the Midrash we are told a parable of a king who had an only daughter, of whom he said that he was not moved in his love for her until he called her “my daughter.” Then the relationship progressed, causing him to love her even more, to the point when he said that he was not moved in his love for her until he called her “my sister.” Then again the relationship progressed, and he loved her more and said that he was not moved in his love for her until he called her “my mother.”15

In Kabbalah, we find that the three levels of “daughter,” “sister” and “mother” correspond to the three pairs or “marriages” of divine names described in the kavanot given above.16 The union of the groom, the Tetragramaton, with Ad‑nai corresponds to the level of “my daughter.” The union of the Tetragramaton with Elokim corresponds with the level of “my sister.” Finally, the union of the Tetragramaton and Ekyeh corresponds to the level of “my mother.” All three levels symbolize different states of the feminine in Judaism. From below to above, the ladder of ascent goes from “daughter” to “sister” to “mother.” The three experiences of the daughter, sister and mother are all connected to the kindling of Shabbat candles, wherein the narrative of their spiritual service is ingrained in the very action they perform.

A person lives on and beyond himself or herself through his or her children. In essence, one is one’s childWhen the woman is at the level of “daughter,” she experiences the level in which the king nourishes her from above. She possesses nothing of her own, but rather is the mirror of the will of the king. On an even deeper level, to view her as his daughter is to say that she comes from him. In other words, as with all children, she embodies an extension of his being. A person lives on and beyond himself or herself through his or her children. In essence, one is one’s child. Thus, as with the name Ad‑nai, which reflects G‑d’s capacity to interact with concrete reality, the comparison can be drawn to a daughter image. The daughter specifically serves as the extension of the life of the king, which follows the general principle of the feminine power to receive from the masculine, enhancing and developing it.17

The name Elokim fits in with the relation of the king at the level of “my sister.” Love between a brother and sister is like the calm, natural love between equals. There is none of the dissymmetry that exists in the parent-child relationship that is indicative of the other two examples. Consequently, the essential character of the relationship between the masculine and feminine principles is as the union of equals. This follows the concept of G‑dly manifestation as nature—given that the name Elokim means “nature.”

The third level signifies the deepening of the love even more, past the position where the king feels that there is a common level between him and this woman. Here, from a certain perspective, he recognizes that everything that he desires—his total sense of self-consciousness—stems from her. Likewise, it is stated, “The righteous women is the crown of her husband.”18 In Chassidut, a woman’s capacity to give birth, to be called “mother,” signifies her innate ability to determine reality through her creativity. While the power of giving birth, according to its plain meaning, reflects the capability to have children, the larger spiritual implication refers to all forms of creativity, such as spiritual, intellectual, artistic, etc.

The Torah grants advantages that are different and unique to both men and women, with each possessing the power to positively or negatively influence the otherThus, to counterbalance the situation where the husband gives to his daughter in a one-sided situation, there is a double dissymmetry, whereby the woman also plays the role of creating and forming him—where he is an expression of her essence. Hence, all three examples display the Torah’s view of gender. In general, where there is a level of gender distinction, the Torah grants advantages that are different and unique to both men and women, with each possessing the power to positively or negatively influence the other, to even create and nourish the other. These are the twin tensions that must remain in their proper place. The bridge that binds these tensions, however, is the sort of neutral third position that lies in the middle. The natural love between brother and sister remains the ground of equality and reciprocity—a level that is, in a sense, beyond gender distinction entirely.

To color in these relationships further, another level of detail must be overlaid. The Bible alludes to three levels in the flame of a candle which parallel the above three relationships. In the book of Yechezkel we find a verse that states that there was “electrum out of the midst of the fire.”19 From this we learn that the inner part of the flame, that which hugs the wick that consumes the oil, is identified as the chashmal, or electrum. This appears as the black or dark blue part of the flame. The main body of the flame, that which provides the light, is called eish, or “fire.” From another verse in Yechezkel we learn of the third level of the flame, which is referred to as “a brightness surrounding it.”20 This level of nogah, the subtle halo or aura that glimmers around the rim of the fire of the flame, is the most difficult to see. It is an almost invisible level, and one must adjust one’s eyes to perceive it. This is the inner meaning of why a Jewish women is instructed to first close her eyes after she lights Shabbat candles, and then to open her eyes. By doing so, her eyes will dilate, and consequently be receptive to seeing this level of the nogah that surrounds the flame.

We can see an even deeper Kabbalistic allusion to these three levels through their numerical equivalence. The word for flame in Hebrew, shalhevet, equals 737, the sum of the three parts of the flame as described above: chashmal= 378, eish= 301, and nogah = 58.21

Here, the ascent of the flame, from electrum to fire to brightness, represents the ascent of women from the level of “daughter” to “sister” to “mother.” To begin with, the aspect of the flame that is the essential work of the flame, the combustion process, turns the coarse physicality of the oil into the relative spirituality of the fire. This is the work of the daughter. The masculine aspect that views the relationship with his female counterpart as purely physical, as just a projection of himself, requires transformation. The initial process is one of working to break out of this mold. Regarding her in this fashion is tantamount to seeing himself in a like manner—that his vision of her is his self-expression. By her taking that material perception and “consuming it,” it becomes spiritual, and rises to the next level of the flame.

At the level of the fire, the natural light that is provided reflects the natural love between relative equals—that of the king relating to her as his sister. The whitish-yellow of the fire of the candle acts as the principal source of light to the world around the candle. The level of fire is gentle and tranquil next to the active level of the electrum that works to consume the oil. Here, the feminine comes into equilibrium, reflecting a natural state of balance in the relationship.

It is in the power of women to ignite the souls of all human beingsFinally, the third level is the highest, whereby the brightness represents the future of the flame, a new height to which it aspires to be. Hence, the brightness reflects the name “I will be,” that which lies in potential, beyond the economy of the flame—what has, as of yet, not come into existence, but will be born. This is the level of “mother.” A consciousness that all that is currently present, even in a natural equality of male to female, will still yield to an even higher dimension—the world to come—where the feminine principle is seen to be on top, creating and determining reality. Therefore, this becomes a cycle whereby the beginning is wedged in the end, allowing the process to begin anew on higher and higher levels, as the mother rises even more, once again becoming the daughter.22

Chassidut explains the verse, “The soul of a human being is the candle of G‑d,”23 to reflect the inner intention in lighting the Shabbat candles. This is to suggest that it is in the power of women to ignite the souls of all human beings—to be the catalyst for their emerging out of spiritual dormancy and becoming beautiful, expressive flames that rise upwards toward their Creator. Her talent, when ideally expressed, should inspire not only her own soul, but also the souls of those around her, to make them stand on their own independent spiritual strength. Then, upon becoming such a strong source of spiritual light and warmth, these souls themselves will give birth to new souls, in an endless chain of creativity. A candle rising up on its own can have an infinite number of other candles lit from it without detracting from its own fire. So, too, a soul that rises in its love, with all of its heart and with all its soul and with all of its might, in its love for G‑d, can endlessly kindle the same feeling in other surrounding souls.