A child came home from a Hebrew lesson and told her parents that she wanted to make light for Shabbat by lighting candles. The parents agreed to satisfy her whim and lit candles as the sun set onThe mother decided, if the candles were burning, they should have a traditional Shabbat dinner Friday. As they sat down to dinner they realized that it was not fitting for the television to be on while the Shabbat candles were burning, so they turned off the TV. The next week the father decided that if there were candles on the table, they should chant the Kiddush on a cup full of wine. The next week the mother decided that if the candles were burning, they should have a traditional Shabbat dinner. The next week the family decided that if the candles were burning, they should attend services before coming home for dinner. Before long, the candles filled their home with the light of Shabbat.

Why are candles special, and why do we light them for Shabbat?

Wood and Stone

Our sages taught that a home should not be dark on Shabbat lest we stumble on a piece of wood or a stone and disturb the Shabbat peace.1 Another view is that Shabbat is a day of delight: make light to delight.

Allow me a play on words: In the English language, when you preface a word with the letters “de,” the word is negated. For example, to “debone” is to remove the bone. To “detox” is to remove the toxin. In this vein “delight” can mean to remove the ordinary light—and bask in a higher form of light, a spiritual light. When you stare into an intense source of light, such as the sun, your eyes are blinded for a moment and it seems dark. To “delight” means to experience a light so intense—in this case, the Shabbat light—that the ordinary light loses its appeal. It no longer seems like light compared to the greater light.

What is this light of Shabbat?

I believe the answer is hidden in the words of our sages, “lest we stumble on wood or stone.” In the Torah, the phrase “wood and stone” is often a euphemism for idols, which are carved of wood and hewn of stone.2 Perhaps our sages are alluding to two kinds of stumbling: a literal stumble on physical wood and a spiritual stumble on the wood and stone of idolatry.

We no longer worship idols in the classic sense, but we often worship idols in the virtual sense. We often worship an accumulation of possessions, the need to keeping up with the Joneses as it were. If it’s not our homes and furniture that we worship, it is our cars or clothes. Many of us worship the “likes” on Facebook and responses on Twitter. For others, it is our phones and tablets. We keep up with the latest models lest we be mocked by the Joneses.

On Shabbat, we leave this rat race behind and focus on the important things. We take time for family and children, neighbors and friends. We sing and pray, dine and socialize, study and discuss. We invest in the things that life is meant to serve, rather than the things that serve life. We make light for life rather than make light of life. Perhaps this is the deeper meaning in “de-light.” We de-light from weekday and delight in Shabbat. We de-light from mundaneness and delight in holiness.

Candle and Light

King Solomon taught that “a mitzvah is a candle and Torah is light.”3 Every mitzvah is a candle, but the Shabbat candles are especially luminous because their light is visible even on the physical plane.

Let’s look at candles and lights. Suppose your home is strewn with obstacles, the kind that our Shabbat lights are designed to prevent us from stumbling upon. There are toys everywhere, stools in the middle of the room, papers all over the floor . . . you get the idea.

Now imagine walking through this room in the dark. There is no doubt that you would stumble with nearly each step. Now imagine turning on the light. You can see where you are going; you have light compared to the darkness that preceded it. But it is not a delight. It is depressing. You see an awful mess. Why would you want to see it? In some ways ignorance is bliss.

Now imagine that you organized the mess and put each thing in its proper place. Now the things that were obstacles have become adornments that beautify the room. The mess has become orderliness. The depression has turned into delight. You threw away the trash, polished the silver; things are in their rightful place, and the room has become a palace.

A candle is a carrier of light, but without the flame it has no light. A flame is a source of light, but without a candle, it can’t hold its light. You need both. A candle and a light. If you turn on the light, you have temporary relief, but once you see the mess, you are left with depression. If you clean up the mess in the dark, you have created a candle, but you can’t see the beauty that your candle created. Together, the candle and light brighten up your home. They turn a mess into a delight.

Torah and Mitzvah

We now return to King Solomon: “A mitzvah is a candle and Torah is light.” When we study Torah, we ignite a light in ourOur lives are filled with candles that produce eternal light hearts and minds and discover just how much more meaningful our lives can be. We realize that we often pursue meaningless pleasures and accumulate treasures of little value. Our purpose has become temporal, and we give little thought to life’s eternal purpose. This is depressing.

But then we set ourselves to filling our day with mitzvahs. We know how bad the mess is and proceed to clean it up. So we set ourselves to turning idols into candles. Our toys, be they of wood, stone or silicone, are turned into sources of light. We use our spacious homes and comfortable furnishings to host delightful Shabbats for our family and friends. We use the Internet and social media, our phones and tablets, to study and teach Torah. We use our cars and trucks for eternal purposes, for mitzvahs. Our lives are now filled with candles that produce eternal light. Our toys now generate delight in both senses of the word. They de-light the temporal joy that they gave us before and allow us to delight in the sacred light that they begin to generate now.

In a word, the meditation for the Shabbat candles goes like this: make light for Shabbat and you won’t make light of life.