“Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.”1 Perhaps, but being small-minded makes for much easier conversation. There is something so natural and compelling, so addictive, so cathartic about talking about other people. Gossip is charged with intrigue, and feels innocuous at the time. It’s usually afterward that the guilt settles in: “What was the point of that conversation?” “Did I violate someone’s privacy?” “Would I be embarrassed if they knew that I was talking about them?”Gossip is charged with intrigue

Maimonides says that “people who habitually gossip will end up denying G‑d.” Gossip makes the small mind grow smaller. G‑d becomes less relevant. “What’s G‑d got to do with it? I care about what he said, what she said.”

In biblical times, there was a spiritual ailment called tzaraat, leprosy. One of the classic triggers for contracting tzaraat was speaking lashon hara, gossip. Once the mistake was rectified, the tzaraat healed. Although gossip is a common human vice, the consequence of tzaraat was quite severe. Not only was the leper considered to be impure, but the things that he came in contact with would also become impure.

The Mishnah gives the following scenario: If a leper walks into his friend’s home, the vessels in the home become immediately impure. Rabbi Yehudah says, however, that the owner of the home does have the opportunity to ask the leper to leave before his vessels become impure. And what is the homeowner’s window of time before it’s too late? The amount of time that it would take to light a candle.2

The commentators question Rabbi Yehuda’s timeframe. Lighting a candle is a momentary action, not a very generous timeframe to give to the unfortunate homeowner. He has to realize that the leper has walked through his doors and ask him to leave, all within a miniscule amount of time. The commentators conclude that Rabbi Yehudah is referring to lighting not an ordinary candle, but a Shabbat candle. Lighting Shabbat candles is a focused and uninterrupted process that can take several minutes to complete. Hence, the homeowner has enough time to ask the leper to leave before his own vessels become impure.

To a mystic, a simple teaching contains layers of meaning. Nothing in the Torah is simple or technical. The mystic looks for hidden references, the code to an entirely new dimension of understanding.

The Rebbe’s father, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Schneerson, was one such mystic. He was a brilliant Torah scholar and the charismatic head rabbi of the cosmopolitan city of Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine. To Rabbi Levi Yitzchak, the fact that Shabbat candles are used to gauge the homeowner’s timeframe is more than a technical calculation. Shabbat candles, he explains, are the perfect antidote to tzaraat. As long as a person is involved in lighting Shabbat candles, he will be immune from thetzaraat affliction. Here’s the Kabbalistic logic behind it: Tzaraat is a consequence of the loss of ohr ha-chochmah, “the illumination of wisdom.”3 In other words, the leper has a dimmed consciousness; the light of his intellect has been withdrawn. Lighting Shabbat candles, on the other hand, draws down the ohr ha-chochmah, illuminating and The leper has a dimmed consciousnessexpanding the consciousness of the one who lights the candles, her home, and the universe at large. When a person is busy with kindling Shabbat light, lights of greater consciousness, she won’t be contaminated by the impurity of tzaraat, limited consciousness.

Mitzvahs are compared to a candle, and Torah to light.4 Mitzvahs light up our perspective, exposing the hand of G‑d behind the veil of the mundane. And according to the Zohar, the mitzvah that is most illuminating of all is the mitzvah of Shabbat candles!5 While all mitzvahs draw down a more illuminated consciousness, the Shabbat candles do so quite literally. That physical light is a tangible display of the metaphysical light that comes from the mitzvah. In essence, Shabbat candles are the symbol for all of Judaism.

The Talmud describes the mitzvah to light a candle for Shabbat in pragmatic terms. On Shabbat, lighting a fire is prohibited, so we are commanded to light a candle just before sunset so that no one will trip over stones or tree branches. The candles thus bring shalom bayit, peace in the home.6 But why does the Talmud single out stones and trees? Isn’t it enough to say that the candles light up the home so that no one trips?

The Rebbe senses a deeper message: The Talmud doesn’t want us tripping over stones and wood, the materials that were used to fashion idols. Idol-worship is disrespectful because it gives credit where credit isn’t due. And although today we aren’t tempted to serve idols of stone, we are impressed by other idols: money, intellect, power, fame. The stuff that runs “without” G‑d’s help. So, the Talmud says, if you add light—develop an enlightened consciousness—you’ll see that the idols are the matrix G‑d uses to orchestrate our lives in a meaningful way. And that awareness is what will bring true shalom bayit.

As long as you are busy lighting Idol worship is disrespectful because it gives credit where credit isn’t duethe Shabbat candles, says Rabbi Yehudah, the impurity of tzaarat won’t overwhelm you. It will stay at the doorstep, but it won’t invade your household. So long as you are flooded with G‑d consciousness, the tzaraat consciousness won’t get to you.7

The Lubavitcher Rebbe campaigned for all Jewish girls and women to light Shabbat candles. Over the years, I’ve had opportunity to share the mitzvah of Shabbat candles with women I’ve met on planes, in parks, in supermarkets and in my home. When I meet a Jewish woman and I don’t have a Shabbat-candle brochure on me, I think of the American Express slogan, “Next time, don’t leave home without it!”

A prominent women was traveling to Israel with loads of Shabbat-candle brochures in her suitcase. Yesh lach neshek?” (“Do you have ammunition?”) asked the El Al security agent. Thinking he was referring to the common acronym used for Shabbat-candle brochures, NeSheK—for neirot Shabbat Kodesh, sacred Shabbat candles—she replied enthusiastically, “Of course!” The security guards were promptly called, and she was whisked away for further interrogation.

The Rebbe explains that the acronym NeSheK, which literally means “ammunition,” is a fitting reference to Shabbat candles because those candles truly are a Jewish woman’s ammunition to protect her home—adding more light and enlightened consciousness each Friday.