Some of my earliest and best memories are of celebrating Shabbat together with my family. We would gather together around our table and light the candles, bless the wine, and enjoy challah. It was one of those rituals of childhood that I will always cherish, and continue my family here in Tucson as well. Many of us observe these same customs in our own homes. We sing the melodies and taste the fruit of the vine, but before we do all that, we gather to light the Shabbat candles.
The tradition of lighting the candles for Shabbat is part of what we do each week in our homes and our synagogue. It seems simple enough, light the candles and then recite the blessing. But there are many questions to this timeless ritual. So as part of an ongoing series, we will endeavor to answer some of your questions about home and synagogue rituals.
For instance why do we light the candles before reciting the bracha, when in almost every other instance we say the blessing first? Lighting fire is one of the thirty-nine forbidden categories of work on Shabbat, therefore we light the candles first, because once we say the blessing, it officially becomes Shabbat.
When should we light the candles? According to Moses Maimonides, the great twelfth century Jewish thinker, the candles should be lit no more than eighteen minutes before sunset.
Why do women traditionally light the candles? The mitzvah for lighting the candles applies both to men and women, but tradition states that the obligation falls more upon the shoulders of women because they are viewed as the center of Jewish life in the home. (Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 31b).
Why do we light two candles? Some follow the tradition that in the fourth commandment of the Ten Commandments there are two terms used with regards to how one is to observe Shabbat. The first is Zachor which means “remember” is in Exodus 20:8. Where as in the second rendition the term Shamor in Deuteronomy 5:12 is used, which means keep or guard. However two is not the only number for candles. Some light seven candles, a favorite number in Judaism, which has to do with the seven days of creation. Another option is some families start with two and add a candle for each new member of the family.
Why do we wave our hands three times and close our eyes when we recite the blessing? The waving of hands and the closing of eyes are related to inviting in the spirit of Shabbat to dwell in our midst. Closed eyes also symbolize an intense concentration or kavanah, focusing the body and mind on the wonderful experience that is Shabbat.