1. Lighting time varies, depending on the time of year and city location, but must always be done before sunset. See a current online listing at aish.com. There are special calendars that you can buy at your local Jewish bookstore that will list all the candle lighting times for the year. Or download one for free at aish.com. If you don't have such a guide, simply check your local newspaper for the time of sunset and subtract 18 minutes. That is candle lighting time.
This however is only the preferred form of candle lighting. If one did not light candles 18 minutes before sunset he can still light candles up to a few minutes before sunset. Beware however, for your watch may be off, and it is always forbidden to light candles after sunset.
The reason why we light candles a few minutes early is in order to avoid any possibility of starting Shabbat late. Think of it as a train leaving the station. If you're one minute late, you missed it.
By the way, though most communities light Shabbat candles 18 minutes before sunset, local custom may vary. For instance in Jerusalem, the custom is to light 40 minutes before sunset.
2. It is customary to use white candles, although any can be used, as long as they will burn for two to three hours. Do not use Chanukah or birthday candles, for they burn too quickly.
3. The candles should be lit in an area where they can be seen, but not in a place where a breeze could extinguish the flames or cause them to burn faster, or where children could reach them. (There's more than one story of children innocently blowing out the candles, as if they were on the top of a birthday cake!)
4. Always let the candles burn naturally; never extinguish them yourself. If for some reason a candle goes out before completely burning down, don't worry, you have already fulfilled the mitzvah.
5. Once lit, the candles should not be moved until after Shabbat.
6. Many have embraced the custom of depositing a few coins in a tzedakah (charity) box just before candle lighting time.
7. In reverence for the moment, married women cover their hair, often with a kerchief, before lighting.
8. While women usually begin Shabbat upon lighting the candles, men usually begin Shabbat as part of the synagogue service.
Blessing over the Candles
Arms are motioned three times, hands drawn over the flames as if to bring the light toward you, then covering your face as the special blessing is said:
After the recitation, many take special time to thank God for the many blessings of health, prosperity, and joy in their lives. There is also a special prayer composed by women, for women, which many include at this time:
May it be Your will, Lord my God and God of my fathers, to be gracious to me (and to my spouse, children, parents) and to all my family; grant us and all Israel good and long life; remember us for good and blessing; consider us for salvation and compassion; bless us with great blessings; make our household complete, crowning our home with the feeling of Your Divine Presence dwelling among us.
Make me worthy to raise learned children and grandchildren, who are wise and understanding, who love and fear God, people of truth, holy and attached to God, who will dazzle the world with Torah and goodness and service of God. Please hear our prayers, in the merit of our matriarchs Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah, and ensure that the glow of our lives will never be dimmed. Show us the glow of Your face and we will be saved. Amen.
It is a time to talk to God. So express anything that you wish, and ask for all that you desire. He wants to hear your prayers.
Bringing the hands over the flames toward you signifies that you are drawing the spirituality and holiness of Shabbat into your home and into your life. According to Jewish tradition, the number three represents commitment and strength. When a good act is performed three times, there is a sense of integration that takes place for the positive. And, conversely, when a transgression is made three times, there is a certain desensitization that takes place, numbing one to the negative.
Typically, one recites the blessing and then performs the act (for example, saying Kiddush, and then drinking the wine), but in this case it is reversed. That is because once the blessing is said, one accepts the beginning of Shabbat and then no fire can be lit, and thus no match struck. So here we do the opposite, covering the eyes so that after the blessing we open them as if to see the fulfillment of the commandment for the very first time.
Candle Lighting - Q&A
A married woman usually lights candles on behalf of her whole family, unless for some reason she is unable to do so. Then her husband, or an older child, would light.
Single women and single men light candles on their own if their mothers do not light on their behalf. A guest in someone else's home may be included in the host's lighting.
How many candles should be lit?
There are different customs. Some people light one candle while they are single, and two once they are married. Others always light two, single or married. Parents often add one extra candle for each of their children. (Homes with lots of kids resemble a small bonfire!)
The most common custom is to light two candles, one to "remember" Shabbat and one to "guard" Shabbat. (God uttered both these aspects in one breath, during the Ten Commandments).
What if we won't be home for dinner Friday night?
Light your candles at home if you will be returning to sleep there, as long as they will still be burning when you return home. Otherwise, light your candles at home and stay until after dark before leaving for your dinner "out."
(If you are afraid of candles burning unsupervised, simply light them in a sink that you won't be using during Shabbat!)
What if I can't get home by sundown in time to light?
Some people may think that it is so important to light Shabbat candles that doing it late is better than not doing it at all. This is a mistaken idea. It is better not to light the candles at all than to transgress the prohibition against making a fire on Shabbat. Just try and schedule Friday afternoons as best you can so that you will be home to light on time.
What about in summertime when candle lighting is so late? Are we supposed to have our Friday night dinner at 9:30?
It is permitted to "start Shabbat early." This is simply done by lighting the candles, or through a verbal acceptance of Shabbat. The earliest time to start Shabbat is an hour-and-a-quarter before sunset. Many communities do this during the summer months, when sunset can be very late, so that children can be at the Friday night table. Friday night services in the summer are often done in two shifts: one for those bringing it in early, and one for those bringing it in at sunset.
Keep in mind that this is not exactly an "hour-and-a-quarter" on your clock. That's because the Jewish day ― from sunrise to sunset ― is divided into 12 equal parts. So no matter how long or short the day is, each twelfth is considered "one hour." It's a bit complicated. So you may want to have a rabbi help you with the math.
Remember: Once the candles are lit, even if it is an hour before sunset, it is regarded as "Shabbat" for you in all aspects. (This, however, does not mean that Shabbat can now end earlier. Shabbat can begin early, but can never end early.)
What if I don't own fancy candlesticks?
Just melt a couple of candles onto a plate or tray covered with a piece of heavy-duty foil, and light them!
Can I move the candlesticks after lighting?
Things that have no use on Shabbat must not be moved. Such objects are in a category called muktzah, which means "set aside." Since we do not use matches, candles, or anything that involves starting or extinguishing a fire on Shabbat, these items are not moved at all. So make sure you light in a place where it will be convenient to leave the candlesticks for the entire duration of Shabbat.
See an online listing of candle-lighting times at aish.com.
Adapted from "Friday Night and Beyond" by Lori Palatnik