It seems there is something special about the act of lighting Shabbat candles. It is a touching picture: the woman bent over the flames in prayer, a kerchief covering her head.
One of the strongest symbols of the Jewish people, candle lighting encompasses what is central in Judaism: the Jewish home.
It is a moment steeped in tradition, as one may remember one's own mother lighting... or one's grandmother... or the Jewish women who have been lighting candles every Friday night for 4,000 years. It is a powerful link to Jews everywhere; one that, until recently, remained unbroken in every home, in every land.
Customs vary, but in a family there are always at least two candles burning: one for the wife, and one for the husband -- a symbol of Shalom Bayit (peace in the house). Many add one candle for each child, as each is an additional blessing, each a source of new light coming into the world.
Lighting the Shabbat candles is one of the special mitzvot for women (although men are also obligated to light).
Why is this important mitzvah assigned to women? Because it is light, and that is the essence of a woman.
It is the woman who brings light into the home, providing the atmosphere in which she, her husband, and her children can live and prosper. The tone, the feel, the look... it is from her. When she is happy and positive, even the most depressed husband or tired child will absorb her energy and be lifted.
And, to the contrary, if she is unhappy and the home has a feeling of negativity, it can affect the whole family. She is the core of the family unit. It is the power of the Jewish woman, for it is the woman who sanctifies space.
Historically, it was the Jewish women, not the men, who agreed to accept the Torah first at Mount Sinai. And today, it is the woman who transmits the essence of our Jewish heritage into every home.
So this is how the Shabbat begins, with special light; special understanding as to who we are and why we are here. For Shabbat is our time to connect with God; when we stop creating in order to recognize that there is a Creator. The entire week we are caught up in a hectic pace, where it is easy to think only of personal accomplishments and individual achievements.
Yet, once the candles are lit, it is time for love of God; remembering that everything is from Him.
It takes but a few seconds to do, but it is by far one of the deepest expressions of the Jewish soul: to recognize the Almighty and appreciate this special gift that He has given to us all -- a gift we call Shabbat.
The KGB's 'Amen'
The following story is especially appropriate before candle lighting:
December 1980. Natan (Anatoly) Sharansky's ninth Chanukah in Soviet Prison. Sharansky is serving in a Siberian labor camp as a Prisoner of Zion. In his ongoing efforts to retain his Jewish identity under the cruelest of conditions, he fashions a small wooden Chanukah menorah, with which to light the Chanukah candles. On the sixth night of Chanukah, the authorities confiscated the menorah. "A camp is not a synagogue. We won't permit Sharansky to pray here," they said.
What follows is Sharansky's account of his response:
"I was surprised by the bluntness of that remark, and immediately declared a hunger strike. In a statement to the procurator general, I protested against the violation of my national and religious rights, and against KGB interference in my personal life...
I was summoned to Major Osin's office two days later, in the evening. Osin pulled a benevolent smile over his face as he tried to talk me out of my hunger strike... Osin promised to see to it personally that in the future nobody would hinder me from praying, and that this should not be the concern of the KGB.
"Then what's the problem?" I said. "Give me back my menorah as tonight is the last evening of Chanukah. Let me celebrate it now, and taking into account your assurances for the future, I shall end the hunger strike."
But a protocol for its confiscation had already been draw up, and Osin couldn't back down in front of the whole camp. As I looked at this predator sitting at an elegant polished table wearing a benevolent smile, I was seized by an amusing idea.
"Listen," I said, "I'm sure you have the menorah somewhere. It's very important to me to celebrate the last night of Chanukah. Why not let me do it right here and now with you!"
Osin thought it over and promptly the confiscated menorah appeared from his desk. He summoned Gavrulik, who was on duty in the office, to bring in a large candle.
"I need eight candles," I said. (In fact, I needed nine, but when it came to Jewish rituals I was still a novice.) Gavrulik took out a knife and began to cut the candles into several smaller ones.
I arranged the candles and went to the coat rack for my hat, explaining to Osin that during the prayer he too must stand with his head covered and at the end say 'Amen.' He put on his major's hat and stood. I lit the candles and recited my own prayer in Hebrew which went something like this: "Blessed are You, God, for allowing me to rejoice on this day of Chanukah, the holiday of our liberation, the holiday of our return to the way of our fathers. Blessed are You, God, for allowing me to light the candles. May You allow me to light the candles many times in your city, Jerusalem, with my wife Avital, and my family and friends."
I added, "And may the day come when all our enemies, who today are planning our destruction, will stand before us and hear our prayers and say 'Amen'."
"Amen," Osin echoed back.
From: Fear No Evil, by Natan Sharansky (New York: Random House, 1988, pp. 306-308.)
Candle Lighting - Reflections
When I was little, my mother never lit candles. Actually, no one I knew lit candles except for my friend's grandmother, so I guess I equated candle lighting with old people. Yet when I got married, a friend gave me beautiful antique wooden candlesticks, and I started lighting every Friday night.
I like doing it, and I found that as my family grew, so did my feeling for lighting. I think it's because now I know what it means to have a home. Today, when I light, I take a moment to ask God to bless our home with peace, with special blessings for my entire family.
* * *
The first time I lit Shabbat candles I was scared, feeling a sense of importance to it all. It's still an intense time, for that's when I really feel that God is there; that He is with me. It makes me a little nervous because it brings the bracha -- the blessing -- out from deep inside.
My little girl loves to light and has been lighting since she was seven. Now we make sure we light them at the Shabbat table so that our evening meal is illuminated. It's so elegant.
* * *
As a little boy growing up in Russia, I had no idea that people actually lit candles and observed Shabbat. When we were allowed to leave, we went to Israel, and there I saw the movie Fiddler on the Roof. In one scene the mother lights candles on the eve of Shabbat.
Later I moved to Canada and began to be interested in Shabbat. Slowly, I began to observe it in my own fashion, first not working, then not traveling. And, since I didn't have a "woman in the house," I deduced that I should be the one to light the Shabbat candles. I liked it, especially the spirituality of it all. I would always take a few minutes and meditate on the candles. I enjoyed it so much that after I married, I was reluctant to let it go!
* * *
My mother used to light candles on the back of a plate, put a kerchief over her head, and say a blessing. But to me it was weird because it didn't mean anything. Perhaps it's because she never explained it. I'm not sure. But it did make me feel Jewish, and strangely proud.
Later, when I married, I did a little reading on Judaism and began to study at a Jewish adult-education center. It stirred up something inside me: a heritage, a desire to know where we come from and why we are here.
So I started lighting Shabbat candles. At first it felt strange, but good. Now it is more natural, and I enjoy saying the blessing and the special prayer for my son. My husband loves it, for it brings a sense of family and togetherness into the home.
With the chicken soup cooking and the candles burning -- it's such a nice feeling, as if we are all bonded. I love it.
* * *
Here I was, this single guy living away from home, studying for my master's at a university out of town, and something made me light candles Friday night. Maybe it was because I had been learning about Judaism and it seemed time to put it into action.
I found it made Friday night very special, like a feeling of home and peace. There is something about candles... it is light, and it makes me think about God. Growing up, it seemed Judaism was always filled with the lighting of candles: Chanukah, yahrtzeits... it made Judaism very visual.
* * *
I think my mom lit candles when my brother had his bar mitzvah, but it didn't last long. Yet I was left knowing that Jewish women lit candles.
When I was 29 years old, I traveled to Jerusalem as a journalist and began to take a second look at this thing called Judaism.
One weekend a friend and I went down to the Sinai and camped out on the beach. When Friday night came, I decided to light candles in the tent. I even made kiddush for everyone there.
After returning to the States I began to light on a regular basis. It seemed a simple enough thing to do, requiring very little commitment. Why not do such an easy mitzvah?
* * *
My mother lit candles until the divorce. I was about eight years old then, but I still remember her covering her head and saying a special blessing over the candles. It was so nice. Many years later I traveled to Israel with my fiance and spent some time in the Old City of Jerusalem with some good friends from back home. They had become observant and kept Shabbat in a very beautiful way.
We had already made plans to bring more Judaism into our new home, but it was this experience that made me want to start the process by keeping Shabbat.
Today I try and light my candles when the baby is quiet, and I consider it my special time to talk to God. I light one for each of us, one for my sister, and one in memory of my grandmother, who always lit candles. It makes me feel as if she's there. It feels good to know that I am carrying on her tradition, because she was very, very special to me.
My mother has also been touched by my new observance and began to light candles again after all these years.
* * *
Sometimes, when the mood is relaxed, I light, cover my eyes, and say special prayers for friends who are having difficulty getting pregnant or who are sick. When I take my hands away I see my kids all around me with their hands over their eyes, copying me. It is such a special moment, and I have to fight back the tears.
Adapted from "Friday Night and Beyond" by Lori Palatnik (Jason Aronson Pub.)