It’s Friday night. Eighteen minutes before sunset. Around the world, candles are being lit to signify the beginning of Shabbat. Each week, the gift of Shabbat comes around again, and Jewish people rest. It is not rest in the sense of a long nap but, rather, Shabbat is a time to cease all creative labors in the physical world and to spend time nourishing our souls. Just as G-d created the world in six days and rested on the seventh – we, too, take time out from our creating and rest.
The fourth of the Ten Commandments is oriented around Shabbat. In Exodus 20:8, we are told to “remember the Sabbath day”, and in Deuteronomy 5:12, we are told to “safeguard the Sabbath day”.
Every word in the Torah has a purpose. The fact that we are told to keep and to remember signifies that each of these actions is important to the fulfillment of Shabbat. According to a midrash (ancient rabbinical commentary on biblical text), G-d first told us to remember Shabbat. We were just beginning our journey in the desert and much too close to our days of idol worship to be able to take on Shabbat. Later, as we were about to enter the Promised Land, G-d repeated the Ten Commandments for us. This time, we were told to keep Shabbat.
To keep and to remember. Shabbat rest begins with candle lighting. The lighting of the candles separates this holy day from the rest of the week. Sarah, the wife of Abraham, was the first woman to light Shabbat candles. There is a midrash that tells us how Sarah’s candles lasted from one week until the next. When she died, the light of her candles died also. Sarah’s son, Isaac, knew he had found the right woman to be his wife when he saw that the candles Rivkah lit for Shabbat also lasted through the week.
Today, lighting Shabbat candles is a custom for women. A single woman will light one candle, and a married woman will light two candles. In many homes, additional candles are lit for each child who is born. Men also light candles when there are no women above Bat Mitzvah age in the home.
The candles are placed near to where Shabbat dinner will be enjoyed. They must be lit before sunset, and tradition holds that they are lit eighteen minutes before the sun goes down. Many have the custom of putting coins in a tzedakah box prior to lighting the candles.
Typically, we recite a bracha (blessing) and then do the action the bracha is attached to. For example, we recite the blessing and then take a bite of the fruit. However, on Shabbat we cease from creative work, and lighting a candle falls under the category of work we refrain from. These are known as melachos and are labors associated with building the Mishkan or temporary sanctuary that was built while the Jews were wandering in the desert.
Since reciting the blessing over the candles signifies the initiation of Shabbat, we are not able to light the candles after we say the blessing. Therefore, we light the candles, sweep our arms three times around the candles, and cover our eyes before reciting the blessing. We sweep our arms to draw in the essence of Shabbat. We cover our eyes before we recite the blessing so that when we remove our hands from our eyes, it is as though we are seeing the light of the candles for the first time. Now, Shabbat has begun!
Once the candles are lit, Shabbat has been ushered in and our day of rest has begun!
Blessing over the Shabbat candles:
Baruch atah Ad*nai EloKeinu Melech ha’olam asher kideeshanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu l’hadlik ner shel Shabbat
Blessed are you, Lord our G-d, King of the universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to kindle the light of Shabbat