Shabbat Candles: The Little Lights that Shine Throughout the World

Every Friday evening, as the sun is about to sink below the horizon, Jewish women around the world light candles. We are welcoming Shabbat, the weekly Sabbath. The glow of Shabbat candles is one of the most iconic and nostalgic images in the Jewish mind.

We have been busy with preparations all day. Our home is tidy, the smell of delicious food floats through the air, and everyone in the family changes into nice clothes. We make sure everything is ready before the sun sets, and I call my three daughters to light the candles with me. I light two, and they each light one. This is our family’s tradition.

Each daughter received her own candle holder when she reached age three. It was a special way for me to communicate to them that they were not babies anymore. They were getting big and were ready to learn to honor Shabbat in new ways. We still look forward to these few special moments together after a busy week. When they grow up and get married (God willing) they will begin to light their own two candles in their own homes.

Other families and communities have other customs. Some women light only two candles. Some light a candelabra with five branches. Others light two candles, and then one more candle for each of their children. Each tradition is rich with meaning and history.

Lighting the candles is a special responsibility of women in Jewish households. After my daughters and I light the candles, we recite the traditional blessing. Then I spend the first few quiet moments of the Sabbath in prayer. I pray for my family and anything else that is on my mind.

Like many traditions, lighting candles has practical origins. Over time these became enveloped in layers of rich and beautiful meaning.

God laid out some rules for how to observe the Sabbath. One of the commandments is, “you shall kindle no fire in all your dwelling places on the Sabbath day” (Exodus 35:3 ESV). This poses an interesting challenge for those relying on fire for light and heat. If the children of Israel wanted any kind of light on Shabbat, or any fire to keep food warm, they had to be sure to light it before the seventh day begins. If they waited a few minutes too long, they would be without light and heat until after the sun had set the next night. That would not make for a very enjoyable Sabbath.

We are also to “call Sabbath a delight” (Isaiah 58:13 ESV). To make that possible, it became considered essential to make sure there was fire lit before Sabbath begins. Light is especially necessary where people will enjoy their festive Sabbath meal.

Modern-day culture usually thinks of a new day beginning at midnight. In the Bible, a new day begins when the sun sets. As the verse says, “And there was evening and there was morning, the first day” (Genesis 1:5 ESV). That is why we welcome the Sabbath as it’s getting dark after the sixth day of the week.

We no longer rely on the Sabbath candles to provide all the light for our meal, but they add a special glow. They mark, with beautiful warmth, the moment we cross from the six days of labor into the tranquility of Sabbath. At this moment, regardless of what we have or have not accomplished, we stop and rest in what God has provided for us.

When my daughters and I light those little lights, we join a chain of tradition going back thousands of years. It passes through our own mothers and grandmothers. It includes women from all ages and walks of life who shared one thing in common: the Sabbath.

Every Friday night, darkness washes across the globe. It starts far in the east and advances westward. Ahead of the darkness, little lights are popping up. They are lit by young girls and old women, homemakers and businesswomen, rich and poor. They are blessing God, praying for their loved ones, and taking in the glow of Shabbat.

Wherever Sabbath candles are lit, a little extra light makes its way around the world for 24 hours. If you were a fan at a ball game, you might see a wave of lifted hands coming toward you. When it arrives, you take your turn: you stand up, lift your hands, and cheer. It’s a little like that when we see the sun close to setting: Sabbath is coming, and it’s our turn to add our light.

We make the world a little brighter. Not only with candles, but with gratitude to God for keeping us and providing for us for another week. We let our lights shine by sharing those blessings with others. We invite you to join us, make the world a little brighter and a little better wherever you are.

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