This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Shabbat Candles:*

To See or Not to See

The lighting of the Shabbat candles on Friday evenings can be one of the most moving spiritual experiences of Jewish life, and it is not surprising that it continues to enjoy widespread popularity even among those who have few other connections to traditional Jewish observance.

The original function of Shabbat candles, as enjoined by Talmudic law, was a more practical one. They were intended to enhance the enjoyment of the day by improving visibility. The sages realized that the domestic peace (shalom bayit) appropriate to the holy day would be diminished if members of the household were constantly stumbling over one another in the darkness.

Given this prosaic rationale, some of the familiar features of the candle-lighting ceremony are not immediately understandable. In particular, what is the significance of the number of candles that are kindled? I have never seen anyone light fewer than two candles, and many customs have increased the numbers--to seven, or the number of one's children, etc. Some even insist on permanently adding candles to make up for occasions when they neglected to light.

The practice of lighting two Shabbat candles is first recorded in the twelfth century, among Ashkenazic Jews, and it was not adopted by their Sepharadic coreligionists until quite recently.

A popular symbolic explanation for the practice links it to variations in the wording of the Sabbath commandment that is included in the Decalogue: In Exodus we are told to "Remember the Sabbath day," while in Deuteronomy it says to "Observe" it.

Rabbinic discussions focus on more technical aspects of the practice. Several of them remark that the introduction of the second candle was intended to emphasize its special ritual dimension, to make it clear that the candles are not merely intended to provide physical illumination.

Several authorities go so far as to compare the second candle with the Hanukkah "shamash," whose role is to make sure that members of the household do not actually derive any benefit from the obligatory candles, which have been devoted to a sacred purpose. Towards this end, a custom existed of making the extra candle out of tallows that were legally unfit for Shabbat use.

This last point is very surprising, since the halakhic functions of Shabbat and Hanukkah candles are really quite opposite, with the former being explicitly designated for use and enjoyment, as outlined above. Nevertheless, the unanimous testimony of medieval Ashkenazic sources demonstrates that, in the popular perception, Shabbat candles were to be set aside in a holiness that precluded the deriving of benefit from them.

It is probable that the origins of this novel perception have their roots in the geographical realities of central European Jewry.

As we Calgarians will readily appreciate, Summer days in northern climes can be very long. Our medieval ancestors usually adapted themselves to this situation, as most of us do, by following the halakhic option of adding to the Shabbat and ushering it in several hours before sunset.

This led to a situation in which candles were often kindled in the middle of the afternoon, when they did not provide any visible illumination. If their purpose was not a practical one--so people reasoned--then it must be a sacred and spiritual one. Eventually this attitude was translated into an actual prohibition against benefiting their light.

Medieval Rabbinic literature deals with several issues that arose from this ritualizing of the Shabbat candles. For example, it became common to light them inside the house (or in the synagogue) and then eat dinner outside in the courtyard, or for the candles to burn out long before dark. In either of these instances, the presence of the candles served no practical purpose.

Jews living in southern latitudes continued for much longer to hold on to the original understanding of the candles as an enhancement to the Sabbath's enjoyment and domestic harmony.

At any rate, the spiritualization of the Shabbat lights has by now become an inseparable part of the day's atmosphere, imbuing Jewish households with a unique glow of peace and sanctity.

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Holidays, History and HalakhahHolidays, History and Halakhah

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[1] First Publication: November 2 1995, p. 8.


  • Israel. Ta-Shma, Ner Shel Kavod, Tarbiz 45 (1976), 128-37.