The candle is very significant in Jewish life. Fire is one of the basic elements of the world. It is frightening, as well as warm and inviting. In the Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism), the flame is said to symbolize God’s relation to the world and humanity.
Candles are lit on the Friday Night of Shabbat as part of shalom bayit (harmony in the home), and oneg Shabbat (Sabbath joy). God “sanctified us by His commandments and commanded us to kindle the Sabbath light.” The candles should be in the room where the Friday Night meal is eaten.
The woman of the house usually lights the candles, unless there is no woman present. Our way of saying ‘Shabbat Shalom’, hello and welcome to Shabbat, is to light the candles. Candles can be lit up to one and quarter hours before the commencement of Shabbat, but are usually lit 18 minutes before sunset. If need be, candles may be lit during the 18 minutes preceding the sunset.
For Shabbat, at least two candles must be lit, to signify Shamor (Observance) and Zachor (Remembrance). The pair also symbolise all duality of being, such as man and woman, body and soul, speech and silence, creation and revelation.
It is permissible and quite common to light more than two candles on Shabbat, in celebration of the light with which God blessed the seventh day during Creation. Some people light an additional candle for every child (and grandchild) they have. Once a certain number of candles have been lit it is customary never to decrease that number.
The procedure for candle-lighting is as follows: candles are lit at the appropriate time; the hands are then drawn around the candles towards the face, between one to seven times; the eyes are covered with both hands, and the blessing is recited.
According to halachah (legal part of the Talmud, or Oral Law), a blessing is said before an act. In this instance the blessing of the candles initiates the Shabbat, therefore it is forbidden to light them after the blessing. To counteract this, the eyes are covered so that the light is seen as new after the blessing has been said.
Hands are waved around the candles seven times to welcome the Shabbat Bride (Sabbath Queen), and to draw the light into oneself. This also symbolizes the completion of the six days of Creation and the beginning of the seventh day of rest.
The Prayer said over the candles is as follows:
“Baruch ata Adonai Eloheinu Melech Haolam, Asher Kidshanu Bemitzvotav vetzivanu, lehadlik ner shel Shabbat”
“…who sanctified us by His commandments and commanded us to kindle the Sabbath lights”
On Saturday night, Havdalah is made with a Havdalah candle, a cup of wine and fragrant spices, to farewell the Sabbath and begin a new week. The Havdalah candle is made from several wicks that are braided together. Sephardic Jews often use a single, unbraided candle.
Candles are also lit on other holidays and on Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement). As the flame draws you in, you are forced to commemorate, reflect and consider. The flame also serves as a reminder of God’s presence. Bedikat Chametz (the search for forbidden leaven) is made the night before Passover by the light of a candle.
For Jews, the candle will continue to symbolise the spirit of God, the light of the Torah, the conclusion of the Sabbath, and the memory of departed souls.