Candles hold a huge part in Jewish tradition, and every shabbat and holiday is ushered in by their lighting. Learn more about this beautiful custom, where it comes from, and the spiritual meaning of candles – along with some of our how-to FAQs below!
It all began with shabbat. The Torah forbids Jews from lighting fires on shabbat – but, the Sages of the Talmud ruled that we can use fires lit before shabbat, and commanded us to light a light to see by before sundown, in order to make shabbat dinner more joyful and festive. At the time, they were referring to oil lamps, and the Talmud even gets into detailed discussions on the types of lamps and oils that are ideal for this shabbat use. And in fact, the blessing we recite on lighting shabbat candles today refers to shabbat lights (“ner shel shabbat“), not candles specifically.
Eventually, lighting the shabbat lights became associated in people’s minds as the official start of shabbat, as it was the last melacha, or prohibited labor, that one would do right before shabbat.
So how did we go from oil lamps to candles? In many places that Jews have gone on to live in throughout history, especially in Europe, wax candles were more easily accessible and affordable than oil and so became widely used. Thus, for many generations, candles have become strongly associated with Jewish lighting rituals.
A modern replica of an ancient Jewish oil lamp
There is also a deeper spiritual significance to lights and candles. They symbolize the Divine Presence, and Proverbs 20:27 tells us that “the candle of God is the soul of Man.”
Candlelight on a shabbat or holiday is a special, potent, glowing reminder that the day is inherently holy and transcendent, distinct from mundane daily life.
Most Jewish families have a tradition of lighting two identical candles every shabbat – either as a symbol of the two commandments we are given regarding shabbat, to observe and to remember, or to represent the husband and wife of the home, often with additional smaller candles added for each child.
Some also say that two candles are lit because together they are more important and special than one, and shabbat is the most special day in the Jewish calendar.
We light a candle as part of the havdalah ritual at the end of shabbat, in order to mark the transition from shabbat back to the ordinary week by using an act of lighting fire which is forbidden on shabbat itself. We greet the first moments of the new week with the very first fire we are allowed to light that week.
Another reason given by our Sages is that God revealed fire to man on the evening immediately after the very first shabbat following Creation, and we are continuing this tradition to this day.
Havdalah candles are unique in that they feature two or more intertwined wicks. This is because the blessing said over the fire during Havdalah says, “He who created the illuminations of fire”, implying there is more than one fire – and so, we use more than one wick in order to create multiple fires that combine into one flame.
Due to this reason, many havdalah candles are braided (although some are one thick structure, with the wicks intertwined together inside). The multiple braids are also said to symbolize the many types of Jews in the world, unified as one people.
Some do! In fact it’s a growing trend today, particularly in Israel, as some people prefer to get back to the original tradition of using oil for Jewish ritual lighting purposes.
This is a common preference for Hanukkah, since the original miracle of the Temple menorah involved oil, and so there are many Hanukkah menorahs made to be lit with oil.
Get convenient pre-filled gelled olive oil cups for your Hanukkah menorah!
And read our guide on how to light your Hanukkah menorah here!
Most people light just one candle at the start of major holidays like Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, Passover, Sukkot, and Shavuot.
For holidays that last two days, many Jews use a large candle that lasts 24 hours or longer – often using memorial candles – so that they can use the flame to light a second candle from on the second day.
Memorial candles, also known as yahrzeit or yizkor candles, are lit in memory of loved ones who passed away, and they last about 24 hours. In Jewish tradition, we do this on the Hebrew anniversary of the deceased’s passing (right after sunset), and on Yom Kippur, Shavuot, and the last days of Passover and Sukkot.
In addition, there is a common custom to light memorial candles on Holocaust Memorial Day in memory of the victims.
Check out memorial candles to remember your loved ones.