“‘And G-d blessed the seventh day.” With what did he bless it? With the Shabbat candles”. (Midrash Bereishit Rabbah 11:2.)
According to Jewish tradition, the first woman to light Shabbat candles Sarah, the wife of Avraham, who would light candles on the eve of the Shabbat in their tent, and the candles would miraculously burn from one Friday to the next. When Sarah passed away, these flames candles were extinguished. A few years later, when Isaac saw that the Shabbat candles of Rivka had the same miraculous ability to continue burning throughout the week, he realized that he had indeed found a worthy successor to his righteous mother.
Their candles might not burn anymore, but their light still shines, as millions of Jewish women in every generation kindle the Shabbat candles every Friday before sunset, casting a soft, warm glow on the Shabbat meal, and infusing the Shabbat atmosphere with a tranquil ambiance. What’s behind this beautiful tradition?
Candles have long had deeper metaphorical significance in Judaism. Candle light is a symbol of the immanent Divine presence we are able to experience on this day, a reminder that this day is inherently holy and transcendent, distinct from mundane daily life. Furthermore, it is stated in Proverbs (20:27), Ner Hashem Nishmas Adam (the candle of G-d is the soul of Man). In Judaism, candle light represents the Divine soul, constantly glowing, flickering in the darkness, (and ultimately fading away). The Jewish Sages explain that on Shabbat a neshamah yetirah, an additional soul, is given to every Jew. Therefore, as an allusion to this gift, and the corresponding elevated spiritual state it affords us to attain on this day, we kindle two Shabbat candles.
For these reasons, Shabbat is truly a day of joy, when we bask in the blessings of this world and taste those of the next, the enchanting light of the Shabbat candles, in their soulful beauty and splendor, sweep us away to this special place, as it’s stated in the Book of Esther: לַיְּהוּדִים, הָיְתָה אוֹרָה וְשִׂמְחָה, וְשָׂשֹׂן, וִיקָר. “The Jews had light and gladness, and joy and honor.” (Esther 8:16).