There are many rituals that help us bring in Shabbat on a Friday night: lighting candles, singing during Kabbalat Shabbat services, drinking wine and eating challah, and enjoying a festive meal with family and friends.
Many of us are familiar with these traditions and incorporate them into our weekend. But where do these rituals come from? When did the Jewish people start lighting candles? Is challah mentioned in the Torah? Read on to learn more about the origins of your favorite Friday night rituals!
What is Shabbat? Why is it celebrated starting on Friday night?
Shabbat is the Jewish day of rest. The Jewish calendar is lunar, meaning that days begin at sundown. So the day known as Shabbat is actually observed from Friday at sundown until Saturday night.
There are several mitzvot (commandments) that guide the basic observances of Shabbat on a Friday night: candlelighting, praying, making Kiddush, saying hamotzi, and eating Shabbat dinner. There are plenty of other traditions that vary by family, community and local custom that are also incorporated into Shabbat celebrations, but many Jews of all observance levels and backgrounds worldwide will partake in those five rituals on Friday night to mark Shabbat.
Shabbat Candlelighting 101
The first ritual performed on Friday night is the lighting of the candles, which is to be done no less than 18 minutes before sundown begins. Women traditionally light Shabbat candles in a home, although a man is obligated to if a woman is not lighting for him, according to Orthodox rabbis. In homes with children, the mother will often light one candle for each child, in addition to the two candles normally lit for Shabbat.
The practice is not mentioned anywhere in the Torah, so it is unclear exactly when the Jewish people began lighting Shabbat candles. The most common theory is that communities and families would light a fire just before Shabbat began, as kindling a fire on Shabbat is prohibited by Jewish law, meaning that over time, lighting candles became incorporated as a ritual to welcome in Shabbat. The earliest recording of the blessing recited over the candles is from the 9th century.
Similarly, the origin of why we light two candles is not clear. Some say it represents the duality of Shabbat, as the Jewish people were commanded to both remember and keep Shabbat. Others say two candles are lit because they are more important and special than one.
Friday Night Prayers & Kabbalat Shabbat
After lighting candles at home, it is common to head to synagogue or wherever the local minyan meets for Friday night prayers. Many Friday night services begin with Mincha, followed by Kabbalat Shabbat and Maariv.
Kabbalat Shabbat is only said on Friday nights. It is a special collection of songs and prayers, including Yedid Nefesh, L’Cha Dodi, and several psalms. Kabbalat Shabbat as a ritual dates back to the 16th century; the songs and prayers were originally composed by Kabbalists in the Land of Israel, particularly in the holy city of Tzfat (Safed). Many of the songs have mystical elements and compare Shabbat to a beautiful bride.
While most of the Kabbalat Shabbat portion of Friday night prayers is standardized across communities, there are a few passages that are typically omitted in Reform and Conservative communities, such as Kaddish Rabbanan. There are also a variety of different tunes and melodies that can be used for the various Kabbalat Shabbat songs.
The festive Kabbalat Shabbat service is followed by Maariv. While religious Jews say Maariv every evening, the Friday night version includes a few differences and additions, such as the recitation of “VeShamru.”
Before Dinner: Singing and Kiddush
After prayers are finished, many people go to wherever they are eating Friday night dinner. It is traditional to get together with friends and family for Shabbat dinner, so it’s not always a given that someone will be eating in their own home. Before the meal begins, it is customary to sing Shalom Aleichem. Some families will also recite the blessing over the children at this point, or will sing Eshet Chayil. These are all customs, however, and are not mandated by Jewish law according to most rabbis… but always check with your own trusted rabbi when in doubt!
These customs are followed by Kiddush, or the blessing over the wine. Grape juice can also be used. The Hebrew word Kiddush literally means sanctification, and the reason we do this ritual is to sanctify Shabbat — a commandment that comes straight from the Torah (specifically the commandment to “remember” Shabbat). Kiddush is most often said while standing, because on Friday nights, Kiddush begins with the recitation of a passage from Genesis, and most rabbis agree that one must be standing while reciting Torah.
Like so many traditions in Judaism, there isn’t one universally agreed upon reason as to why wine or grape juice must be used to do Kiddush on Friday night. This became codified as law by the Sages of the Talmud between 150 and 500 C.E. Some believe that wine is used because of other passages in the Tanakh that say wine gladdens man and God, while others say that wine is used because Shabbat is understood to be like a bride, and wine is used to celebrate weddings.
The Blessing over Bread: Hamotzi
After reciting Kiddush, many will go wash their hands and then return to the table for Hamotzi. While the Hamotzi blessing is recited by observant Jews before they eat any bread, many Jews will say Hamotzi on Friday night even if they don’t during the rest of the week. Jewish law is very clear that Hamotzi must be recited over bread and specific grains, including wheat. Challah, a braided bread traditionally made from eggs, has become synonymous with Shabbat as it is often used to fulfill the mitzvah of reciting Hamotzi on Friday night.
Two loaves (or pieces/rolls/etc.) are needed to say Hamotzi on Shabbat. The origin of this is in the Torah, because when the Israelites wandered in the desert post-Exodus, they were commanded by God to bring in a double portion of manna (bread) before Shabbat.
It’s considered important to say Hamotzi before eating the Shabbat meal, because reciting Hamotzi is what distinguishes a snack from a meal, and Jewish law dictates that a meal must be eaten on Friday night.
After Hamotzi is recited, it’s time for dinner!
Friday Night Dinner
Other than being an opportunity to experience spiritual reawakening and rejuvenation, Shabbat is also about experiencing the true joy of Shabbat, known as Oneg Shabbat. According to the Chassidic leader Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, our main source of this joy comes from the food we eat on Shabbat. He explains that by preparing special delicacies and fine dishes, we bring honor to the Shabbat, and doing this infuses the food with a unique holiness similar to the holiness of God. For this reason, Rabbi Nachman says that one must make sure he has plenty of food on Shabbat since partaking in the Shabbat meals is enough to make up for desecrating the Shabbat in the past.
In addition to its spiritual meaning, Shabbat dinner is also considered one of the commandments or mitzvot that must be fulfilled during Shabbat, as the Jewish people are commanded to eat three meals over Shabbat. One of these meals is Shabbat dinner on Friday night.
The foods served on Shabbat usually vary from family to family; however, most traditional Shabbat meals typically consist of an assortment of side dishes and appetizers like salads, fish, and soups, and elaborate main courses made from meat or chicken, accompanied by rice, vegetables, and other hearty dishes.
Check out our vast selection of Judaica for Shabbat here!