Shabbat Eve (Part 3): “Sit in the Dark, or Light Candles”
Lighting candles at home (and in some synagogues) is a deeply rooted practice among the Jewish people all over the world. A pair of candlesticks is often identified as among the most precious (Jewish) possessions of a family, and many people speak of the sense of ethereal peace that descends upon a household (or community) as the flames of the candles come to life and the blessing is chanted.
The blessing itself raises an interesting question, for it includes the traditional formula, “asher kid’shanu bemitzvotav vetzivanu lehadlik ner shel Shabbat” ([God] has made us holy with mitzvot/commandments, and commanded us to kindle the lights of Shabbat). Now when this formula is used in a blessing about eating matzah at Pesah, affixing a mezuzah to our doorway, or performing a circumcision, we can immediately identify a verse in the Torah where the particular act is indeed commanded. But the Talmud notes (BT Shabbat 23a) that nowhere is it commanded in the Torah that we should kindle lights for Shabbat—so where is the authority for a blessing that asserts that the ritual is indeed commanded by God?
The answer lies at the very core of our practice of Judaism, based on the Torah as interpreted by the Rabbis. “Rabbi Avia said it is to be derived from [Deut. 17:11], ‘You shall not turn aside from all that they [the Sages] shall instruct you.’” The Talmud seems to claim that God has delegated to the Sages the authority to promulgate laws and practices in God’s name. Every time we say this blessing, we affirm that whether our rituals originate in the words of the Written Torah or in the spiritual vision of our Sages and teachers, both are (equally) “sourced” from God.
A more existential derivation is also offered (Shabbat 34a): “From where is the kindling of Shabbat lights derived? Rabbi Joshua ben Levi said, ‘Scripture states “And you shall know that your tent (home) is at peace” [Job 5:24].’” Rabbeinu Chananel comments, “Peace is only brought about by light, as it is said (Gen 1:4) ‘And God saw the light—that it was good.’” The Midrash Tanhuma (Parashat Noah) quotes Isaiah (58:13), “‘and you shall call Shabbat a delight (oneg).’ This refers to the Shabbat candle lighting. You might argue in favor of sitting in the dark—but this would not constitute joy (oneg).”
We are invited to reject sitting in the dark, and to find joy in the many levels of meaning to be found in the radiance of the Shabbat candles, and the radiance within those who welcome Shabbat in homes and communities. May our experience of Shabbat always be of light and peace.
As always, I am interested in hearing comments and reflections on these thoughts about prayer and liturgy. You may reach me at email@example.com.