As we read in this week’s Torah portion “Behaalotcha et ha’nerot”, the lighting of candles in the Mikdash, let us, too, discuss the lighting of candles, only we will learn the laws of lighting Shabbat candles. Lighting candles is a requirement that can be related to both Kavod and Oneg Shabbat, as we have discussed previously. (See Lighting candles for Shabbat) The basic requirement is to light one candle yet the custom is to light at least two candles. The two candles are meant to represent Zachor and Shamor, the two foundations of Shabbat found in the Torah. Other customs call for more candles. There are those that light according to the number of people in the household, some light seven candles representing the seven days of the week, while others light ten to recognize the Ten Commandments. If one candle is lit the requirement has been fulfilled, therefore, when lighting more candles is problematic one candle can suffice.
The requirement to light candles is incumbent on all Jews male and female. A man living on his own, students in dormitories and men traveling on their own should not depend on candles being lit elsewhere, even by a wife, but rather they should light their own candles.
Halacha determines that when husband and wife desire to light the Shabbat candles, it is the wife who receives priority in lighting the candles. If many candles are lit or candles are lit in different places in the house the husband may light some of them. ( See Mishna Berura OC 263 note 11) Women’s preference in lighting Shabbat candles can be seen as a reward or as penitence. In Shulchan Aruch (OC 263/3) Rav Yossef Karo explains that women have special rights in lighting candles in reward for their efforts focused on the home and home life. Accordingly, they are given the privilege to light candles that are meant to establish the Shabbat atmosphere and peace in the home. (See also Rambam Shabbat 5/3)
In the Midrash, as quoted by the Aruch Hashulchan, it is stated that women should light the shabbat candles as a penitence for extinguishing the light of God. Since Adam is viewed as the light of the world, as it is written “Ner Hashem nishmat adam”, the candle of God is the soul of man, by causing man to sin and die the women extinguished the light of God. As penitence women are expected to light the candles for Hashem’s holy day-Shabbat. In accordance with this explanation of women’s special connection to lighting Shabbat candles the Aruch Hashulchan suggests that non-married girls living in their mothers home should none the less light their own candle. It is preferable that they light in a separate room and then it is customary to recite the Bracha as well. (Aruch Hashulchan OC 263/7)
Though both men and women are obligated to light candles in their home, we do find certain differences between them in the details of the halachot pertaining to the lighting of Shabbat candles. The Bahag (Baal Halachot Gedolot) is of the opinion that lighting the candles represents the official start of shabbat, prohibiting any further Melachot which are prohibited on Shabbat to be done. Most opinions disagree with the Bahag and do not see any connection between lighting candles and the prohibition of Melacha. In their opinion, the prohibition to do Melacha begins at a later point, either with nightfall or at one of several points in the Tefila. (See Shulchan Aruch OC 263/10) Yet, the accepted custom is that while all other members of the household are not prohibited from doing Melacha, after the candles are lit, the woman who lit the candles has accepted Shabbat upon herself by lighting candles. This custom applies to women since they are the primary group that light candles, but if a man lights the candles he is not seen as accepting the prohibitions of Shabbat at that time. (See Mishna Berurah OC 263 note 42)
The primary consequence of this distinction is that once a woman has lit candles her husband must complete any Melacha prohibited on Shabbat. If a man has lit the candles he may continue doing Melacha until the point officially designated as the beginning of Shabbat. There is yet another consequence to this difference between men and women.
In general we require a beracha, made on a mitzvah, to be recited proceeding the action of the mitzvah. According to the opinion of the Bahag the beracha is seen as a declaration of the acceptance of Shabbat and therefore no Melacha may be done after reciting the beracha. The proposed solution for this problem is to light the candles, cover ones eyes, recite the beracha and then open ones eyes to view the candles. Since proceeding the beracha no pleasure was derived from the candles it is considered that the bracha proceeded the mitzvah while no actual Melacha was done after reciting the beracha. Women who by custom follow the opinion of the Bahag must follow the above proscribed order of lighting, covering the eyes, reciting the beracha and then looking at the candles to receive some pleasure from them. Men who do not follow, by custom, this opinion may recite the beracha and then light the candles. (See note in Aruch Hashulchan OC 263/13)
Let us pray and hope that in merit of lighting Shabbat candles we are given the opportunity to light the candles of the Menorah in the Mikdash as well.