Origins and Mysteries of Shabbat Candles

1723 Illustration of Shabbat Candle-Lighting

This week’s parasha, Tetzave, begins with the command to take “pure olive oil, crushed for lighting, to kindle the lamps continually.” (Exodus 27:20) This refers to lighting the “eternal flame”, ner tamid, of the Temple Menorah. Since the destruction of the Temple, we are no longer able to fulfil this mitzvah exactly. However, the Sages say we can still fulfil this mitzvah through the lighting of Shabbat candles. The Ba’al HaTurim (Rabbi Yakov ben Asher, 1269-1343) presents some mathematical proof for this as well: the gematria of ner tamid (נר תמיד) is 704, equal to “on the Sabbath” (בשבת), while the gematria of tetzave (תצוה) is 501, equal to “[God] commanded the women” (נשים צוה). In other words, God commanded women to light Shabbat candles as a way to keep the Temple’s eternal flame going.

This beautiful teaching actually helps us pinpoint the origins of lighting Shabbat candles, since the mitzvah is not explicitly mentioned anywhere in the Torah. Where exactly did it come from, why was it instituted, and why is it women specifically that are instructed to light these candles?

Back to the Second Temple

At the end of the Second Temple era, two types of Jews dominated the scene: the Perushim (“Pharisees”) and the Tzdukim (“Sadducees”). The former understood that the written Torah came together with an Oral Torah, while the latter rejected the notion of an Oral Torah and relied solely on Scripture. For the Sadducees, this presented a number of halakhic problems. The greatest was when it came to Sabbath observance. If read literally, the Torah states that a flame may not burn on the Sabbath. For this reason, Sadducees did not make use of fire on Shabbat at all, so they ate cold food and couldn’t stay up very late on Friday evening since there was no light in their homes.

The oral tradition, meanwhile, makes it clear that a flame may continue to burn on Shabbat as long as it was lit before-hand. This allowed the Pharisees to keep their food warm and their homes illuminated. The Pharisees argued that without this, it would be impossible to fulfil the mitzvah of delighting in the Sabbath. After all, how can one enjoy the Sabbath in the cold and dark? So, lighting candles before the onset of Shabbat was a major distinction between the Pharisees and Sadducees. It became more than just a practicality—it was a symbol of one group over the other. In the long run, particularly after the Temple’s destruction, the Sadducees disappeared from history. The Pharisee community evolved into what would today be called “Rabbinic Judaism”.

(It is interesting to note that Christianity also emerged from within, and among, the Pharisee community. The New Testament highlights Jesus’ debates with the Sadducees, especially regarding the afterlife, which Sadducees did not believe in since it is not plainly discussed in the Torah. The notion of the afterlife comes from the Oral Torah as well. Ironically, some Christians seek to discredit Judaism by arguing against the Oral Torah!)

A few centuries later, another form of Judaism emerged that once more sought to eliminate the Oral Torah and return to a strict interpretation of the written Torah alone. This was Karaite Judaism, and it made huge waves in the 8th and 9th centuries. The great Sa’adia Gaon (882-942) worked tirelessly to counter Karaite Judaism, and the Rambam even credits him with saving Rabbinic Judaism at the time.

Not surprisingly then, it is in the 9th century Siddur of Rav Amram Gaon (d. 875) where we first see the text of a Shabbat candle-lighting berakhah. To reaffirm and strengthen the Oral Torah at a time when it was under attack, the sages and rabbis of the 9th century instituted a formal blessing—modelled on the Chanukah blessing—to be recited when lighting Shabbat candles. This made it clear that it was God who kideshanu v’tzivanu, sanctified us and commanded us, to do so. People needed to know that this ancient practice was no rabbinic invention! Indeed, when we look into more mystical sources, we find that lighting Shabbat candles goes way back—all the way to the Garden of Eden.

Back to the Garden of Eden

On Exodus 25:31, the Ba’al HaTurim notes that in the Torah’s entire description of the Menorah, the letter samekh does not appear even once. This is also true of the account of Creation in Genesis 1. Over there, samekh is strangely the only Hebrew letter that is absent. The Ba’al HaTurim explains that samekh represents Satan (more specifically, the force known as Samael, סמאל). Satan played no role in Creation, and the original burst of Divine Light in the beginning totally repelled the forces of evil. The same is true of the Temple’s Menorah light, which repelled evil. Since Shabbat candles are an extension of the Menorah, they, too, have the power to repel evil.

The first time the letter samekh makes an appearance in the Torah is in the description of the Garden of Eden, and then in the creation of Eve (Genesis 2). This is no coincidence, for it would be Eve in Eden who heeds the Serpent’s advice and first consumes the Forbidden Fruit, causing evil to enter the world. At that point, God’s Divine Light was concealed. The world was plunged into darkness. The Shabbat lights serve to counteract this, and restore some of the Divine Light into the world. This explains why it is women specifically that should light them. Just as Eve caused a diminishing of the light shortly before the very first Sabbath, a woman has the power to increase the light before each Sabbath.

Finally, it is customary on Friday evenings to recite the second chapter of the Mishnaic tractate Shabbat, a passage called Bameh Madlikin. There we read that while the Sages permit various types of oil for Shabbat lights, Rabbi Tarfon insists that it should be olive oil. This makes a direct connection to the Temple Menorah, which could only burn olive oil, as stated in the opening verse of this week’s parasha. At the end of the passage, the Sages give three mitzvahs that women should especially focus on, and whose fulfilment prevents difficulties in childbirth. The mitzvahs are niddah, challah, and Shabbat candles. It isn’t difficult to see how this, once again, goes back to rectifying Eden:

According to mystical sources, the real mistake in Eden was sexual in nature (see, for instance, Sha’ar HaGilgulim, Ch. 29). Adam and Eve should have waited until Shabbat. The mitzvah of niddah is a rectification for that failure in abstinence. In Eden, Eve ate from the “fruit” and then gave a portion of it to her husband. The mitzvah of challah is to remove a portion of dough and give it to a kohen, whose entire priestly role is to facilitate atonement. And we have already seen how Shabbat candles serve as rectification. Altogether, these three mitzvot prevent difficulties in childbirth, since birthing difficulties were the result of consuming the Forbidden Fruit in the first place!

Together, these three mitzvot are considered the most important for women because they serve to rectify Eve, the “mother of all life”. The acronym for these three mitzvot (נח״ה) has a value of 63, which represents the Sefirah of Binah, called Ima, the “Mother”. The same three letters (and value) spells “Hannah” (חנה), who represents the complete rectification of Eve. The only difference in their names (חוה vs. חנה) is that the vav is replaced with a nun. The Sages teach that a nun is an elongated, rectified vav (bent to the left towards Binah), representing the completion of the female (see Zohar I, 147a, with Tosefta).

There are four expansions (milui) of God’s Name. The one with a value of 63 (ס״ג) corresponds to Binah.

Hannah rectified Eve. And so, Midrash Mishlei (31:5) says Hannah is represented by the following verse in Eshet Chayil: “She advises [ta’amah] that her merchandise is good [ki-tov]; her lamp never goes out at night.” Hannah reversed the “taste” (ta’amah) of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, and rekindled the never-dying spiritual light. So, too, does such potential lie with every holy Jewish woman.

Happy Purim!