In this thought-provoking article, psychologist, Dr. Miriam Biber, explores the unique spiritual power of lighting the Shabbat candles through personal anecdotes and biblical, Talmudic and Chassidic sources. Described as a prototype for all of the other commandments, she explains the lighting of Shabbat candles as a physical manifestation of the spiritual accomplishment achieved through observing the commandments, as well as an opportunity for each person to clarify his/her spiritual purpose in this world. This article was published in the Orthodox publication, The Jewish Review: A Journal of Torah, Judaism, Philosophy, Life and Culture (Volume 3, Issue 3, January 1990).
Lighting Candles: A Spiritual Cure-all
As a part of her re‑exploration of Judaism, a friend of mine went through an experience which I think merits public discussion since it raises some issues that are relevant to all Jewish women.
After having been seriously committed to an Eastern religion, and after having gone through several personal tragedies during the previous few years, my friend was taking a second look at Judaism to see what answers and comfort it could provide her. As part of her search for her spiritual identity, my friend had decided, albeit with great hesitation, to meet with an Orthodox rabbi to discuss some of her spiritual struggles. At their first meeting, the rabbi suggested that she begin lighting Shabbat candles. To my friend, this suggestion (which she had been given before by others) seemed premature and impractical, given her then current way of life. Should she light Shabbat candles while still at work and then extinguish them before driving home? I think more disturbing to my friend than the impracticality of the suggestion was the sense that somehow the answer to all of her spiritual struggles had been reduced to a simple act of lighting two wax candles every Friday afternoon. She was seeking a philosophical response that addressed her personal concerns. Instead, she got the sense that she was getting a simplistic, pat solution.
Deceptively Simple Mitzvah
Perhaps by taking a deeper look at the deceptively simple mitzvah of lighting Shabbat candles we can understand the significance of this mitzvah and better understand why it was given as a remedy for my friend’s spiritual quandary. On one level, our sages explain, the mitzvah of candle lighting ensures shalom bayit, or “peace in the home.” Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Lyadi, the Alter Rebbe, explains in his Code of Jewish Law (Shulkhan Aruch Ha Rav) that:
“Every person should have a candle burning for Shabbat, because of shalom bayit — so that one should not stumble on a piece of wood or on a stone.”
In other words, if the house were dark, somebody could trip and hurt himself, which could lead to an argument, a disruption of shalom bayit. The physical light of the Shabbat candles illuminates the room and prevents incidents which could lead to a disruption of family harmony.
As is true with all other mitzvot, the physical and spiritual motivations are deeply intertwined. The physical aspects of a mitzvah reflect its spiritual dimensions as well. With respect to the mitzvah of Shabbat candles, the spiritual connection is quite obvious. The light produced by the candle is a physical manifestation of the spiritual light generated through the performance of this mitzvah. In fact, our sages use the mitzvah of candle lighting as a prototype for all of the other mitzvot. In explaining the mitzvah of lighting Shabbat candles, the Shulkhan AruchHaRav Vol 2, Chapter 75 quotes the Talmud’s discussion of this mitzvah where the analogy between a mitzvah and a candle is reiterated. The Talmud states (Shabbat 23b):
Rab Huna said: The one who is accustomed to buy nice candles for the Sabbath, will have children versed in the Torah, for it is written (Proverbs 6:23): “The mitzvah is a candle and the Torah light,” meaning: Because of the candles will come the light of the Torah.
Prototype for Other Mitzvot
Chasidic thought further explains the verse “The mitzvah is a candle and the Torah light,” as follows: Every mitzvah is an opportunity to connect ourselves with God. By carrying out the divinely ordained commandments, a spiritual light is generated. This spiritual light influences the person performing the mitzvah by giving him a sense of his Godly purpose in the world. Once a Jew does a mitzvah, the spark of Godliness inside of every Jew is nurtured and strengthened. In psychological terms, the individual experiences a stronger Jewish identity and, therefore, a greater desire to live a Jewish life. The mitzvah of lighting Shabbat candles is, perhaps, the prototype for all of the other mitzvot since it is a physical representation of the spiritual accomplishment achieved through doing a mitzvah. Just as through lighting a candle, a physical space becomes illuminated, so, too, by doing a mitzvah, a spiritual light is created and illuminates the Jew with respect to his or her Godly purpose in the world. Once a person’s spiritual path has been “illuminated,” the individual will be able to proceed with greater clarity and direction.
The unique significance of Shabbat candles is further highlighted when contrasted to another mitzvah involving light, that of the Chanukah menorah. Although the light of the Chanukah candles also illuminates one’s spiritual purpose in the world, there is a notable difference. Chanukah is the epitome of the supernatural. It celebrates God’s transcending the laws of nature to provide a miracle for the Jews. Since God performed a miracle by enabling a small cruse of oil to last for eight days, we light the menorah for eight days.Its purpose is solely to commemorate the miracle. In fact, one is not allowed to use the Chanukah lights for any other purpose. As the Siddur states,
“…these lights are sacred, and we are not permitted to make use of them, but only to look at them, in order to offer thanks and praise to Your great Name….”
In contrast, Shabbat candles have a concrete purpose and function. As we discussed, we light Shabbat candles to prevent one from stumbling in the dark, and therefore to ensure harmony in the home. This is a logical rationale pertaining to a rather mundane, simple, aspect of one’s life. There is an important spiritual message in these contrasting functions.The physical light of the Shabbat candles represents the spiritual light necessary to cope with the daily spiritual challenges that face a Jew. Day in and day out, a Jew is faced with struggles and doubts which could challenge his or her faith. With such abundant suffering and a seeming lack of morality in the world, it is easy to doubt that there is a God. Therefore a spiritual awakening is not just needed at times of tremendous spiritual crises, such as when the Jewish people as a whole are in danger (e.g., the times of Chanukah), but also on a daily basis, as we lead our daily lives. The fact that there is such a mitzvah as lighting Shabbat candles teaches us that the Torah recognizes the need for regular infusions of spiritual “energy,” and provides us with a vehicle for keeping our Jewish feelings alive while we negotiate this physical world.
Shabbat Candles Help Us to Return
The concept of the Shabbat candles as a vehicle for illuminating our spiritual paths is further highlighted by the time in which this mitzvah may be performed. The lighting of the candles ushers in Shabbat. Stated simply, the central concept of Shabbat is spiritual rest. Since a person is free from worldly concerns on Shabbat, he can dedicate himself and his energies to spiritual pursuits. The Hebrew letters of “Shabbat” reflect its essence, for they also spell the word tashov, which means to return; Shabbat is a day when a Jew returns to his or her source. By engaging more openly in spiritual pursuits, a person gets closer to God and, therefore, to his or her own essence. As the Torah states, (Exodus2 0:8‑11) and as we say in the Shabbat kiddush,
“Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is Shabbat for the Lord your God; you shall not do any work…?”
Shabbat begins with the lighting of candles. From a halakhic perspective, once a person has lit the Shabbat candles, she has formally accepted Shabbat upon herself and can no longer engage in weekday activities. Therefore, lighting Shabbat candles represents the entrance or starting point to the spiritual service associated with Shabbat, that of returning to one’s Jewish source, This is the ultimate in a Jew’s service to God. The fact that this mitzvah is largely entrusted to women reflects the fact that women have the responsibility of infusing their homes and, on a larger scale, the world, with a sense of Godliness and spiritual purpose.
Now let us return to the woman in a spiritual quandary who was advised to light Shabbat candles. Perhaps now we can understand why the rabbi advised her as he did. He recognized that something more than theological argument was needed to help redirect her spiritual longings. By suggesting that she begin observing a specific mitzvah, her Jewish soul, and, therefore, her Jewish identity, would be strengthened. In other words, a change in her behavior would create a change in her feelings. The mitzvah of Shabbat candles was particularly apropos, since it embodies the concept of “lighting up” one’s spiritual path. All of us at one time or another struggle with defining our Jewish identity and purpose in life. The mitzvah of Shabbat candles provides each of us with the opportunity to clarify our spiritual purpose in this world.
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