This short post explores the Halachic (Jewish law) and Kabbalistic (Jewish mysticism) explanations as to why those lighting the Shabbat evening candles wave their hands three times over the lit candles before reciting the blessing. The response uses various concepts from Kabbalah, such as the five levels of the soul. This answer is provided by the Soc.Culture.Jewish Newsgroups where lay people from various Jewish movements ask and answer questions regarding Jewish law and tradition. Due to its reference to complex Kabbalistic concepts, this article is meant for those with some background in Jewish mysticism. Readers who are unfamiliar with these terms can visit The Safed page on Kabbalah and the Inner Spirit for a more thorough explanation.
Question: Why do women wave their hands three times before lighting Shabbat [or Holiday] candles?
This is just a custom. The halacha is that one should cover one’s eyes before lighting. Why? The blessing for a mitzvah is supposed to precede the mitzvah. However, one can’t make the blessing on lighting Shabbat candles before lighting, for once the blessing is recited, it’s Shabbat, and one is no longer allowed to light the candles. So, we cover our eyes so that we start using the light only after the blessing.
Waving the hands three times beforehand is a kabbalistically derived custom. According to the Zohar, the human soul has five levels: three are internal and comprise your individual self [the power to live (nefesh); the mind/will (ru’ach), and the spirit (neshamah)]; two are external and refer to things outside your self [(chayah (from the word “alive”) and yechidah (singular)]. This custom involves the internal aspects of the soul. To accept Shabbat into one’s entire self, one needs to prepare body, mind, and soul—nefesh, ru’ach and neshamah. With each wave of the hands, one should consciously take a deep breath and try to feel the atmosphere of Shabbat touching another aspect of one’s being.
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