Candle Lighting: A Blessing or a Curse to Women?

Candle Lighting: A Blessing or a Curse to Women?

In the following excerpt from Wendy I. Zierler’s article, “Shedding Feminist Light on the Sabbath Candles,” Zierler explores the possibility that the commandment for women to light the Shabbat evening candles is based on negative associations, rather than positive ones. This article, found in “My People’s Prayer Book: Kabbalat Shabbat (welcoming Shabbat in the synagogue),” uses Talmudic sources to demonstrate how the women’s obligation to light candles is originally connected to death and sin. However, Zierler demonstrates through the ‘tkhines’ (prayers) of Sarah bas Tovim, a Ukraniam rabbi’s daughter, how women took it upon themselves to reframe the commandment to light Shabbat candles into one that was positive and Edenic (from the Garden of Eden). This is an important read for those who wish to explore the sources and implications of the women’s role in Jewish ritual and candle lighting more deeply. Dr. Wendy Zierler serves as Professor of Feminist Studies and Modern Jewish Literature at the Hebrew Union College: Jewish Institute of Religion, the largest Jewish seminary in North America of Reform Judaism. 

Shedding Feminist Light on the Sabbath Candles

Most of us have entirely positive associations with the mitzvah of lighting Shabbat candles. Embedded in this mitzvah are images of tradition and home; of Friday night family dinners; of quiet Shabbat serenity; and of our mother, circling her hands and covering her eyes before saying lehadlik ner shel shabbat, the words that magically transform ordinary time (chol) into the sacred (kodesh). Shabbat commemorates God’s day of rest after six days of creation. There is always something of Eden in Shabbat, some spark of that original seventh day in the garden, in the glow of Shabbat candles….Rabbi Joshua as recorded in Genesis Rabbah (Vilna Edition) 17, construes it, together with the other women’s mitzvot, in purely punitive terms. Eve sinned and caused Adam to sin, and, in so doing, corrupted him, spilled his blood, and extinguished his soul. Because of Eve’s transgressions, all women are condemned eternally to carry out these compensatory rituals. Could there be any formulation of the meaning of candle lighting more alien to our sense of this mitzvah?

…And so, with each one of these sources, our beautiful, glowing, Edenic sense of women’s role in the performance of this mitzvah is at best challenged and at worst shattered…Cast out of ritual Eden, what do women do with our newfound knowledge? Disabused of our prior notions, how do we find our way back to an appreciation of this mitzvah and its origins?

Jewish literary tradition did not give the final word on candle lighting to the Rabbis. Later writings, particularly by Jewish women, provide important counter-visions that endow earlier readings with positive, recuperative meaning.

One such source comes from the literature we call tkhines, a body of prayers composed by or for women, dated from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century. One of them…composed by the renowned Sarah bas Tovim, a Ukraniam rabbi’s daughter…recalls rabbinic statements about women and candle lighting and yet makes certain crucial changes.

…The numerological value of two candles is 500, which she equates with the value assigned by tradition to the total number of human anatomical parts. (Therefore) candle lighting (is) a restorative means of ritual healing that brings men and women together.

…Even more astonishing… Sarah bas Tovim bravely likens the candle lighting by women to the ancient lighting of the Temple menorah by the high priest…Sarah bas Tovim’s t’khinah…present a creative counter-tradition that restores the spark, magic, the love, and the light of this transformative ritual.