I grew up learning that it was the mother’s job to light Shabbat candles. Why? Are men allowed to light them as well?

created at: 2013-05-28

According to Jewish law, the mitzvah of lighting Shabbat candles falls equally on men and women, but the association of women and lighting the Shabbat candles is very old. Already by the time of the Mishnah (around 200 C.E.), we’re told that women have three mitzvot (ritual obligations) associated especially with them: lighting the Shabbat candles; separating out part of the dough—called the challah—before baking the bread, sort of like an offering; and making sure not to come into contact with her husband during her menstrual period. No explanation is given for why these three, but the assumption about the bread and the cande-lighting is that these were two rituals associated with the home, and so they became the woman’s responsibility. But if there is no woman in the house, than a man must do the lighting.

Today, many people like lighting the Shabbat candles, and in some families, everyone gets to light, with sets of candles for parents and kids. Some women have fond memories of their mothers doing the lighting, and they like the association of candle-lighting with the “woman of the house.” Men certainly aren’t forbidden, so in your household, whomever wants to should have a chance to light!

Some traditions connected with lighting the Shabbat candles include:

  • Covering our eyes right after we light so that we don’t yet “use” the light before saying the blessing over the candles. After the blessing, we uncover our eyes and, voila, there is Shabbat light.
  • Making a circling motion three times with our hands over the lights right before we close our eyes, and then saying the blessing, either quietly to ourselves, or out loud with others. I think of this circling as if I’m bringing the light—and a bit of Shabbat—into myself. I like to keep my eyes closed for a moment after the blessing, sending a blessing of Shabbat light and peace to whomever in the world may need it that night.
  • After the blessing, saying “Shabbat shalom” or “Good Shabbos” to whomever you’re with!

created at: 2013-05-28

Rabbi Toba Spitzer is the rabbi at Congregation Dorshei Tzedek, a Reconstructionist synagogue in West Newton.