Why Do We Begin Shabbat with Candles?

Think about some of the nicest (and maybe fanciest) meals or parties you've attended. What makes them so special? Was it the way the room and the table was decorated? Was it the food? Was it the way you dressed? Were there candles on the table? How do each of those things change how we feel about and enjoy an event?

Shabbat meals are meant to be just like the best banquets and fancy meals you've attended. They're one of the ways we make Shabbat special and different from the rest of the week.

Before we get into why we light candles, let's look at when we light candles. If you were told, light your candles Friday evening when Shabbat starts, what would you say? What if you didn't have a calendar with Shabbat times or you didn't even have a clock? How would you know when to light?

הַמַּדְלִיק צָרִיךְ לְהַדְלִיק מִבְּעוֹד יוֹם קֹדֶם שְׁקִיעַת הַחַמָּה.... סְפֵק חֲשֵׁכָה וְנִכְנַס הַשַּׁבָּת סָפֵק לֹא נִכְנַס אֵין מַדְלִיקִין:

The Shabbat candles should be lit during daytime, before sunset.... If it is doubtful whether darkness has already fallen or not, whether Shabbat has or has not begun, the lights may not be lit.

1. Can you pinpoint a specific time for lighting Shabbat candles?

2. Why do you think can't we light the candles if we're not totally sure Shabbat has started or not, or if we're not totally sure it's dark outside or not?

For most of our history, we didn't have clocks or a list of Shabbat times to know when Shabbat started, so we had to rely entirely on the sun and the stars to tell time.

(ד) מִשֶּׁתִּשְׁקַע הַחַמָּה עַד שֶׁיֵּרָאוּ שְׁלֹשָׁה כּוֹכָבִים בֵּינוֹנִים הוּא הַזְּמַן הַנִּקְרָא בֵּין הַשְּׁמָשׁוֹת בְּכָל מָקוֹם. וְהוּא סָפֵק מִן הַיּוֹם סָפֵק מִן הַלַּיְלָה וְדָנִין בּוֹ לְהַחֲמִיר בְּכָל מָקוֹם. וּלְפִיכָךְ אֵין מַדְלִיקִין בּוֹ.

The period from sunset until the time when three stars of medium size become visible is called twilight. It is uncertain whether this period is part of the preceding day or of the following night.

We generally decide in favor of being more strict on this point; therefore, the Sabbath lights may not be lit once it is already twilight.

3. How would you define twilight? What does it look like outside? Are there specific signs that show when it begins and when it ends?

4. What are the problems that come along with not knowing if a time is part of one day or another day?

5. Why do you think we err on the side of being more strict?

Lighting candles on Shabbat is SO important we're willing to prioritize it over other important commandments and moments.

הַדְלָקַת נֵר בְּשַׁבָּת אֵינָהּ רְשׁוּת אִם רָצָה מַדְלִיק וְאִם רָצָה אֵינוֹ מַדְלִיק....

וְאֶחָד אֲנָשִׁים וְאֶחָד נָשִׁים חַיָּבִין לִהְיוֹת בְּבָתֵּיהֶן נֵר דָּלוּק בְּשַׁבָּת.

אֲפִלּוּ אֵין לוֹ מַה יֹּאכַל שׁוֹאֵל עַל הַפְּתָחִים וְלוֹקֵחַ שֶׁמֶן וּמַדְלִיק אֶת הַנֵּר שֶׁזֶּה בִּכְלַל עֹנֶג שַׁבָּת.

The lighting of Shabbat lights is not of free choice, to light or not to light as one chooses....

It is rather a duty, required of all people alike; they are obligated to have candles (lamps) burning in their homes on Shabbat eve.

Even if one has nothing to eat, let them go begging to their neighbors, buy oil, and light a lamp, forming a central part of Sabbath delight.

6. Why do you think we're taught that lighting candles for Shabbat isn't a choice, and everyone is required to light?

7. How does having candles ensure "shabbat delight?"

אָמַר רָבָא: פְּשִׁיטָא לִי, נֵר בֵּיתוֹ וְנֵר חֲנוּכָּה — נֵר בֵּיתוֹ עָדִיף, מִשּׁוּם שְׁלוֹם בֵּיתוֹ. נֵר בֵּיתוֹ וְקִידּוּשׁ הַיּוֹם — נֵר בֵּיתוֹ עָדִיף, מִשּׁוּם שְׁלוֹם בֵּיתוֹ.

Rava said: It is obvious to me that there is a set list of priorities. When a person is poor and must choose between purchasing oil to light a Shabbat lamp for their home or purchasing oil to light a Hanukkah lamp, the Shabbat lamp for his home takes precedence.

That is due to peace in the home; without the light of that lamp, the family would be sitting and eating their meal in the dark.

Similarly, if there is a conflict between acquiring oil to light a lamp for the home and wine for the kiddush of Shabbat day, the lamp for the home takes precedence due to peace in his home.

8. If we have to choose between lighting candles for Shabbat or Hanukkah, Shabbat wins. What does that tell us about the importance of Shabbat?

9. What do you think "peace in the home" means here? Is it a good enough reason for you?

10. If we have to choose between buying candles for Shabbat evening or buying wine for kiddush at Shabbat lunch, we choose candles. Why do you think we prioritize the candles for Friday night over kiddush for Saturday daytime?