Candle Lighting – the Custom and its Explanations
The first time the commandment of kindling the Shabbat candles appears is the Tractate of Shabbat is in the discussion, "With what do you light"(Mishna, Tractate Shabbat, 2) – The discourse deals with the question of what materials are permitted to be used as wicks for Shabbat candles. Candle lighting symbolizes the transition of the weekday to Shabbat and is done about a half an hour before sunset.
Some claim that the custom of lighting candles stems from the need to light up the house by sunset before it darkens outside. This act took on ceremonial connotations and a touch of spirituality, as when the candles are lit Shabbat sets in and the prohibition to ignite flames.
Homiletic and other interpretations view candles as a symbol of peace, blessing, joy, (See "Midrashim on Shabbos Candles"). Candle lighting also symbolizes the creation of the light, the initial G-dly creation: just as the Holy-One-Blessed-be-He rested from his works of creation, we too, rest after lighting the Shabbat candles.
The Mishna connects the commandment of candle lighting to women: "For three sins do women die when they give birth: Being that they are not meticulous about keeping the laws of Niddah (impurity), Challah (contributing a piece of dough prior to baking) and lighting candles. (Mishna, Shabbat,2).
Some explain the assignment of this commandment to women in particular since they are more readily at home and available to light candles, and others interpret it as privilege and honor given to women to welcome the Shabbat to the home.
A different Midrash considers the dedication of the commandment to women as a means of atonement:
"And the primal human being, was the candle of the world, as it states: 'The candle of the Lord is a soul of man' (Proverbs 20, 27) Eve brought about the decree of death to him, thereupon, the commandment of lighting the candles was given to women". (Yerushalmi, Shabbat, 2:6)
In a more positive and egalitarian tone, the Zohar teaches that men have the privilege to bring about correction by Torah study, just as women bring about rectification by lighting candles of Shabbat. (See Midrashim on Shabbat candles)
It is customary to light at least two Shabbat candles, one corresponding "Guard the day of Shabbat to sanctify it" (Deuteronomy 5, 12) and the other corresponding: "Remember the day of Shabbat to sanctify it" (Exodus 20, 8). Some have the custom to light a single wide candle containing two wicks to fulfil: "Guard and Remember were uttered in a single expression" (From the chant "Lecha Dodi" – [Come my Beloved]). The Ari would light seven candles corresponding to the seven days of the week: six small ones and one large one – representing Shabbat. There is a custom to light 12 candles signifying the twelve tribes of Israel, some light the number of candles corresponding to the number of family members, and in specific Chassidic circles it is customary to light 702 candles representing the numerical value of the letters of the word Shabbat in Hebrew (שבת) which amounts to 702.
The blessing over the candles is recited right after their kindling, being that after the blessing is said, all work (what is considered 'work' as far as Shabbat goes) is prohibited, including lighting candles. Women wave their hands over the candles and then cover their faces with their hands after lighting the candles.
The custom of covering one's face after lighting candles has several explanations: Some see the covering of one's face as reflecting awe: to refrain from 'looking at' the ray of Divine Presence'.
Another explanation to this custom is that it is the first commandment in which you first perform an act and then say the blessing; covering one's face while saying a blessing and exposing it once again after the blessing, serves as a means of delaying the joy derived from the candles – so that it is considered as if the blessing was recited prior to lighting the candles. Some view the custom of waving one's hands over the flames and then covering one's faces a symbol of internalizing the light of Shabbat by bringing the light inward. Some wave their hands over the candles six times, as if to merge the six days of the week into Shabbat.
The time just preceding and following candle lighting is designated for a personal prayer or for a special prayer designated for candle lighting.