Contemplative Candle Lighting

Dr. C. Tova Markenson

Contemplative Candle Lighting

Candle lighting is a simple act with so many variations. There is no right way to light, nor is there any single meaning. For me, the practices of lighting Shabbat candles can be playful and creative so long as I choose to remember and observe the light.

When to Light Candles

On Friday nights growing up, my younger brother and I would often fight over who got to light the Shabbat candles. As a compromise, each of us would light one of the two wicks. My family lit candles when we sat down for dinner. But in Jewish tradition, the official candle lighting time is 18 minutes before sundown, a practice that has inspired me to be more aware of when sundown is and to live in sync with the natural rhythms of life.

Each week the precise candle lighting time changes slightly. Where I live along the Hudson River, the candle lighting time getting earlier in the late summer serves as a gentle reminder that we are slowly moving towards autumn, my favorite season.

How to Light Candles: Some Options

As a Shabbat dinner guest in other homes, I have loved learning about other customs. Some light two candles, symbolizing the reminder to remember and observe Shabbat. Others invite each person who is present to light one or more candles of their own. Immediately after lighting, some people chant the blessings with a melody, and others quietly recite the prayers to themselves. There are several options for which version of the Hebrew or English to recite – I grew up knowing only the masculine words and have found a lot of joy in learning the blessings with feminine and non-binary language.

Many folks close their eyes immediately after the candles are lit, circling their hands three times towards them to welcome in the light. One interpretation is that during the week, it is common to focus on the external world, and the inward circles symbolize that Shabbat is a chance to replenish the soul.

Some say that the three circles represent the three spheres of rest on Shabbat: rest from habitual actions, speech, and thought. Perhaps each circle of the hands is an invitation to consider doing a little less, listening a little more, and loosening my grip on all those pesky thoughts.

Candle Gazing: A Kabbalistic Approach

Two candle lighting practices in particular have stayed with me. The first is a mystical practice from the Kabbalists, who had a tradition of gazing at a flame to envision “holy unity.” For me, this idea speaks to the interconnectedness of all beings. It reminds me of how Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh describes “interbeing.”

One way to explore the Kabbalistic candle gazing ritual is to light the Shabbat candles and then take a minute to receive the light – to just connect with it. Doing so tends to naturally settle my mind, allowing other unexpected connections to spontaneously arise. This can also be a chance to intentionally reflect on the invisible webs of connection all around.

Ancestral Connections

I learned a related practice from Rabbi Dr. Jay Michaelson that goes something like this: with eyes open or closed, take a moment to silently imagine your ancestors (either given, chosen, or both) surrounding you. I often envision my grandparents at my back, and behind them their parents and grandparents and support systems, letting the imagination expand as far as it can reach.

As a kid, it was a minhag (custom) in our family that we would ceremonially hand over the match to my mother. I don’t know what she did with it next except that she always put it in a very good place. These days, after lighting Shabbat candles, I still do not know what to do with the match. The non-traditional tradition of handing the used match to my partner – or to my mother when we are with her for Shabbat – fills me with delight.

As you get ready to bring in Shabbat, whether or not you usually light candles or not, take a few moments to notice the natural world and the setting sun.