Dear Rabanit Cohen,
In last week’s newsletter, a woman asked about the candles and significance of the light. I found your answer very informative and inspiring and was wondering if like you wrote, you could continue to elaborate on this topic?
Thank you for taking the time to write and for your interest in such a lofty subject. Interestingly, you are not the only one who wrote in concerning the continuation of this topic. It is fascinating to see how women naturally gravitate to the idea of the candles and the light that emanates from them. We will continue on the exalted path we began last week.
One of the first thing we need to know is that the Shulchan Aruch states that it is preferable to light with olive oil, for it burns with a particularly bright and steady flame. Many people continue to light with olive oil although there are other alternatives today. Why? The Gemara of Shabat compares Talmidei Chachamim to olives and olive oil. It has been suggested therefore, that those who specifically light with olive oil will be rewarded with sons who are Talmidei Chachamim.
Another reason for using olive oil is that only pure olive oil was used to light the menorah in the Bet Hamikdash. Since our candles are meant to recall the menorah, many people like to use olive oil. In addition, The Gemara in Menachot states that just like an olive tree never loses its leaves, Bnei Yisrael will never be destroyed. Hence, the use of olive oil as opposed to any other kind of lighting fluid.
Let us try to understand why this mitzvah was given to women in particular. Practically speaking, the woman is the hostess who ushers in the Shabat, because she is usually more often present in the home than the husband and generally looks after household matters. But there is a deeper explanation.
If we remember that light helps us to see the beauty within each other, we can understand why this mitzvah is particularly suited to women. A woman has a very strong ability to see the good in others. Just as a candle lights up the tiniest crevices, a woman is willing to peek into the darkest cracks of the neshamah of her husband and children to find the good. In fact, when searching for chametz on Erev Pesach, we use a candle at night. In this way we are able to peer into the tiniest cracks and check that they are free of chametz.
In addition, candle-lighting is the perfect opportunity for a woman to focus on enhancing her relationship with her husband. Although a woman lights two flames, the light created is unified into one. This reminds her that while she and her husband are two distinct bodies, they are one soul. Chachamim teach that a husband and wife were a single united neshamah under Hashem’s throne before they came down to earth. It is the work of a lifetime for the couple to unite the two halves, and after 120 years to return the neshamah whole to Hashem. Lighting the candles therefore, reminds a woman of one of her key roles.
This is concerning the woman on an individual level. But on a national level, chachamim teach us that in the merit of righteous women we were redeemed from Egypt. What did they do? Paroh’s intent was to destroy the Jewish people. To achieve this, he disrupted family life by separating the men from their wives and sent them into the fields to do backbreaking labor. At the end of the day, the women drew pails of water, which Hashem miraculously filled with fish.
They would then go to their husbands in the fields, wash their husbands’ feet, serve them the fish and revive them.
At a time when they were being systematically annihilated, the women were willing to perpetuate the Jewish nation. Their belief and hope in the future, despite the horror around them, was the motivation that transformed the darkness of the galut into the light of the geulah. Today, we continue the work of these women by lighting Shabat candles – for by doing so we are helping to transform the darkness of this exile into an eternal light of redemption.