Excerpted from “The Concise Code of Jewish Law – Vol. 2: A Guide to the Observance of Shabbat“ by Rabbi Gersion Appel, co-published by OU Press and Maggid Books
2. It is a mitzvah to light many candles in the home in honor of Shabbat. Some are accustomed to light ten candles, others seven candles. One of the most common customs is to light one candle for every member of the family. In any case, you should light no less than two candles*, symbolizing shamor and zachor, the words that the Torah uses to introduce the commandment of Shabbat in the two accounts of the Ten Commandments, respectively. (In Sefer Shemot, the verse says, “Remember—zachor—the Shabbat day to keep it holy” (Shemot 20:8) and in Sefer Devarim, the verse says, “Observe—shamor—the Shabbat day to keep it holy” (Devarim 5:12)**. If necessary, though, one candle suffices. The candles should be of sufficient size so that they will burn at least until after the meal. You should try to obtain fine candles that will give a good light.
Rav Huna said, “One who regularly lights Shabbat candles will merit children who are learned in Torah” (Shabbat 23b). This is hinted to in the verse, “For the commandment (mitzvah) is a candle, and Torah is light” (Mishlei 6:23), that is to say, through the mitzvah of lighting the Shabbat candles will come the light of Torah (Rashi to Shabbat 23b, s.v. banim).
You should give some charity before lighting the candles.***
- * A Woman Who Forgot to Light Shabbat Candles: The custom is that if a woman forgets to light the Shabbat candles, she lights an extra candle every week from then on. If she didn’t light, however, because she was prevented from doing so for some compelling reason, she does not need to light an additional candle. If a woman could not light the candles, but someone else lit candles for her, she likewise does not need to light an additional candle. Our traditional minhagim are to be taken seriously and cherished, as they are passed down from generation to generation. A person should never think that a minhag can be treated lightly, as minhagim form the bedrock of our experience as Jews. This minhag is no exception. Since, however, the purpose of Shabbat candles is to introduce tranquility and shalom bayit into the home, it would be both ironic and wrong to impose the penalty of having to light an extra candle on a woman, as in many cases forgetting to light Shabbat candles is part of a more complex dynamic in the home. In the event that the Shabbat candles were not lit, a family would be best advised to seek the counsel of a rabbi who will sensitively direct them towards the proper conduct in the future.
- ** Number of Shabbat Candles: Seven candles are taken to correspond to the seven days of the week and the seven lights of the Menorah in the Sanctuary, while ten candles would correspond to the Ten Commandments. The prevalent custom is to light two candles and an additional candle for each child in the family. However, the extra candles over and above the two that are traditional in every home do not have to be on the table where the meal is eaten. If you are away from home, the custom is to light only the minimum two candles, regardless of your practice at home.
- *** Prayers at Candle Lighting: Candle lighting is traditionally a time of prayer as well. Many women have the custom to pray for their children and families at this holy time (see Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 75:2)
6. The duty to light Shabbat candles applies to men as well as to women,* except that women take precedence with respect to this mitzvah, and when a woman is home, she is accorded the privilege of lighting the Shabbat candles.** The husband may assist in performing the mitzvah by preparing the candles, and by lighting the wicks and then snuffing them out, as this will make them easier to kindle. In the case of a woman who has given birth, although the husband lights the candles at home if the wife is still in the hospital, she may light in her room, where she eats, and make the berachah as well. ***
- * Who is Obligated to Light Candles?: There is often a bit of confusion regarding who is obligated to light Shabbat candles. Casual observation might lead a person to conclude that only married women are obligated to light. This is not so. In order to understand who has to light and when, it might be helpful to organize the halachah into the following levels of obligation: The first level is the formal obligation to light candles with a berachah every week. This level is generally kept by married women only (see following note). Married women light candles with a berachah no matter where they are, and even if many other women are lighting. The second level of obligation is for each individual to ensure that he or she is in a place with light, as everyone is obligated to have lights for the Shabbat meal. The difference between this level and the previous one is that not everyone is actually obligated to light the candles and say the berachah. For example, a student who is away from home is obligated in the mitzvah of Shabbat candles, but he or she fulfills that obligation if someone else is lighting. A yeshiva student thus does not have to light candles in the dining room because, generally, one of the faculty or his wife will light there. If no one else lights, one of the students must light for all. Similarly, if a young woman who lives in her own apartment is a guest for Shabbat, she does not need to light candles, as her hosts will provide the lights on her behalf. However, if she is hosting the meal, she would need to light her own candles, as no one else is going to do so. The third level is to avoid being completely in the dark even if it is not during the meal. This would impact someone who would not ordinarily need to light for any of the reasons found above, yet finds himself or herself sleeping in a room that is pitch black. In that case, there is an obligation to light candles with a berachah. However, if there is a light from the outside which helps the person to see in his or her room, no additional light is needed. In truth, this third level is much less common in our day and age
with street, hall, and house lights as ubiquitous as they are.
- ** The Custom for Girls to Light Shabbat Candles: It is customary in most communities that a woman begins lighting Shabbat candles on the Shabbat following her wedding. A girl who lives at home is not obliged to light Shabbat candles. However, if she wishes, she may light candles without reciting the berachah, but listen to her mother’s blessing and then say Amen. An unmarried woman, as well as a man, who lives independently or away from home, should light candles. Some, such as the Hasidim of Lubavitch, have adopted the custom that girls from three years of age light candles for Shabbat. This is intended to acquaint them with the mitzvah and to inspire them for its observance. Others, however, particularly Sefardim, do not follow this practice.
- *** Lighting Candles After Childbirth: In the view of some poskim, women should not light the candles on the first Shabbat following childbirth. However, the general custom is for women to light them if they are able.