Shedding light on the day of rest
From The Jewish Catalog, reprinted with permission from the Jewish Publication Society.
As a ceremonial object or art, the candle is generally overlooked, yet it has great significance. Whether intended for practical purposes such as providing light, or for more evocative, quasi-magical ends, such as rekindling the winter sun, almost every festival and celebration incorporates the use of candles at some point.
Fire in Judaism
Fire is universally recognized as one of the basic elements of the world. It is mysterious, frightening, mesmerizing. Its attraction is almost irresistible. In the Kabbalah, the image of a multicolored flame emanating from a candle is taken as a metaphor for God's relation to the world and man. The flame is a single entity, yet it appears to be undergoing constant change. The flame adheres to, relies on, and appears to emanate from the candle, yet is a distinct and separate entity. The white interior of the flame is constant, but its exterior is always in motion and changes color.
A woman lighting Shabbat candles.
Reducing fire to a few metaphors, however, robs it of its natural power and mystique. Fortunately the tradition, by incorporating the lighting of candles into the celebratory cycle in a number of different ways [e.g., Shabbat candles, Havdalah (at the end of Shabbat), Hanukkah candles, memorial candles], left open the possibilities for recognizing the many potentialities of fire. It is for us to rediscover those potentialities and allow them to "illumine our eyes."
On Friday night, one is required to light candles in the house for the sake of shalom bayit (harmony in the home) and oneg Shabbat (Sabbath joy). The candles ought to be in the room where the Sabbath meal is to be eaten.
How to Light the Candles
It is normally woman who lights the candles, but men may light them when no woman is present.
Candles may be lit, at the earliest, 1-1/4 hours before sunset, but the [customary] time is up to 18 minutes before sunset. [Click here for Shabbat candlelighting times] If the [traditional 18-minute] time limit cannot be met, candles may be lit during the 18 minutes immediately preceding sunset.
At least two candles should be lit. These represent "shamor" ["keep"] and "zakhor" ["remember"], the first words of the commandments [in the two Ten Commandments passages in the Torah] concerning Shabbat (Exodus 20:8; Deuteronomy 5:12). They also symbolize the unity underlying all apparent duality, such as man and woman, body and soul, speech and silence, creation and revelation.