The quintessential image of home, holiness, and Jewish motherhood is that of a woman blessing the Shabbat candles, performing a ritual we assume has existed since time immemorial. But this assumption is wrong. In fact, it was only nine hundred years ago that, after much debate, lighting the Shabbat lamp came to be defined as a mitzvah—one with its own unique blessing, one that Jewish women took upon themselves.
Because there is no such commandment in the Torah, most rabbis before 1000 CE maintained that lighting the Shabbat lamp was not a mitzvah; it was merely a task women did because they were home and men were in synagogue on Friday afternoon. It was important only because, unless she lit the lamp before sunset, her family would be forced to sit in the dark. And while the Talmud (Tractate Shabbat) meticulously details what kinds of oil and wicks are best to keep the Shabbat lamp from going out, there is no mention of any special ritual for lighting it.
The great French scholar Rashi (1040-1105) took an opposing view. In his commentary on Tractate Shabbat (page 23b) he stated, “By observing the mitzvot of kindling a lamp on Shabbat and Hanukkah, one brings the light of Torah into the world.” Yet even if a community accepted that lighting the Shabbat lamp was a mitzvah, should a blessing accompany it? And if so, which one? There is no such blessing mentioned in the Talmud and halakha forbids any non-Talmudic blessings. Because of this, medieval Sephardic women lit their Shabbat lamps in silence.
However during the eleventh century, Ashkenazic women had greater religious status and autonomy than those in Sefarad, so much so that they began to fulfill those mitzvot that only men were obligated to perform, such as blowing shofar,and wearing tefillin and tzitzit. According to Machzor Vitry, a compendium of laws and customs collected by Rashi’s students, women took these commandments upon themselves and recited the blessings as well, in the same way that women today have taken on traditionally male mitzvot, instituted new rituals like Bat Mitzvah, and become rabbis and cantors.