When I Light Shabbat Candles

Some Friday nights I light candles at 9 pm. No, I don’t live in Alaska or Scandinavia. I’m talking about winter in Chicago when Shabbat has technically begun hours earlier.  

I may have lit candles at synagogue earlier in the evening.  And of course, I know that welcoming the Sabbath can happen anywhere. But there is something important for me about lighting candles at home, in my kitchen or on my dining room table, with my children if they are here, or by myself.  

I understand that the timing is counter-cultural for some, a violation of Jewish law for many. The specifics of Shabbat candles per Jewish law? Light before the Sabbath begins, 18 minutes before for many.

I mean no disrespect. To the contrary. Shabbat is sacred and I endeavor to observe it as Reform Jew, in a way that is meaningful to me, and which respects tradition, too. Lighting Shabbat candles connects me across time and space, and I have learned to give myself the ability to mindfully focus on those connections.

When I light candles held in the colorful candle holders given to me by my dear friends Ted & Bec, the women with whom I spent a handful of the most beautiful Sabbaths of my life, I am brought back to a summer 30 years ago; the three of us met at a life-changing Jewish leadership camp in the southern California desert. When I light candles I am brought back to the Shabbat table of my childhood, where my mother lit the flames, my sister and I led blessings, and the four of us experienced the peace, raisin challah (only) and chicken (of course) of Shabbat dinner, if only briefly before my father, a synagogue rabbi headed to temple, often with us at his side.  

When I light candles I am brought back to my great grandmothers whom I never knew.  I light in a chain of women which likely skipped my grandmothers, but which my mother and father reconnected in our home. A chain that I continue, when my children are with me at the table, and when I am alone and standing at the kitchen counter.  

I see that chain powerfully because of a conversation with my mom 25 years ago. I was a rabbinic student. For an assignment, I asked my mother about her beliefs — in God and in the Jewish practice she took on deliberately after growing up in a pretty non-observant home. I expected the pragmatic from my ever-practical Kindergarten teacher mother.

Her answer? A bit mystical, and a gift. Mom explained that the power of kindling Shabbat candles lay in seeing her grandmothers as she lit. There in her mind’s eye was gentle, Polish-born Ida, and tough America-born Sarah, each a keeper of the tradition in her small New York apartment.   

When I light candles, my children argue over whose turn it is to kindle the flames with the extra long matches. I wish they didn’t fight, but they’re kids and it’s the magic of lighting a match. And then one of them strikes the flame. It radiates across time. Everyone is in my house. It is Shabbat.

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