Shabbat candles are lit to bring in the Shabbat on Friday night. At least two candles are lit, although many people light more, with two candles representing the two versions of the commandment to celebrate Shabbat found in the 10 commandments: one time using the Hebrew word shamor (keep) and one time using the word Hebrew zachor (remember).
Although the Shabbat will come in automatically, the Jewish person is instructing to bring in or take on oneself the Shabbat. This is done by the woman by physically lighting the candles before the Shabbat comes in by 20 minutes. In Jerusalem, because of the extra holiness here, we bring it in 40 minutes before the actual, in order to contemplate and appreciate the Shabbat. When we rush until the last minute and don’t light the candles early we are creating a stressful time instead of a peaceful time. The man accepts the Shabbat during his prayer at the synagogue.
Candles are lit for the purpose of Shalom Bayit (peace in the house) and Oneg Shabbat (Shabbat pleasure), since without the light of the candles, the family would not be able to see or enjoy their Shabbat dinner. The candles are therefore traditionally lit on the dining room table or in the room where the meal will be eaten. The procedure for lighting Shabbat candles includes reciting the blessing for the candles, which officially initiates Shabbat. The candles are usually lit by the women of the family, and while reciting the blessing they traditionally stretch their arms to hide the flames.
Lighting the Shabbat candles is one of the special mitzvot for women (although men are also obligated to light).
Why is this important mitzvah assigned to women? Because it is light, and that is the essence of a woman.
It is the woman who brings light into the home, providing the atmosphere in which she, her husband, and her children can live and prosper. The tone, the feel, the look… it is from her. When she is happy and positive, even the most depressed husband or tired child will absorb her energy and be lifted. When she is not, there is no true Shabbat only the motions. The Shabbat comes according to the time, it is up to the Jew to bring it in.
And, to the contrary, if she is unhappy and the home has a feeling of negativity, it can affect the whole family. She is the core of the family unit. It is the power of the Jewish woman, for it is the woman who sanctifies space.
Historically, it was the Jewish women, not the men, who agreed to accept the Torah first at Mount Sinai. And today, it is the woman who transmits the essence of our Jewish heritage into every home.
So this is how the Shabbat begins, with special light; special understanding as to who we are and why we are here. Shabbat is our time to connect with God; when we stop creating in order to recognize that there is a Creator. The entire week we are caught up in a hectic pace, where it is easy to think only of personal accomplishments and individual achievements.
Yet, once the candles are lit, it is time for the love of God; remembering that everything is from Him, and of course love for our mate.
It takes but a few seconds to do, but it is by far one of the deepest expressions of the Jewish soul: to recognize the Almighty and appreciate this special gift that He has given to us all — a gift we call Shabbat.