Why do we light Shabbat candles?
Being Jewish, my wife and I light Shabbat candles on Friday evening before the Sabbath begins. This is a long-standing Jewish practice, usually understood to be over 2,000 years old. The usual explanation for the custom is based on a dispute between the Sadducees and Pharisees.
The dispute is based on the general philosophy of both parties and on their interpretation of Exodus 35:3. The Jewish Publication Society translates 35:3 as, “Ye shall kindle no fire throughout your habitation upon the Sabbath day.” This is the way the Pharisees and rabbis translated the verse. However the word translated as “kindle,” also means “burn.” The Sadducees translated the verse to prohibit any fire in homes on the Sabbath, “Ye shall [have no] fire burn throughout your habitation upon the Sabbath day.”
They believed that the Sabbath was supposed to be a dark day without any fire burning, hence also cold and miserable during winter months. In contrast, the Pharisees felt the Sabbath should be a happy day, full of light, warmth, and joy. They understood that the Bible was prohibiting igniting a fire in the home on the Sabbath.
But if a fire was lit before the Sabbath it could, indeed should, be enjoyed. To highlight their belief they told followers to light candles before the Sabbath as a sign that the Sabbath is a day of joy, light, and warmth. The Sadducees were engaged for the most part in the temple. When the temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE, most of the Sadducees ceased to exist. Most Jews today follow the Pharisee practices, which were adopted by the rabbis who succeeded them. The candle fulfill the ancient practice for us and add to the Shabbat spirit. We light two each Friday evening.