Despite the fact that for many centuries Jewish women have had the honor of fulfilling the commandment to light the Friday night Sabbath candles, today many don’t even bother to light the candles at all. Some women are too busy working to prepare for “Shabbat” (the Sabbath) or they might get home after sunset, thus missing the prescribed candling-lighting time. Maybe their children have activities on Friday nights, their husbands would rather watch a good movie, or they just have no interest in traditional religious rituals.
To try and entice Jewish men and women to light Shabbat candles, the National Jewish Outreach Program has deemed May 4, 2007, “Shabbat Across America!” This yearly campaign, much like the one run by Chabad, called “Friday Light,” encourages men and women to perform this ritual. The founders of these programs want to ensure that every person who would like to experience Shabbat by lighting candles has the opportunity to do so. In the process, they hope those who try lighting Shabbat candles even once might continue doing so on a weekly basis.
No matter what ritual a person tries, however, they may not want to continue performing it if they feel their actions are empty or devoid of meaning. While Orthodox Jews would say we should light Shabbat candles simply because we are commanded to do so, for many non-observant or non-Orthodox Jews this sense of obligation does not provide enough incentive for them to commit to regular religious practice. These people want their religious observances to be both meaningful and spiritual.
To help Jewish women realize the importance of lighting candles and to entice them into lighting Shabbat candle on a regular basis, I teach them to see themselves as “kohenet,” or priestess, and to take on the Shabbat candle-lighting ritual as a spiritual practice. Jewish women need to realize that as they touch match to wick on Friday night, they become priestesses fulfilling similar duties to those performed by the priests in the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. They are creating sacred space and invoking the Divine into that space. Also, they are welcoming Shabbat and the “Shechinah” (the Divine Feminine Presence).
Modern, non-observant Jewish women often don’t realize that their religious tradition has given them a time-honored and important position that allows them to influence their own spiritual lives as well as those of their families every Friday night. I encourage them to assume this position and to preside over all their home-based religious rituals and prayers, including the Shabbat candle-lighting ritual.
I totally support “Shabbat Across America!’ and Friday Light,’ but I believe that transforming this wondrous ritual from an empty practice into a meaning-full and spirit-full one makes the difference between someone lighting Shabbat candles once or even twice and doing so on a weekly basis.