Perhaps the most powerful image of Shabbat is of lighting candles, a ritual which has historically been reserved for the woman of the house. When we light Shabbat candles, we are reenacting God's creation of light recorded in the first chapter of Bereishit. According to our Rabbis, Shabbat itself is the generator of light in the world, "And God blessed the Sabbath day. How did God bless it? With light. When the sun set on the night of Shabbat, the light continued to function" (Bereishit Rabbah 11,2). The radiant light of Shabbat is a theme of Jewish sources through the ages. Not only does one's house shine on Shabbat but one's face is said to have a special radiance.
The Midrash (Bereishit Rabbah 18,8) states that the mitzvah of lighting candles was given to women as a tikkun – a rectification for Eve's sin. As Eve diminished the light of the world through her sin, women return light to the world through their Shabbat candles. In Kabbalistic tradition, however, women are viewed as the bearers of life and light to the world, and thus are granted the special mitzvah of Shabbat candles. As Shabbat is "zecher l'ma'asei bereishit," a remembrance of creation, so a woman lighting Shabbat candles recalls God's creation of the first light – the "ohr haganoz".
Although one candle would be sufficient to enable oneg Shabbat – enjoyment of Shabbat, and the mitzvah of candle lighting can be fulfilled with one candle, we generally light two or more candles. The two candles represent the two mitzvot to "keep the Sabbath," and to "remember the Sabbath." In Kabbalistic tradition, the two candles reflect the masculine and feminine aspects of God's creation. Just as Shabbat is a queen and represents the Shechinah, so the woman is seen as the Shabbat Queen who brings light and Torah into her house and into the world. According to the Zohar, as a woman lights Shabbat candles on earth, candles are kindled in the divine realm, symbolizing the union and harmony of the sefirot (divine emanations) that occurs on Shabbat.
Many of the women's prayers through the ages reflect the significance of candle lighting. The time of candle lighting is considered to be a very personal time, appropriate for expressing innermost feelings. Many tchinas (personal prayers) have been written for this special time.
Originally published in The Orthodox Jewish Woman and Ritual: Options and Opportunities, Shabbat.