Of Candles and Creation
by Talya Kramer
She stands silently for only a moment, stares at the glistening silver candlesticks and then at the cups of clear yellow oil and cotton wicks. She takes a deep breath. Sparks fly into the air as she strikes a match. Her hand first reaches out to the candlestick on the right, as she lights her candles one by one. The room around her is tranquil and still, with her children standing behind her with big, glowing eyes. Even the baby knows not to utter a word.
May these be the candles of everlasting peace; may these be the candles of abundance; may these be the candles of rectified Light. Master of the Universe, may these be the candles that burn forever and ever.
With this silent prayer meditation, she stretches her arms wide to hover some distance around the flames, and then draws them in to carry the light and warmth into the universe. One, two, three times, she invites the Shabbat angels into her home for blessings of peace. Then, she tilts her head downwards, lowers her eyelids, and buries her face inside her hands. A small, whispered muffle can be heard under her hands as she recites the blessing. With this, the moment transcends into an awesome divine space of higher consciousness. She is now face to face with her Creator. My heart is open, please hear my cries, wipe away my tears, restore my true faith in You.
The spiritual nature of the holy day of Shabbat is one that has a transcendental quality. The Shabbat, referred to as the Beloved, the Queen and the Bride, is a day on which the fundamental nature and essence of Creation take a completely different form. The Kabbalah teaches us that all of Creation, from the lowest levels of physical reality to the highest spiritual beings, return to their Sourcethe Source of good, the higher purpose. The Talmud states that Shabbat is also a taste (in fact, exactly one-sixtieth) of the World to Come. But, essentially, in spiritual terms, there is no comparison to the significance of Shabbat, for her holiness is completely immeasurable.
What can be understood about the magnificence of this day, and its distinctive candle-lighting inauguration? What is the significance of the fact that it is the woman or women of the house that are chosen to perform this powerful and unique mitzvah?
On a Kabbalistic level, the Shabbat refers to the sefirah of malchut, the divine attribute of kingship, the receptacle of divine sustenance which flows from the higher sefirot into the physical or lower worlds. Malchut also becomes a place for the rectification of the universe, by reclaiming G-ds true glory and kingship in the world. A woman can relate to this concept, because of her inherent physical nature that receives first, and then forms and develops, the embryo. Also, the Shabbat is intrinsically female, as it receives as well, in contrast to the giving nature of the previous six days of the week. But what does this receiving or female nature mean on a divine level?
One way to understand the nature of Shabbat is to look back to the first week of Creation. The holy Ari, the master Kabbalist of Safed, taught that Creation began with the first tzimtzum, the initial contraction of G-dly light, to allow the creation of physicality or non-infinite existence. On the seventh day, He rested. G-d did not create. He did not retract His light. He simply allowed the flow of divine light to penetrate the universe.
The Shabbat was, and is, the day where the constricted nature of G-dly light converted into the emergence of divine flow. She, the Shabbat, in her purest form, is the ultimate receptacle for such a transformative occurrence. And, amazingly, this is a recurring state that takes place every week.Due to the receiving nature of the Shabbat and the biological receiving nature of women (as during conception), the Shabbat corresponds to the spiritual disposition of women in general. This is to say that Shabbat is the receiving female in relation to the six days of the week, which correspond to the giving male. This sheds light on one reason that it is she, the woman of the house, who initiates this remarkable event.
In addition, the Zohar reveals to us another important factor as to why the woman is chosen for the specific task of lighting the Shabbat candles. Eve, through her sin in the Garden of Eden, unwittingly expelled much of the divine light from this world (Zohar I:48b). It is therefore her duty to light the Shabbat candles, also as an attempt to restore what was lost.
One could see this as unjust, or perhaps an exaggerated response to the sin; but on a mystical level, the perspective differs. Although the act of sinning partially severs our relationship with our Creator, Kabbalah and Chassidut teach us that, in fact, it can give us the opportunity to achieve rectification for that sin, and thus reach an even higher level of closeness to G-d. We see here that although it may be true that the light of the world was lost on account of the actions of Eve (who can be seen as the spiritual root of all female souls in existence), it is also womankinds greatest honor to effect such a lofty rectification. As we know, the greater the sin, the more difficult the task of rectification likewise becomes; and yet, for that very reason, is all the more rewarding in the long run.
Also, our communion with the Creator at this very moment, when we lock our eyes on the tiny flames and open our hearts to pray, is as if we are standing face to face with our Creator. This is very deep. The blessing we recite begins, Blessed are You . . . who has sanctified us [in Hebrew, kideshanu] with His commandments . . . The word kideshanu literally means sanctified, but even deeper, it comes from the word kiddushin, related to marriage. We are literally binding ourselves to our Creator like a wife and her husband. Realize how precious this moment really is. The space between us and G-d is extremely intimate. Perhaps, with one true prayer, said with utmost joy, we can truly save the world.
The Shabbat is sanctified through both physicality and spirituality. We turn our hearts to pray with fervor and joy, and we indulge ourselves in fine foods and delicacies. But how can we really tap into the true spiritual significance of this awesome holy day? As Rabbi Shlomo Alkabetz wrote in the famous hymn Lecha Dodi, Sof maaseh bemachshavah techilahThe end deed emerges from the first thought. Our first thought is the meditative prayer (i.e., the purely spiritual element) that follows our lighting of the Shabbat candles; the degree to which our physical enjoyment during the rest of Shabbat is sanctified goes hand in hand with our spiritual concentration, especially at the commencement of the Day of Rest. May we truly merit to purify and elevate this lofty moment! Shabbat Shalom!
Talya Kramer, a former member of the ASCENT/KabbalaOnline.org staff, resides in Safed with her growing family. She teaches weekly classes in Kabbalah and Chassidut as well