Shabbat Thought & Opinining
The Shabbat Candle-Lighting Blessing, and Calling On the Ancestors for Connection and Wisdom

The Shabbat Candle-Lighting Blessing, and Calling On the Ancestors for Connection and Wisdom

Shabbat Is About Pausing For Connection With Your Loved Ones and With Your Judaism. So What If You Can’t Connect?

So begins the candle-lighting on Shabbat, one of my favorite and most simple Jewish rituals:

בָּרוּך אַתָּה ה׳ אֱלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶך הָעוֹלָם אַשֶׁר קִדְשָׁנוּ בְּמִצְוֹתָיו וְצִוָנוּ לְהַדְלִיק נֵר שֶל שַבָּת

Baruch ata Adonai, Eloheinu Melech ha-olam, asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav vitzivanu l’hadlik ner shel Shabbat.

Blessed are You, The Almighty / G*d, Ruler of the universe, who sanctified us with the commandment of lighting Shabbat candles.

For much of my scant time with my Jewishness I’ve been alone, and Jewish is something you DO, not just be. You can’t be Jewish alone.

To be Jewish is to be in community, and Judaism is a history ripe with ritual; numerous rituals require a minyan—10 or more Jews—though luckily, the candle-lighting isn’t one of them.

Honestly, I feel strange lighting them alone; I feel disconnected, especially during COVID times, and I frequently wish I were in a Jewish family or home. I have been in one here and there, but don’t yet have the blessing of the Jewish culture permanently built into my day-to-day life.

Shabbat Shalom - Candles in the dark over a piano keyboard
Shabbat Shalom – Candles in the dark over a piano keyboard

A Trick For Connection

Like all Jewish prayer, the blessing for the Shabbat candle lighting is meant to be done while feeling it. The Rabbis teach: You should be mindful and say the words with feeling, rather than just mindlessly recite them (though reciting them is better than doing nothing at all).

One thing I do, inspired by my Yom Kippur practice, is to envision others lighting the candles with me—even if I am alone.

I picture all the families and Rabbis and men and women and children around me in California doing the same around the same time; I picture those who lit the candles in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv earlier in the evening, and what their conversations and attire may be like as they buzz around the room, Hebrew swirling in the air.

And I think of the Jews of Spain, Mexico, Egypt, Germany, India, Brazil, China, Ghana, and Jews in Toronto and New Jersey and Rome, those who lit the way before me, an unbroken chain of Judaism and the Jewish people across several thousand years, even as we were expelled from or exterminated in so many of the places on this list.

In Brazil, Freddy Glatt performs the Hadlakat Nerot, the Jewish ritual of lighting candles at dusk., by UNIC Rio (United Nations News)
Still from Doing Jewish, a documentary on the Jews of Ghana. Gabrielle Zilkha, 2016, Canada, 85 minutes

What did they see? What did they experience? Could they have fathomed our experience as Jews in the diaspora, and of those who returned?

It’s nearly impossible for me to recite or embody any Jewish prayer without thinking of the Shema. This isn’t religious; it’s anchored in the ancestors. The Shema, the biggest Jewish prayer, isn’t a prayer at all:

שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ יְהוָה אֶחָֽד

Hear O’ Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One

She-ma yisrael, adonai eloheinu, adonai echad

The Shema

Missing is the “Baruch atah Adonai” from every other prayer addressing the Divine, the Unknown, the Infinite; the Shema addresses Israel—the children and tribe of Israel—themselves.

I picture this and carry it with me as I light the candles and recite the first prayer above, and picture all those who came before me and will come after, a blessing I practiced while in the mikveh upon my conversion to Judaism.

This is the biggest component of Judaism to me. The most important thing is that Israel is One as the Divine is One; you can not separate us—and all peoples—from the divine. And if I remember that, I feel a little less alone.