How many Shabbat candles should one light? Should we add candles for additional household members? What happens in case of divorce?
Rabbanit Surale Rosen
She'elaBefore I was married I used to light two candles for Shabbat (a custom I passed on to my daughter). When I got married, I started lighting four candles, in honor of my husband and his two children from a previous marriage. When we had two of our own children, I added two more candles, lighting six altogether.
I am now divorced, and was wondering whether I should be lighting five candles to note the absence of my ex-husband. His children are an inherent part of my current family, and I would like to continue lighting for them.
I know the number of candles only reflects a custom, but this has been my own custom since I have been married.
The answer to your question includes two different components:
- The reason for lighting two candles on Shabbat
- Adding candles as a reflection of household members
Lighting Two Candles in Honor of Shabbat
Your question is based on the assumption that the reason for lighting two candles is symbolic of the man and woman.
According to the Gemara, the requirement is to light only one candle for Shabbat: “[Rava said]: I say kindling a Shabbat candle is an obligation” (Shabbat 25b); this is also reflected in R. Huna’s statement (Shabbat 23b): “one who is meticulous about lighting a [Shabbat] candle will have sons who are Torah scholars.”
The Rambam ruled (The Laws of Shabbat 5:1):
Both men and women are obligated to have a lamp lit in their homes on the Shabbat. Even if a person has no food to eat, he should beg from door to door and purchase oil to kindle a lamp, for this is included in [the mitzvah of] delighting in Shabbat.
The Magen Avraham (n. 9) notes that since the reason for lighting a lamp on Shabbat is for shalom bayit – creating a peaceful atmosphere in the home – one who lacks the funds to purchase extra candles in addition to wine for kiddush or Hanukkah candles need not light more than one candle, as per the basic obligation.
However, in addition to the basic obligation, the Gemara cites the custom to add more candles or lamps in honor of Shabbat (Shabbat 23b):
Rav Huna was accustomed to pass by and teach at the entrance of the house of Rabbi Avin the carpenter. He saw that R. Avin was accustomed to kindle many lights [in honor of Shabbat] […] Rav Hisda was accustomed to pass by and teach at the entrance of Rav Sheizvi’s father’s home. He saw that Rav Sheizvi’s father was accustomed to kindle many lights [in honor of Shabbat].
The custom of lighting two Shabbat candles is quite early; as indicated in the midrashic text, the mitzvot of Shabbat tend to be doubled (Midrash Tehillim 92):
All matters of Shabbat are doubled; the bread is doubled, two omer for one person; the offering is doubled, as it is written, “on Shabbat two sheep”; the punishment for desecration is doubled, as it is written, “those who desecrate it shall surely be killed”; the reward [for keeping Shabbat] is doubled, as it is written, “[…] if you call the Sabbath a delight – and the Lord’s holy day honorable.”
Based on this idea, the Kolbo (24:17a) on the Beit Yosef (Orah Haim 263) rules: “I have found that everything on Shabbat is doubled: two sheep, [the additional verse in Psalms] “A song for the day of Shabbat,” a second loaf of bread, zachor and shamor; therefore, the custom is to light two candles [in honor of Shabbat].”
The Tur (Orah Haim, Shabbat 263) emphasizes the importance of lighting candles on Shabbat: “one should be meticulous about lighting a candle properly, as R. Huna said, one who is careful about lighting a Shabbat candle will merit sons who are Torah scholars, and some light two candles in commemoration of zachor and shamor.”
The Shulhan Arukh ruled accordingly (Orah Haim, Shabbat 263:1): “One should be meticulous about lighting a candle properly, and some light two wicks, one for zachor and one for shamor.”
Some Rishonim and other poskim (e.g. Raaviya, Shabbat 199; Ateret Zvi, Orah Haim 263:2; Mishnah Berurah), also site zachor and shamor as the reason for lighting two candles.
The idea of the two Shabbat candles as a reflection of the couple is brought in Eliya Rabbah (263): “This is the reason two intertwined lamps are lit in the synagogue, since zachor and shamor were uttered simultaneously. And some say the two candles represent the man and woman, and that the word נר is the numeral equivalence of the limbs of the man and the woman, since a woman has four limbs more than the man’s 248 limbs.”
In conclusion: The primary reason cited for lighting two candles is a reflection of zachor and shamor, and not as a symbol of a man and woman. The basic halakhic obligation requires only one candle, but lighting two is an ancient and fundamental custom, “a true custom inherited from the early great scholars” (Ateret Zvi, Orah Haim 263:2). This custom does not rely on the personal status of the man or woman lighting candles – just as you attested to lighting two candles before marriage. Therefore, regardless of your marital status, you should not reduce the number of candles you light to less than two.
Adding Candles as a Reflection of Household Members
According to the basic halakhah, is one candle sufficient even if the light it produces is insufficient to light the house? The purpose of having a lit house is to take pleasure in the Shabbat meal and avoid the unpleasant experience of dining in the dark (Tosfot, Shabbat 25b), and to add joy and pleasure through light (Resp. Maharil 53), or to prevent household members from stumbling on furniture in the dark (Mordechai, Shabbat; perek ba-me madlikin, 294); according to these explanations, one candle is not sufficient, and the requirement should be a lamp in each room. Since a candle cannot be carried around on Shabbat, how would other rooms be lit? For this reason, the Gemara (Shabbat 23b) describes Rabbis who lit several candles in their homes.
The Maharil (ibid.) explains: “anything done to add light falls within the category of shalom bayit and added joy to be delighted in all angles of the house […] and Maharam wrote that all candles added are a performance of the obligation of the day, since adding light is adding delight.” According to Maharil, lamps should be lit throughout the house.
The Levush (Orah Haim 263:1) writes: “one should be meticulous about lighting a Shabbat candle properly, delighting in Shabbat includes filling the house with light, and this is the definition of shalom bayit […] and some light two wicks for shamor and zachor – at the very least, but if one wishes to add three or four in honor of Shabbat – this is commendable.”
The Magen Avraham (263:1) emphasizes that there should be light “in all the rooms one uses […] and they should be two intertwined candles in honor of zachor and shamor which were uttered simultaneously […] and it is a mitzvah to add light.”
According to these sources, the optimal performance of this mitzvah is through lighting in rooms used throughout the house – and this is the reason to add more candles.
Conversely, the custom to light a number of candles reflecting the number of one’s children has no known source. The Raaviya (Vol. I – Shabbat 199) compares Shabbat and Hanukkah candles, perhaps hinting to this idea: “A lodger should pay for his part in Shabbat candles, similar to Hanukkah candles – if no one else is lighting for him at home, and if his place of lodging is offered for free. If two families live in the same house, they should each light separately, as per the optimal (mehadrin) performance of the mitzvah of Hanukkah candles; all the more so for people who are not part of the family.”
While the Raaviya states that the number of lodgers should be considered while lighting candles, he does not indicate that the number of children should be reflected in the number of candles – but the comparison to mehadrin in Hanukkah candles indicates a similar idea.
A first direct testament to the custom to light candles reflecting the number of one’s children appears in Likkutei Maharih (Seder Hitnahagut Erev Shabbat): “It is the custom of the women, when they have a daughter or son, to add one candle. This may be derived from Shabbat 23b, where the text states that in merit of lighting Shabbat candles one will have sons and sons-in-law who are Torah scholars; therefore every time they have a son or daughter they add candles …”
Mishneh Halakhot (Vol. VII:35) derives the custom from an old version of the Maharil’s book on Shabbat customs. He writes “Why should a birthing mother add a candle for each child? This is according to the Rambam’s approach regarding Hanukkah candles, according to which the head of the household lights the number of candles reflecting the number of household members; similarly, on Shabbat, a woman should light a candle for each member of the household.”
In conclusion, the Gemara and Rishonim indicate that it is appropriate to add light to the house in honor of Shabbat. The custom of lighting a number of candles reflecting the number of children in the family may emerge from the Raaviya’s comparison of Shabbat and Hanukkah candles. A similar idea is reflected in the Mishneh Halakhot’s citation of the Rambam, according to which the number of Hanukkah candles reflects the number of household members.
The concept of lighting for each family member can be derived from the Gemara’s statement that one who is careful about lighting Shabbat candles will merit sons who are scholars.
Since you added candles based on the number of household members at various stages in your life, it is appropriate to continue this custom, which is reflected in the Gemara and poskim. In fact, what emerges most powerfully from these sources is that one should try and add as many candles as possible – even today, when we have electricity and have no need for their light.
If for personal reasons you decide to reduce the number of candles you light from six to two or more you should find out whether the custom you kept for so many years requires hatarat nedarim – an annulment of vows.
May light and joy always fill your home!