This custom is a means of overcoming a Halachic dilemma. Women light Shabbat candles prior to the onset of Shabbat on Friday.The general rule is that once a woman recites the blessing of “L’hadlik ner shel Shabbat-(to kindle the light [candle] of Shabbat.) she automatically assumes all the positive as well as the restrictions of Shabbat. Accordingly, at that moment she is no longer able to hold a candle or to light her Shabbat candlelabra . To simply light the Shabbat candles first and then to recite the blessing would violate the general rule that blessings precede the performance of a Mitzvah( a Biblical or Rabbinic mandated action) To offset this problem the custom developed to first light the Shabbat candles. The women then close their eyes and only open them upon the conclusion of the blessing. Thus the women do not violate the Shabbat by actually lighting the Shabbat lights after the blessing. By opening their eyes after the blessing they are symbolically manifesting that they are enjoying the light only after the blessing as is the general custom of blessings.
Of interest is that on Yom Tov (Holiday)one is permitted to cook as well as to light candles. Accordingly, it should be permitted for women to recite the blessing and then to actually light the Yom Tov candles. Two customs prevail. 1. Women light candles as they do for Shabbat. The rationale is that distinctions between Shabbat and Yom Tov may confuse women.2. A minority position is to recite the blessing and then to light the candles for such a practice is permitted by Jewish law. Also, some women contend that they are able to comprehend distinctions and need not customs that do not make sense.-
I’m going to assume that you have asked why anyone who lights Shabbat candles covers their eyes. Perhaps you asked why women cover their eyes because you have only observed women – and not men -- lighting Shabbat candles. True, Shabbat candles are generally lit by Jewish women. But in fact, according to Jewish law, Jewish men as well as Jewish women are obligated to light candles shortly before sunset on Friday evening. The reason you may be used to seeing only Jewish women do this is that men generally don’t light their own candles unless they are living alone. If they are married, it is generally understood to be the wife’s privilege to light on behalf of the household. However, in households in which men as well as women live, men may – and sometimes do – light candles on behalf of the household.
The traditional explanation given for why, regardless of our gender, we cover our eyes when lighting Shabbat candles is a bit complicated. Here goes:
Generally, when we are about to perform a Jewish religious obligation (a mitzvah), we first say a brachah (blessing), and then immediately perform the act. For example, when we say Kiddush on Friday evenings, we first say the blessings over the wine and the holiness of Shabbat, and then we immediately drink the wine. But on Friday nights, we cannot light the candles immediately after saying the blessing over the lighting of the candles. The reason is that as soon as we say the blessing, we trigger the onset of Shabbat for ourselves. And once it is Shabbat, the traditional prohibitions come into force, including the one against kindling a flame! So we have to light the candles first. But reciting the blessing should, by rights, be followed immediately by some act that relates to it. What better act than opening the eyes and gazing at the candles? Hence, (1) we first light the candles and (2) put away the matches (because we shouldn’t touch them once Shabbat has begun). Then (3) we cover our eyes and (4) say the blessing. That way, when (5) we open our eyes, the first thing that we see is the candles. It is as if they “come into being” immediately after saying the blessing.
That’s the halachic (Jewish legal) explanation. Let me add another one: closing one’s eyes and quietly pausing is a wonderful way to create a sacred meditative moment between the end of the work week and the beginning of the Sabbath.
Now you understand why Jewish women – and men – cover their eyes when lighting Shabbat candles.
The rabbis of the Talmud teach that one is to say 100 blessings a day. That means 100 times a day we are to stop, take a breath and notice that divinity is present at every moment. Traditionally some of those blessings are imbedded in the daily prayer services. Others of the blessings are for moments of gratitude, before we eat, for example, or when we use the bathroom and recognize how lucky we are that are bodies are working. Still others of the blessings connect us to commandments, those actions in the world our tradition teaches God expects of us. We say:”Baruch Ata Adonai, Eloheynu melech ha-olam, asher kidshanu b’mitzvotv vtzivanu …fill in the blanks.” The root of mitzvot means “commandment”, and some would argue that it might also mean ‘connection.’ So I choose to translate the familiar blessing form in this way: “Holy One of blessing, whose presence fills creation, you make us holy through connections, and connect us to each other and to you through….fill in the blanks.” And then we do the action we just named…. affix a mezuzah, wrap ourselves in tzizzit as we put on a tallit, light a candle of Hanukah.
But there are two times when saying the blessing before doing the action presents a problem. One is the blessing for immersion in a mikvah in the case of a conversion. You don’t say a Jewish blessing unless you are Jewish. And you are not Jewish until after the immersion. So you immerse first, through that immersion become Jewish, and then, as a fully Jewish person, say the blessing. The other is the blessing over the Shabbat candles. One lights candles to inaugurate Shabbat. As soon as you say the blessing it is already Shabbat. If you were to light the candles after the blessing, after Shabbat has officially begun, then you would be violating the prohibition against kindling fire. So you light the candles, close your eyes, say the blessing and then open your eyes and behold: the lights of Shabbat. The custom of moving your hands in a circular motion three times is a tradition that suggests bringing the warmth and the light of Shabbat towards you. For so many women it evokes images of mothers and grandmothers, and it is almost possible to feel their loving hands on our own eyes.
For Reform Jews who use electricity on Shabbat, the prohibition against lighting fire is not observed, but this powerful custom continues even though it is no longer connected to the prohibition of lighting fire on Shabbat.
Rabbi Laura Geller, Senior Rabbi, Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills
Copyright 2014 all rights reserved. Jewish Values Online
N O T I C E
THE VIEWS EXPRESSED IN ANSWERS PROVIDED HEREIN ARE THOSE OF THE INDIVIDUAL JVO PANEL MEMBERS, AND DO NOT
NECESSARILY REFLECT OR REPRESENT THE VIEWS OF THE ORTHODOX, CONSERVATIVE OR REFORM MOVEMENTS, RESPECTIVELY.