Dear Tanta Golda,
My friend was given the honor of lighting the candles at Temple recently and we began to wonder about some of the customs about lighting the candles, like covering the eyes, the swooping motion with the hands. And, while we’re at it, why DO we cover the challah?
Sheepishly Ignorant About Shabbat
My darling Lamb, you ask wonderful questions!
I’d like to begin by differentiating between what we are required to do and what have become ‘traditions’.
On Shabbat, one is commanded “to kindle the light of Shabbat”, and to “remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy” (sanctify it). That’s it. (Well, not counting the 39 labors prohibited on Shabbat.) Everything else we do is tradition - even if you don’t live in a village with a fiddler.
Let’s begin with the lighting of the candle(s), since this is how we bring in Shabbat. Did you notice above I quoted “ light of Shabbat”, as in a single lamp or candle? However, it is a widespread custom to light at least two since the the commandment to observe Shabbat comes up twice in the Torah. There is nothing that says one can’t light more than this, and some families have the tradition of lighting a candle for each woman in the family.
The blessing over the candles signals the beginning of Shabbat. Now my darling, all of Tanta Golda’s sources stipulate that we always recite blessings just before we do an act. However, the laws of Shabbat prohibit us from kindling fire on Shabbat, so how can one follow both? By being just a wee bit sneaky. One closes their eyes and or places their hands between their eyes and the candles to ‘hide’ the light until the blessing has been completed. Then, once the hands are removed - viola! Shabbat has begun.
As you’ve noted, some women have the tradition of swooping their hands to their eyes three times before reciting the blessing. This is done to bring the light and holiness of Shabbat to you. This would seem contrary to the admonition of seeing the lights before the blessing is said, but even my Modern Orthodox friends at Aish.com say it’s okay. Again, this is a custom, and not required if it makes you feel self-conscious.
While we’re on the subject of covering things while performing Shabbat mitzvot, let’s discuss why we cover the challah. You might think it’s just to keep off the flies, or dust, but you’d be wrong (though, who wants to eat challah covered with fly-prints?) The actual reason has to do with protecting the dignity of the challah. Believe it or not, there is actually a hierarchy for eating foods. Bread, is highest on the list - the staff of life, so logically one should say the blessing over the bread first. Have you ever seen this? No, of course not! This is because we are commanded to sanctify Shabbat, and we do this by first saying the kiddush (which means ‘holy’ or ‘sanctification’) over the wine. We cover the challah so it won’t be shamed at playing second fiddle to the wine, a lesser food. The sages said that if we go to such lengths to pay respect to inanimate objects, we are lead to see the importance of showing respect living beings.
May this Shabbat, and all that follow be filled with holiness and joy - TG