There is no commandment in the Torah to light candles just before the Sabbath, and yet it is one of the most universal and beloved of our Jewish traditions. On a practical level, the candles enhance the joy and honor of the Sabbath by providing light and beauty.
However, our endearment to this custom may stem from the profound spiritual meaning found in the light they shine. The Sabbath Table explains the deep significance of the Sabbath lights:
The home is like a miniature sanctuary, and this is even more so the case on the Sabbath. Our table is like an altar, and our festive meals are like the sacred offerings. The loaves of challah stand in for the Bread of the Presence, and the overflowing cup of wine carries the aroma of the drink offerings. We place the priestly blessing on our children, and our sweet songs echo the psalms of the Levites. Even our special linens reflect the Tabernacle’s sacred adornments. Along these lines, the glow of the candles evokes the memory of the golden menorah that illuminated the Holy Place.
The Sabbath itself is a memorial of creation (Exodus 20:11). From this perspective, the candles remind us of the primordial light created on the first day. The Midrash explains that at sunset on the eve of the first Sabbath, God granted honor to the Sabbath by allowing the light to remain through the night. Light in the midst of the night thus represents the condition of the world before the fall of man, and likewise it illustrates the messianic future when “there will be no more night; there will be no need for the light of a lamp or the light of the sun” (Revelation 22:5). Similarly, the Gemara compares the Sabbath candles to the pillar of fire that guided the Israelites by night.
Just as darkness and night represent exile, light symbolizes redemption and the revelation of God’s glory. And as the Torah itself reveals God’s glory, it too is light. “A mitzvah is a lamp and the Torah is light” (Proverbs 6:23). Likewise, the Messiah who embodies the Torah and is saturated with the Divine Presence is also light. “In him was life, and the life was the light of mankind. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness could not grasp it” (John 1:4-5). His followers, who carry the revelation of God and his kingdom in the midst of darkness and exile, are called the light of the world (Matthew 5:14).
The Sabbath is called a foretaste of the world to come (me’ein olam haba). In the future, every knee will bow to HaShem, and all will acknowledge his kingship. Those of us who submit to his rule even now are like those who light the Sabbath candles before the sunset, willingly taking on the obligations of the Sabbath rather than passively letting them be imposed on us as the sun sets.
Lighting Sabbath candles is an important ritual for Messianic Jews. Doing so marks the day off with beauty and holiness, and it connects our families with generations of Jewish communities across the world. In the light of the Sabbath candles, we catch a glimpse of the primordial light—the light of redemption that shone in the face of Yeshua the Messiah.