I Never Lit Shabbat Candles Until I Moved Into my Grandma’s House. Now It’s My Most Grounding Ritual

published May 28, 2021
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Sabbath candles lit on Friday evening before sunset to usher in the Jewish Sabbath.
Credit: Getty Images | Rafael Ben-Ari

I never realized how many candle holders my grandma kept until my mom and I started going through her stuff after her death. My mom told me then that my grandma used to light candles all the time, but it had been years since arthritis made that possible. Some I recognized from their prominent placement on shelves, others had been hidden in closets and cabinets. They all retained their given places that day; we were only looking to get rid of the things we didn’t need: old paperwork, expired cans, medical equipment.

I started living in the co-op she and my grandpa had shared a couple months after she passed last November. I still consider the apartment to be their home, with a few of my things scattered throughout the comfortably familiar space they created. One Friday afternoon, I was preparing to organize my grandma’s many candle options on top of the fireplace mantle, like Gloria Vanderbilt once did on hers. Aligning with the style of her generation, and whether intentional or not (my honest guess is not), my grandma’s style overlapped plenty with the socialite and designer: Her home features ornate brassy lamps, colorful plush chairs, detailed vintage furniture, textured patterned fabrics,. But that day, the candle holders spoke to me in a different way.

Maybe it was my grandpa’s wood-mounted bar mitzvah invitation on display, or the top-shelf menorah staring down at me, or any of the various pieces of Jewish art hanging around the home, or maybe I just wanted an excuse to use a set of candle holders — but I was suddenly very aware that Shabbat was hours away, and I needed to light the candles.

Never before in my life had I felt compelled to celebrate Shabbat, a weekly day of rest in the Jewish faith, commemorating the day of rest God took on the seventh day of creation. Work is prohibited on Shabbat, and practically anything that isn’t straight-up lounging qualifies as “work,” including driving, flipping a light switch, watering plants, and writing. In short, many of the hallmarks of my everyday life would be off-limits.

As a result — and much like my overall childhood recollection of Judaism — celebrating Shabbat never felt practical. Growing up, going to synagogue meant hours of wearing tights and listening to prayers in a language I didn’t speak a word of, where Kosher laws dictated the snacks we could eat and the sinks we could use. There were no Easter eggs hunts nor Santa Claus to write to, and while it seemed like my school friends had fun on their holidays, my holidays were marked by excused absences spent counting the number of prayers we had left before Rosh Hashanah services were over — and then coming back and doing it again the next day. (I should note that my family’s observance was always more cultural than religious, only following the vast majority of the rules when we were in the temple, but showing up to respect them nonetheless.)

As an adult, showing up was not as easy — it can be surprisingly difficult to find a synagogue that feels like a cultural and financial fit in any new city, much less Los Angeles. Instead, my friends and I turned our homes into our central spaces of faith by gathering for holidays, pulling out nice tablecloths for briskets, piling onions and capers on our lox, and doing our best to locate all of the components of a Passover seder plate, while laughing off the Jews for Jesus seder booklets we’d accidentally acquired and forever recounting the year the matzo ball soup was burnt and had too much dill. As my desire to connect with a congregation waned, I increasingly realized what matters to my Judaism is that the heart of the traditions remain.

Perhaps that’s how I ended up spending that Friday afternoon scouring two different stores for Shabbat candles, going home empty-handed, and resolving to use a two-wicked candle I already had instead. The point was not to follow all the rules. The point was to honor tradition.

So that night, I lit the wicks, wafted the heat toward my face, covered my eyes, and said the blessing. Even divorced from all of the other mechanisms of observance, the intentionality of my weekly ritual shone: Take a breath, observe the dual flames, and relax. It’s time to rest.

The following week, I bought a 50-pack of tea lights, which cutely drop into my grandma’s heavy glass star-shaped candle holders. With each passing week, my attachment to the ritual grows stronger. Here are three ways celebrating Shabbat has helped me shift my home from a workplace to my own little weekend sanctuary.

It marks a definitive end to the work week.

With life centralizing in the home during the past year, it’s been a challenge to set clear boundaries between work and non-work time. Lighting the Shabbat candles — to be done every Friday, exactly 18 minutes before sundown — has given me an excuse to close out my week on a defined schedule. The act of lighting the candles is meant to be the final bit of “work” before officially welcoming Shabbat, which means shutting my laptop and moving it out of sight is the first part of my ritual.

For the rest of the night, I only do things that encourage relaxation. Sometimes that means lounging on the couch and watching “Moonlight,” other times it means cleaning the bathrooms and doing laundry. I don’t adhere to the strictest definition of work, but doing nice things for myself and my home feels right for me.

It’s a moment of presence.

After the candles are lit, the tradition is to wave your hands over the flames a few times, feeling the heat and wafting it toward you, before covering your eyes and saying a blessing. Moving between three of the five senses incites a presence of mind that makes the ritual a particularly grounding experience. And as a non-Hebrew speaker, the short prayer marking the beginning of Shabbat feels meditative: I know the words have a meaning, but because it’s not immediately available in my psyche, I can prescribe whatever meaning I need in the moment.

It serves as a moment of reflection.

The final step is to open your eyes and observe the flames, as if seeing them dance for the first time. Per tradition, Jews light two candles every Friday night. The explanation varies slightly depending on your interpretation, but all explanations involve the idea of duality. In a religious sense, they can mean to remember and to keep, creation and revelation, or to honor positive and negative commandments. Over time, the two candles came to loosely represent all forms of duality: husband and wife, body and soul, yin and yang. If it suits you, you can add more candles — many families will light an additional candle for each child — but once you do, you should continue to light that number of candles each week.

For me, two has been the perfect number. It’s my weekly reminder that, no matter what I’m feeling in that moment, the opposite also exists. Some weeks it’s uplifting, other weeks it’s humbling; I am enough, and I am growing.

Our homes have become the stand-in for many places over the past year. It’s our office, our school, our gym, our studio, our restaurant, our bar. But taking a few moments every Friday, exactly 18 minutes before sunset, to call upon a ritual repeated for generations and customized for me, has offered me the space to see all of those places in my home, and to find the sanctuary within them. In the light of the dual flames, regardless of what anything seems to be, its opposite is never too far away.