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Why Two Shabbat Candles? #739

08/12/2022 05:58:18 PM


Rabbi Irwin Huberman

Parashat Va'etchanan: "Observe the Shabbat"

Why Two Shabbat Candles?


About 20 years ago, a rabbi conducted an informal survey to identify the question most asked by Jews of their rabbi.

Could it be, “What is the meaning of life?” or “Why were we born?” or “Where do we go after our earthly days are over?”

No. Not even close. According to the rabbi, The answer was: “Why do we light two Shabbat candles on Friday evening?”

In many ways, this points to the fact that so many Jews, today, were raised with the “whats” of Judaism but not always the “whys.”

Enquiring Jews want to know. So, why two? The answer is contained within this week’s Torah reading.

Last fall, as we read from the Book of Exodus about the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai, we were introduced to the 10 Commandments.

The Commandments are divided into two sets of five. The first five relate to humanity’s relationship with God, the second to how humans should interact with each other.

Now, as we read that the Israelites are preparing to enter the Promised Land after 40 years of walking through the desert, it is time to review the Commandments.

But wait, it appears that one of these Commandments has been changed.

The first set instructed us to “remember the Shabbat” but in this week’s Torah reading we are commanded to “observe the Shabbat.”

What’s the difference, and why should we care?

The answer takes us on a Jewish journey that began more than 3,000 years ago and carries us through to today.

Our tradition stresses that while it is important to remember who we are as Jews, it is more important to behave as Jews. That is, perhaps, how we have managed to survive over the centuries, in spite of racism, persecution and discrimination.

We are just as good as the next thing we do.

A book written in 2006 by Menachem Kellner posed this question in its title: “Must a Jew Believe in Anything?”

You can probably guess the answer. For while belief is an important part of any religion, God is more concerned about how we act.

On the second day of Rosh Hashanah, we perform the ritual of Tashlich, throwing pieces of bread into a flowing body of water. It is meant to symbolize the shedding of those bad habits that weigh us down. 

On Yom Kippur, we complement our introspection with a physical act, tapping our hearts, in hope that each of us can do better.  

We also read from the Book of Isaiah, which reminds us that God deems uplifting the needy to be more important than praying and fasting.

It is that “doing,” which brings God’s Commandments to life.

In this week’s Torah portion the Israelites are reminded not only to observe a full day of rest, but also to facilitate that opportunity for their servants, their working animals, and all others in their domain.

That “doing” was lacking in the first edition.

That gentle balance between thought and action, our rabbis posit, is why the Torah offers two slightly different Shabbat Commandments. And that is why we light two Shabbat candles on Friday evenings.

Our mystics further merge these ideas through the opening words of the storied Lecha Dodi Shabbat prayer, noting that God has enabled us to both “observe and remember” within one word: Shabbat.

These days, physical attendance at Shabbat services is in decline across many Jewish denominations, yet more people than ever identify proudly as being Jewish.

Some express their Judaism through volunteering, supporting charities, or performing other acts of kindness.

Some celebrate Shabbat by lighting candles, talking a walk, or checking emails and texts a lot less. We try to tamp down our consumerism and focus on spirituality. 

Indeed, there are many ways we can express our Judaism. But it begins with action, for there is light in the “doing.”

That is why, on Friday evenings, we are reminded to light a minimum of two candles. One inspires us to remember who we are, and the other reminds us to elevate our lives though action.

Our mystic rabbis teach that a spark of God exists within each of us. We call it our soul.

This week, we are reminded that sparks do not sit still. Yes, we can think, pray, and even remember, but it is more important - in God’s eyes - to act. 

Tradition reminds us that within our DNA, through our lineage, and thru our embracing of the principles of Judaism, there was a part of us which was present on that day, more than 3,000 years ago. And the connection continues.

It is why, perhaps, Isaiah - channeling God - wrote, “I the LORD, in My grace, have summoned you, And I have grasped you by the hand. I created you, and appointed you. A covenant people, a light of nations. (Isaiah 46:2)

It begins with one Shabbat, and two blended messages. In our own lives, let us always remember who we are, but never forget that life is a journey where we find meaning through our deeds.

We confirm that commandment by lighting two candles each week under one eternal hope for peace.

For while it is so important as Jews that we remember who we truly are, it is more important - in God’s eyes - to spread light into the world.

And we do so, one mitzvah, one commandment, one kind act at a time.

Shabbat shalom, v’kol tuv.
Rabbi Irwin Huberman


Please join us on Zoom,
Friday - 7:00 pm ET
for candle lighting, followed
by live Kabbalat Shabbat services:

Click link below to view or download
the abridged Friday Shabbat siddur:


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Sim Shalom Shabbat & Musaf Siddur:

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Tue, November 28 2023 15 Kislev 5784