The celebration of Shabbos is a cornerstone of Jewish faith, and it is thus only fitting that it be treated as an honored occasion. For this reason, our Sages ordained that candles be lit to brighten and lend an air of dignity to the festive meal which marks this special time. Moreover, the candles enhance the pleasure of the meal since a meal cannot be properly enjoyed in the dark.
On the passage (Lamentations 3:17) "And my soul despaired of having peace," the Talmud (Shabbos 25b) comments, "(Because it lacked) Shabbos candles." Rashi explains "...without light there can be no peace because [people] will constantly stumble and be compelled to eat in the dark."
But why do the Sages imply that only an absence of light on Shabbos mars the peace? In view of Rashi's explanation, it seems that an absence of light on any day would be equally disruptive.
To answer this, we must first define peace. The Hebrew word for peace, "Shalom," is derived from the word "shlamut," which means complete; totally integrated. In Shalom, people relate to each other the way cells and limbs of the human body relate to each other -- in absolute harmony.
Just as all the elements that compose the human organism are part of one totality, so, too, people in Shalom are perfectly united in the Source of All Being.
To experience the oneness of Shalom, man must first sublimate his material nature, because matter is exclusive; two physical beings cannot occupy the same place at the same time; one necessarily excludes the other.
The Torah's (Job 5:7) directive: "Man was created to toil," was given to Adam when he resided in the Garden of Eden, where all his material needs were obtained without labor. Hence, this passage obviously means that his sole occupation was to strive for an ever greater degree of unity with the One Source of All Being. (In other words, to toil in Torah. See Targum Yonasan - Genesis 2:15)
After his sin, his obligation to achieve Divine union became exceedingly more difficult because Adam was forced to provide his own physical sustenance. He was reduced and made to serve that part of his being which divorces him from the whole; he was compelled to toil and invest time in that segment of his nature which is selfish, which is limiting, which makes him arrogant and angry.
Unfortunately, for the six days that men are enjoined to work, they are still afflicted with this difficulty. Of course, there is a vast difference between the righteous, who are only minimally affected, and the wicked, who have become horribly deformed. Nevertheless, during the six days of toil for bread everyone is too fearful and too worried to integrate totally with others.
Perfect Shalom is attainable only to an individual freed of Adam's curse; to an individual liberated from the fear of want; to an individual whose body no longer craves fulfillment of every desire. He must be at rest; serene; tender and genial. In other words, he must return to the Garden of Eden.
Shabbos is this Garden of Eden. Therefore, not only all manner of creative physical work is prohibited on the Holy Day, but even the necessity for it must be obviated. As Rashi (Exodus 20:9) states: "When Shabbos comes you should view all your work as being finished, in order to free your mind of all physical concerns."
Tranquility is thus the first prerequisite of total Shalom. It casts off the anxiety, the conceit, and the greed that disrupts it.
However, total Shalom requires one additional condition -- light. The Talmud (ibid) only refers to light as Shalom because it stimulates the intellect to differentiate and to perceive the uniqueness of each and every being. To treasure these differences is the sign of Shalom.
"Shlamut," the unqualified affirmation of humility, requires diversity to the point of inequality. In Shalom, each individual comprehends the unique excellence that all others possess to the extent that he views everyone as greater than himself. This is possible because he comprehends the oneness that unites all Jews, therefore, their excellence is really his excellence.
In the Holy Tongue, darkness is called "erev" because it mixes ("orav") things together and destroys diversity. Darkness is the great equalizer -- it turns distinctiveness into nothingness.
On the other hand, light is known as "boker" because it gives rise to "beekur," the careful examination that discovers value everywhere. People in Shalom cannot possibly intrude upon each other because they clearly behold the Divine beauty of every being. Released from want, they are free to be themselves and free to esteem others.
In sum, to the extent that the individual liberates himself from the pursuit of selfish, egotistical, material needs (Shabbos rest) he acquires an open mind, broad enough and sharp enough to discern (by the light of the candles) the sublime qualities that distinguish each and every family member, guest, and even each object.
Anyone who has ever experienced the holiness of Shabbos can testify that the harmony present at the Shabbos table cannot be duplicated on a weekday. At other times light can minimize friction, on Shabbos it yields the Garden of Eden.
The intensity of union manifest in the Kiddush and the HaMotzee, when all assembled become one with the reciter, when the blessing on his lips become their lips, visibly accentuates the uniqueness of even the youngest child who must cooperate in silence for the Kiddush to proceed. And when it is over, he too must partake of the wine and challah together with all present.
Oneness gives rise to individuality. To comprehend this experience is to savor the indescribable rapture of Shabbos pleasure. To attain it, we light Shabbos candles!
Excerpted with permission from "THE RADIANCE OF SHABBOS." Published by ArtScroll/Mesorah Publications Ltd., Brooklyn, NY - artscroll.com