God said 'Let there be light!' And there was light" (Genesis 1:3).
Jewish tradition recounts remarkable qualities associated with this primeval light. A subtlety in the Hebrew text of the verse suggests that this light was not just distinguished from the darkness, but rather taken away altogether and reserved for a particular purpose. The Midrash recounts that it was made inaccessible to those who would be unworthy to benefit from it and reserved for the righteous in the World to Come.
What was this light? The Talmud gives a tantalising clue, saying that the light enabled Adam to see from one end of the universe to the other (Chagigah 12a).
Furthermore, the Midrash tells us that God blessed Shabbat, the Sabbath day, with the very light that He made at the start of creation (Beraishit Rabbah 11:2). Where is this light, and how can we access it every Shabbat when it is only meant to be given to the righteous in the World to Come?
Let me take the second question first.
Shabbat is a day in the garden of Eden where all is well
The Talmud says that Shabbat gives us a taste of the World to Come (Berachot 57b), so it is quite possible that we access the divine light on Shabbat, since Shabbat transports us to the next world, the new life that we attain after death.
How does Shabbat give us a taste of the world to come? When we leave this world, our work and
responsibilities in this world cease and we move to the next world to behold the splendour of the divine
We are released from the task of life itself, when we were obliged to engage with physical things and with civilisation in order to use them in a good way and thereby to hallow them for God. So too on Shabbat, we refrain from melachah, a term covering a whole range of activities which express our engagement with the physical world, such as writing, lighting a flame, cooking and grinding.
There is a second aspect to the otherworldly nature of Shabbat. A passage in Isaiah teaches us that we do not talk about business or things that are upsetting on Shabbat (58:13 – 14); it is a day in the Garden of Eden, where all is well.
We feel somewhat released from this world and more able to focus on sacred things: Torah study, more detailed and profound prayer services, reflection on spiritual challenges and achievements.
In this higher state, things of this world become less important. Viewed from heaven, earth seems very small. The constant plucking at our consciousness by hashtags, trending stories, day-to-day worries and the demands of routine feels less urgent. Familiar objects are perceived as transient opportunities to do good rather than as immutable facts on the ground which shape us and what we do. Shabbat offers us a higher perspective on life itself.
With this idea in mind, we can finally grasp why Shabbat has a special light and how we can acquire it for ourselves.
The Slonimer Rebbe (Rabbi Shalom Noach Berezovsky, 1911–2000) writes that the idea of using the special light to see across the universe implies that material things become less important to us (Netivot Shalom, Shabbat 7); nothing impedes our view and distance itself is no object.
With the light of the start of creation, we are in a world of thought and the spirit, above and beyond the seemingly inexorable limitations of time and space. We recall that the cosmos itself is just a tiny detail for God and that the human soul is of supreme importance to Him. When we attain this consciousness, we are seeing existence itself by a divine light.
It is no coincidence that we greet Shabbat with light. In every faithful Jewish home, we light candles to usher in this wondrous day. They are lit shortly before sunset with a special prayer of thanks for the unique enlightenment to which they allude and which they bring into our lives for the day that is about to begin: We thank You, Lord our God, King of the universe, who has made us holy with His commandments and commanded us to light the Shabbat candles.
In fact, Bnai Yisaschar (Rabbi Tzvi Elimelech of Dinov, 1783–1841) says explicitly when we light Shabbat candles, we bring a bit of the special light from the first day of creation into our homes (Ma'amrei Hashabbatot 6:21). By fulfilling this commandment, we sweep away every impediment and close every unbridgeable gap. We rise up to our Creator and He blesses us with His radiance. Our eyes are opened and the view is breathtaking.