At Mindel and Sara Yaffe’s third birthday party, they didn’t blow out any candles. Instead, they lit Shabbat candles of their own and had fifty-five grown women follow suit.
As the apple-cheeked twins stood, one beaming, one bashful, at the center of attention on June 10, they became the latest children of Chabad representatives to share in what is fast becoming a new trend: third birthday parties for girls that celebrate the spiritual milestone of lighting a Shabbat candle of one’s own.
The festivities at Rabbi Yossi and Rochel Baila Yaffe’s Chabad of the Shoreline synagogue in Branford, CT, were arranged to have a multi-fold impact. It welcomed community members into the Yaffe’s family circle, encouraged all those in attendance to light their own Shabbat candles, and put Mindel and Sara in the limelight – a special treat for the girls who are part of a large family.
Shabbat candle parties were ignited by the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of blessed memory, who began a campaign in the early 1970s to have all girls over three and women light candles on Friday night to usher in the Jewish Sabbath.
Jewish tradition designates age three as the proper time to begin educating children about the commandments. The Lubavitcher Rebbe “suggested that girls start lighting Shabbat candles as soon as they can recite the blessing said before kindling the candles, which is usually around the third birthday. This is also the age when our Matriarch Rebecca began lighting candles after she married Isaac,” explained Shaina B. Lipskier of askmoses.com, an interactive Jewish information website. “While some may say that starting at this young age is not necessary, and others will argue that a women should start lighting when she marries and starts her own home, nevertheless, an extra light never hurt anyone… The earlier a girl is taught the beauty of the light of Torah and mitzvot, the better off she will be.”
When Sheva Lipsker turned three, her mother Layah Lipsker, a Chabad representative in Swampscott, MA, planned an elaborate ceremony for the lifecycle event. Sheva’s great-grandmother, grandmother, aunt and mother passed a candle from one to another and recited a poem that spoke of the Shabbat candle’s meaning and history. At the end, Sheva was helped as she lit a candle of her own in a candlestick presented to her by her great-grandmother.
“The Rebbe pioneered the concept that every person has the ability to bring the light of their soul into the world,” said Lipsker. “When a child is three we start to instill in them the understanding of the strength of their own soul and to tell them they have a light within them to share with the world.”
First light Friday night parties, with their whiff of feminist flair, are not revolutionary, Lipsker said, but simply regular birthday parties angled to the spiritual side. “Having women together lighting Shabbat candles is not ground breaking. The only difference is we sent out invitations,” said Lipsker.
Nor are the just for girls celebrations a reaction to the traditional Chassidic custom of upshernish, celebrating a boy’s first haircutting at age three, said Yaffe. “There are plenty of opportunities to make every child shine,” said Yaffe. “It is not tit for tat with the upshernish, but three is the age when a parent’s obligation to teach children about Judaism begins for boys and girls.”
Party goers, intrigued by the unusual event, tend to show up in high numbers. “People might not relate to or know about a Jewish holiday, but everyone understands a birthday,” said Yaffe. “It’s another way for us to share our personal simcha celebrations with our community and to demonstrate how every milestone can be integrated into Jewish life.”
At the event, Lipsker drew upon the deeper message of the Shabbat lights to encourage her guests to adopt the practice of lighting with their children and grandchildren. “We light candles before Shabbat so no one stumbles in the home,” said Lipsker. “The Rebbe taught that this has a spiritual component. A woman has the insight to ‘light’ her home and protect people within it from stumbling in darkness, in the absence of spirituality.”
The celebration gave Yaffe and Lipsker a chance to teach members to some heartwarming Shabbat candle kindling customs. While two candles are the accepted minimum, both women light a candle for each of their children. “It’s a beautiful idea to introduce to the community,” said Yaffe. “I stressed how we see Jewish continuity in action. It’s not ‘my mother keeps Shabbos.’ It’s ‘we are keeping Shabbos together.’”
Given a toddler’s unpredictable reaction to crowds, the candle lighting ceremony’s private nature is a plus. “Sheva was not expected to perform,” said Lipsker. “She made a bracha [blessing] and covered her eyes. Lighting is a personal moment between a woman and G-d. It’s not performance based.”
But the impact of the party was not felt by the guests alone. As any friend of Chabad knows, children of Chabad representatives are community leaders, too. “I didn’t stress it too much, but my girls know that we are all in this together,” said Yaffe. “We all have to light up the world.”