Q: Rabbi, I’ve always wondered why, when we light Shabbat or Jewish holiday candles, we cover our eyes while we’re reciting the blessing. Is that just like covering our eyes when we recite the Shema during the morning and evening service every day?
A: Great question. We actually cover our eyes for different reasons in those two ritual moments. When it comes to lighting Shabbat candles, first we light the candles, then we cover our eyes and recite the blessing, and then we open our eyes and witness the already lit candles. In most cases in our Jewish tradition, we first recite a blessing and then perform the action that the blessing sanctifies (while we’re at it and in the midst of the Omer-counting period, this is also the reason that we don’t officially announce the new day in the counting of the Omer until AFTER we have recited the blessing for counting the Omer). But if we followed that logic with Shabbat or holiday candle lighting, we’d have a problem, because once we’ve said a blessing sanctifying the lighting of the Shabbat/holiday candles, it would also effectively announce the beginning of Shabbat/the holiday, and then we wouldn’t be permitted to light a candle in the first place (since we don’t light a fire during these holy days). So we get around this obstacle by lighting the candles first, then covering our eyes and reciting the blessing over the candles, and then opening our eyes to find that, wouldn’t you know it, the candles are already lit! So we are creating a loophole in the system to still make it seem like we’re saying the blessing first and then moving on to the action, while not having to actually break Shabbat by physically lighting the candles afterwards.
As for covering our eyes while reciting the Shema, the Shema is arguably the most important statement of monotheistic belief in our Jewish tradition, affirming God’s oneness and that we see the one God as ours. Along with the Amidah, the Shema is the anchor for both our daily morning (Shacharit) and evening (Ma’ariv) services. We don’t recite the Shema during the afternoon (Mincha) service, because the Torah in the v’Ahavta paragraph speaks of teaching and speaking these words “when we lie down and when we get up”, i.e. evening and morning. Because of its significance in our tradition, when we do recite the first two lines of the Shema (i.e. Shema and Baruch Shem K’vod) during the evening and morning services, it is customary to cover our eyes and block out all distractions so we can focus our kavannah—intention—and spirit fully on pronouncing these important words.
I hope this helps clarify how the choreography of covering our eyes fits into each of these key ritual moments in our tradition!