If you have ever been on an archeological dig, you would know that ancient candles were dishes filled with oil and a wick. In the Talmud, the rabbis discuss whether it is more important to light candles for Shabbat or Hanukkah. The question they debated was regarding someone who only had enough money to purchase enough oil for one set. In such circumstances, which candles should the person light?
To help decide, it is important to understand what each set of candles represent. Shabbat candles, placed on the Shabbat table, represent shalom bayit, peace in the household. They cast light that can be utilized so people are not stumbling in the dark and can eat in the light. On a more meta-level, it is about the idealized sense of peace and tranquility that is meant to permeate the Shabbat.
The Hanukkah candles, on the other hand, which are placed in a window or outside at the doorway, represent pirsumei nisa, publicizing the miracle of Hanukkah. This is a visual reminder of the miracle that happened in the Hanukkah story. On a meta-level, it is a reminder to the world about God’s continued presence in the world, by illuminating the darkness from the inside out.
In the end, shalom bayit wins. One who only has enough to purchase one set of candles should buy Shabbat candles before Hanukkah candles.
This is not strictly only a legal discussion, but also a values-based debate. If we only have energy to fix one thing, our home/self or the world, which wins? A person who does not have personal shalom bayit will have great difficulty having influence in the wider world. The message of the rabbis is to develop the self, and only after you have done the hard work at home can you help illuminate the world.