Particularly in the winter months, when Shabbat begins early on Friday afternoon, many women run late with their Shabbat preparations, and it could happen that a woman does not light candles before sunset. The question was raised whether or not a woman in this situation may ask a non-Jew, such as a housekeeper, to light the candles for her. Her husband might be upset upon seeing that the candles were not lit, and the woman might therefore want to have a non-Jew light the candles to avoid tension and strife in the home.
First, it must be emphasized that it is strictly forbidden for the woman herself to light the Shabbat candles after sundown. Once the sun has set, one may not perform any activity that is forbidden on Shabbat. The question discussed here relates to asking a non-Jew to light the candles, and not lighting the candles oneself.
The Mishna Berura (Rav Yisrael Meir Kagan of Radin, 1839-1933), in Siman 263 (Se’if Katan 21), addresses this issue in the context of his discussion of the practice that was once common to have weddings on Friday afternoon. The wedding would occasionally continue until after sundown, and women attending the wedding would not want to light Shabbat candles before the wedding, since they still wanted to perform Melacha. The Mishna Berura cites the ruling of the Magen Abraham (Rav Abraham Gombiner, Poland, 1635-1682) that if the woman returns home after sundown but within the period of Ben Ha’shemashot – 13.5 minutes after sunset – then she should ask a non-Jew to light the Shabbat candles for her, and she may recite the Beracha over the non-Jew’s lighting. For the sake of the Misva of Shabbat candles, the Magen Abraham ruled, one may ask a non-Jew to light the candles, as long as this occurs during the period of Ben Ha’shemashot.
The Mishna Berura notes, however, that many other Halachic authorities disputed the Magen Abraham’s ruling regarding the recitation of a Beracha. He writes (listen to audio recording for precise citation) that a woman cannot recite the words "Ve’sivanu Le’hadlik" ("He commanded us to light…") if she is not personally performing the act of kindling. Moreover, there is no concept of Halachic Shelihut ("agency") with regard to gentiles, and thus a woman cannot satisfy her Misva through the agency of a gentile, such that she would be able to recite a Beracha. The Mishna Berura therefore rules that if a woman was unable to light before sundown and would feel embarrassed if the candles are not lit on Shabbat, she may ask a gentile during the period of Ben Ha’shemashot to light the candles for her, but she does not recite a Beracha. This is, indeed, the consensus among the Halachic authorities. The work Piskeh Teshuvot writes that ideally the woman in this case should recite the text of the Beracha in Aramaic – "Berich Rahamana Malka De’alma Asher Kideshanu Be’misvotav Ve’sivanu…" in order to satisfy all opinions.
The Magen Abraham’s ruling likely reflects the view of the Rambam (Rabbi Moshe Maimonides, Spain-Egypt, 1135-1204), who defined the Misva of Shabbat candles as requiring "She’yeheh Ha’ner Daluk" – "That the candle is lit." According to the Rambam, it seems, the Misva is not the action, but rather the result. It requires not that one perform the act of kindling a flame, but rather that there is a candle burning in the home. If so, then it indeed stands to reason that a woman fulfills this Misva by having a non-Jew light the Shabbat candles. The Magen Abraham likely subscribed to this understanding and thus ruled that a woman may recite a Beracha over a gentile’s lighting of the candles, since she fulfills the Misva through the gentile’s lighting.
Regardless, as mentioned, the consensus of the Halachic authorities does not follow the Magen Abraham’s view, and thus although a woman may have a non-Jew light the candles during Ben Ha’shemashot, she does not recite a Beracha in such a case.
It should be emphasized that this applies only during Ben Ha’shemashot, the 13.5-minute period after sundown. After Ben Ha’shemashot, one may not ask a non-Jew to light Shabbat candles.
Summary: If a woman did not light the Shabbat candles before sundown on Friday afternoon, she may not light the candles at that point. However, within 13.5 minutes after sunset, she may ask a non-Jew to light the candles for her. No Beracha is recited in such a case.