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Shiur 10: Lighting Shabbat Candles

  • Rav Chaim Navon

I. Lighting Shabbat Candles – Is this a Women's Mitzva?


            This shiur is exceptional in the framework of this series, as the mitzva of lighting Shabbat candles does not pertain specifically to women, but rather to men and women equally. According to longstanding practice, however, it is women who light Shabbat candles.[1] This custom is already mentioned by the Sages (Shabbat 86b). Why has this mitzva been assigned to women? The Midrash (Bereishit Rabba 17:8) states that when women light Shabbat candles, they atone for the primal sin committed by Chava in the Garden of Eden. The Rambam provides a different explanation:


The person who lights the Shabbat lamp should light while it is still day, before sunset. Women have a greater obligation in this regard than men, for they are normally at home and are involved in the household tasks. (Hilkhot Shabbat 5:3)


The Rambam's rationale can be understood as reflecting practical reality: Women are found more regularly at home and are more involved in running the household. Therefore, it is presumably more convenient that they should be in charge of lighting Shabbat candles. But his explanation can certainly also be understood as an expression of a woman's greater emotional involvement with matters of home life and family.


II. Definition of the Mitzva


            The Sages established that lighting should take place prior to the onset of Shabbat.[2] The Gemara in Shabbat (25b) states: “Lighting on Shabbat is obligatory.” Rashi explains the obligatory nature of this mitzva, stating, “This is [part of the mitzvaof] honoring Shabbat, because an important meal is only [conducted] in an illuminated place.” Tosafot, on the other hand, provide a slightly different rationale: “Lighting on Shabbat is obligatory – This means, in the place of the meal, because one is obligated to eat one's meal in a place where there is light, because of [the mitzva of] delighting [in Shabbat].” According to Rashi then, lighting candles is connected to the mitzvaof honoring Shabbat [kevod Shabbat], whereas according to Tosafot it is connected to the mitzvaof delighting in Shabbat [oneg Shabbat].[3]


The Vilna Gaon (Orach Chayyim 529, 4) explains the difference between kavod and oneg: The mitzva of honoring Shabbat refers to the preparations made for Shabbat before the onset of Shabbat, whereas the mitzva of delighting in Shabbat refers to the physical pleasure derived on Shabbat itself. The mitzva of honoring Shabbat includes bathing, donning festive clothing and even shopping for Shabbat. The mitzva of delighting in Shabbat includes eating the Shabbat meals and engaging in other enjoyable activities on Shabbat.


            According to Rashi, lighting Shabbat candles is subsumed under the mitzva of honoring Shabbat, part of the series of festive preparations that take place prior to Shabbat. According to Tosafot, however, lighting candles is subsumed under the mitzvaof delighting in Shabbat – the focus is not the festive preparations, but rather the actual pleasure enjoyed on Shabbat itself.


Let us examine the Rambam's position on this issue:


The lighting of a Shabbat lamp is not a matter left to our volition… Instead, it is an obligation. Both men and women are obligated to have a lamp lit in their homes on Shabbat. Even if a person does not have food to eat, he should beg from door to door and purchase oil to kindle a lamp, for this is included in [the mitzva of] delighting in Shabbat. (Hilkhot Shabbat 5:1)


One should prepare one's house while it is still day because of [the mitzvaof] honoring Shabbat. There should be a lamp burning, a table prepared [with food] to eat, and a couch bedecked with spreads. All of these are expressions of honoring Shabbat. (Hilkhot Shabbat 30:5)


The Rambam describes lighting Shabbat candles as part of the mitzva of delighting in Shabbat (chap. 5) and also as part of the mitzva of honoring Shabbat (chap. 30). How can this contradiction be reconciled? Rav Tzadok Ha-kohen (Kuntres Shevitat Ha-Shabbat, letter 5) explains as follows: When one enjoys the light of Shabbat candles, one fulfills the mitzva of delighting in Shabbat, and when one prepares for that pleasure on Friday, that itself is defined as honoring Shabbat. Therefore, the mitzva of lighting Shabbat candles is a fulfillment of both kevod Shabbat and oneg Shabbat. This is a very logical explanation of the words of the Rambam. We shall see below that other Rishonim offered other answers to the question whether lighting candles is part of the mitzva of kavod or the mitzva of oneg.


            The Gemara mentions another reason for lighting Shabbat candles:


Rava said: “It is obvious to me [that if one must choose between] the [Shabbat] house light and the Chanuka light, the former is preferable, on account [of the importance] of shalom bayit (peace in the home); [between] the house light and [wine for] sanctifying the day, the house light is preferable, on account of shalom bayit.” (Shabbat 23b)


Rava says that a poor person must first purchase a candle for Shabbat, even if, as a result, he will not be able to purchase a Chanuka candle, or wine for kiddush. This is because Shabbat candles bring peace to the house. Rashi explains there that in the absence of light, shalom bayit is impaired, because the members of one's household are distressed when they sit in darkness. Elsewhere (25b), Rashi writes that in a place where there is no light, a person stumbles in the darkness – another impairment of shalom bayit. Many people believe that Shabbat candles are a kind of mystical charm for establishing peace in one's house. But the meaning here is simply that when one sits for a meal in a lit area, the atmosphere is more positive, whereas when people eat in the darkness, there are mishaps and tension. It should be remembered that in the time of Chazal, the Shabbat lamp was the sole source of light on Friday night, and thus contributed to peaceful domestic relations, in the simplest sense of the words.


            What is the relationship between this reason for lighting Shabbat candles and the previous rationales? The simple answer is that domestic peace is not an independent halakhic consideration, but merely a demonstration of how lighting Shabbat candles serves to honor and delight in Shabbat. We understand that the Sages wished to enhance kevod Shabbat and oneg Shabbat, but why is lighting candles the best way to achieve these goals? Why didn't the Sages instruct instead that one fly a flag outside one's house or hang a pretty picture on one's door? The answer is that lighting candles makes one's meal more pleasant and prevents tension and friction. The contribution of light to domestic peace is why we prefer Shabbat candles over Chanuka candles or kiddush wine, but it is not an independent halakhic reason that explains the enactment of the mitzva.[4]


            Some Rishonim argue that one should not recite a blessing when lighting Shabbat candles. One reason for this can be found in the Mordekhai:


Rabbeinu Meshullam would not recite a blessing over the lighting of [Shabbat] candles, because we said in Chapter “Ha-tekhelet”(Menachot 42b):“Wherever a mitzvais not completed by a single act, one does not pronounce a blessing over it. And [the mitzva of lighting] Shabbat candles is only completed at the time of eating.” (Mordekhai, Shabbat 294)


Rabbeinu Meshullam argues that the mitzva of lighting Shabbat candles is only completed at the meal, when people sit down and delight in the light. Thus, a blessing cannot be recited when the candles are first lit, as that is only the beginning of the mitzva, not the end. He clearly maintains that lighting Shabbat candles is subsumed under the mitzva of delighting in Shabbat, and this is only fulfilled at the time of the meal. If Shabbat candles fell into the category of honoring Shabbat, the essence of the mitzva would be the act of lighting performed in preparation of Shabbat.


            Other Rishonim suggest a different reason for not reciting a blessing when lighting Shabbat candles: “Because were there already a lit candle, one would not have to extinguish it and then relight it, or else light a different candle” (Tosafot, Shabbat 25b). That is to say, a blessing is not pronounced over the lighting of Shabbat candles because the mitzva does not require a specific action, only that there be a lit candle. The proof for this is that if a candle had already been lit, one would not have to extinguish it and then light it again.


Rabbeinu Tam disagrees with this argument for two entirely different reasons. First, even if it were possible to fulfill the mitzvawith a candle that had been lit already on Friday morning, one should still recite a blessing upon lighting a special candle before the start of Shabbat. Second, Rabbeinu Tam rejects the assumption made by these Rishonim that one would not be required to extinguish a previously lit candle and light it anew immediately prior to Shabbat. In fact, that is precisely what one must do in such a situation.


            This disagreement seems to depend on the question whether lighting Shabbat candles falls into the category of kevod Shabbat or oneg Shabbat.[5] If we are dealing with kevod Shabbat, there is reason to require an act of lighting, which expresses the preparations that a person makes for Shabbat. If a person has a candle in the house that had been lit for some other purpose, and by chance it remained lit until Shabbat, this cannot be considered a show of honor for Shabbat. But if the emphasis is placed upon oneg Shabbat, one can delight in a lit candle on Shabbat whether it was lit in preparation for Shabbat or for another purpose. As long as the candles are still burning at the time of the meal, the nature of their lighting makes no difference to us.


            In practice, of course, a blessing is pronounced over the lighting of Shabbat candles. The Rema (263:4) rules that if one has a candle that had been lit earlier, one must extinguish it and relight it for the sake of Shabbat. This seems to imply that he understands that lighting Shabbat candles is, at least in part, a fulfillment of kevod Shabbat.


II. How many candles, who lights and where are the candles lit?


            The Shulchan Arukh (263:1) writes that the customary practice is to light two candles, one corresponding to “remembering” (zakhor) Shabbat and the other to “safeguarding” (shamor) it. Many have the custom to light candles according to the number of people in the family. Some follow the latter custom only in their own homes, but not when they are guests at another person’s home (Shemirat Shabbat Ke-hilkhata, 43, 3).


            As stated earlier, the mitzva of lighting Shabbat candles applies equally to men and women. However, it is the customary practice that women light the Shabbat candles. In some homes, it is customary that all female members of the family light candles. In families where all females light, some have the custom that each person who lights recites a blessing. For those who follow this custom, it is preferable that each person light in a different room that will be used over Shabbat (Shemirat Shabbat Ke-hilkhata 43, 8).


            The Rema (263:10) rules that the mitzva is fulfilled with the candles lit at the table, and not with those lit elsewhere in the house. What he means is that the candles should provide light for the meal, for in that way one fulfills the mitzvaof oneg Shabbat.


III. Electric lights


            The Posekim discuss the question whether the obligation to light Shabbat candles can be fulfilled with electric lights. The Acharonim raise several arguments why electric lights should not be used: 1) There is no oil or wick; 2) Electric light is not considered fire; 3) There is no act of lighting; 4) There is concern of an electric outage. Rav Ovadya Yosef rejects all these concerns (Responsa Yechaveh Da'at V, no. 24) but in the end agrees that it is preferable to use oil or wax candles, as it is clear to all that they are specially lit in honor of Shabbat, as opposed to electric lights, which are lit throughout the week.


            All this applies to incandescent lights. Fluorescent lights are not considered fire, and thus cannot be used to fulfill the mitzva of lighting Shabbat candles.


            The Mishna Berura (263, no. 2, following the Magen Avraham) writes that while a blessing should only be recited over the candles lit in the place where one eats, one should nevertheless light candles (without a blessing) in all the rooms that will be used. We do this for the sake of shalom bayit, so that nobody should knock into something and fall. In our day, this can be accomplished with electric lights (in addition to lighting actual candles in the place where one eats). Shemirat Shabbat Ke-hilkhata recommends that immediately prior to Shabbat, a woman should turn on all the lights that will be needed in the house, and then immediately light the Shabbat candles and recite a blessing over them, having in mind the electric lights in addition to the candles (Shemirat Shabbat Ke-hilkhata 43, 32-34).


(Translated by David Strauss)


[1] Some halakhic authorities recommend that men should also participate in the mitzva and prepare the candles for lighting (Mishna Berura, Orach Chayyim 263, no. 12).

[2] The Yere'im writes (no. 429) that lighting Shabbat candles is a Biblical commandment, but his position is exceptional.

[3] The Mishna in Shabbat 24b cites the words of Rabbi Yishmael: “One may not light with itran, because of kevod Shabbat.” This seems to support Rashi’s position, that lighting Shabbat candles is connected to the mitzva of kavod. However, it is possible to explain that lighting candles does not in itself constitute a show of honor to Shabbat. It is only that lighting with itran, the burning of which produces a bad smell, detracts from kevod Shabbat.

[4] This is also implied in the Shulchan Arukh 263:2. This also explains the Rambam, who does not mention shalom bayit in Hilkhot Shabbat, though in Hilkhot Chanuka he writes that Shabbat candles take precedence over Chanuka candles because of shalom bayit (4:14).

[5] See Responsa Beit Ha-Levi I, no. 11.