Halakha for Daily Life: Kindling Shabbat Candles, A Practical Overview by Rabbi Kenneth Brander
Halakha for Daily Life: Kindling Shabbat Candles, A Practical Overview by Rabbi Kenneth Brander

Volume 3 , Issue 4

(Halakha for Daily Life serves to highlight practical halakhic issues. It by no means represents a substitute for the reader's responsibility to ask his/her rabbi questions on the issues raised in this forum. If you would like to suggest a specific topic to be covered, write to The Jewish Review at P.O. Box 172, Brooklyn, NY 11215)

The lighting of candles on the eve of Shabbat represents two components of the Shabbat experience. It is the culmination of the week's activities in preparation for Shabbat, a form of Kibud Shabbat. At the same time, lighting provides for Oneg Shabbat, illuminating the home which allows one to participate in the Friday night festive meal and in other activities that are in consonance with the spirit of Shabbat.

Let us discuss several aspects of the laws of candle lighting:

I. Blessing Requirements

The central theme of the lighting of Shabbat candles is the need to illuminate the home (Mishneh Torah Hilchot Shabbat, 5:1; Shulchan Aruch Orach Hayim, 263:2). Therefore, there are those who state that no blessing is required on their kindling. For when the home is already lit prior to lighting the Shabbat candles, halakha dictates that there is no need to kindle these candles. This would seem to indicate that the kindling of candles is not a Mitzvah, but rather a preparatory action needed for the proper observance of Shabbat. (This school of thought is mentioned in Tosafot, Shabbat 25b Chovah and the Mordechai Shabbat Chapter 2:293.)

However, most Rishonim disagree with this approach citing several reasons. They argue that the lighting of Shabbat candles is clearly stated in the Talmud as a special enactment legislated by the Rabbis. There are other halakhic situations in which the need to perform a mitzvah is precluded by related external factors. For example, the mitzvah to cover the blood of a ritually slaughtered animal is not required when the covering occurs accidentally, (i.e., the wind blows dirt over the blood.) This situation does not negate the need for a blessing to be recited prior to performing the demonstrative act of covering the blood (Ki‑Suy Ha'Dam). Similarly, in our case of Shabbat candles, while the candles may not be needed to light the home when other light exists, the candle lighting maintains its status as a mitzvah requiring a blessing (Tosafot, Shabbat 25b Chovah).

In addition, according to Rabbeinu Tam (ibid.) (one of the Tosafists), candles which were present prior to the start of Shabbat do not fulfill the rabbinic commandment of kindling Shabbat candles. Even if candles are lit at noon and will continue to shed light until midnight, the rabbinic institution of lighting Shabbat candles requires that they be extinguished and relit just prior to the acceptance of Shabbat. Rabbeinu Tam's position underscores the importance of lighting candles? specifically for Shabbat. As mentioned above, the lighting of the candles is the culmination of weekday efforts for the Shabbat. The blessing recited upon kindling the candles may be in recognition of all the week's activities performed to enhance the spirit of Shabbat. Furthermore, the kindling of Shabbat candles is also the means through which Shabbat is ushered into the home. Indeed, for the one kindling the candles, Shabbat begins immediately after the act and not at the conclusion of Kabbalat Shabbat.

II. The Recitation of the Blessing

When reciting a blessing over the performance of a Mitzvah or the consumption of foods, halakha dictates that it is to be done prior to performing the action (i.e., eating the food or engaging in the mitzvah). Therefore, there are those who require the blessing over the lighting to be recited prior to their kindling. However, one obvious problem arises. Once the blessing is recited, Shabbat has begun for that individual thus preventing him/her from kindling the candles. According to this school of thought, the person reciting the blessing and lighting the candles must have in mind that Shabbat does not begin until the lighting is completed.

However, most people adhere to a different, indeed opposite custom. First, we light the candles, and at the moment, cover our eyes and recite the blessing. This allows us to follow the spirit of the postulate mentioned above. For the act of kindling Shabbat candles is not considered complete until one derives pleasure from its illumination. Through the covering of one's face immediately after the kindling and during the recitation of the blessing, benefit is postponed until the blessing is complete. In addition, by lighting the candles before reciting the blessing there is no chance of desecrating the Shabbat.

III. Who is obligated to light Shabbat candles? Where should they be lit?

It is the responsibility of every household to kindle Shabbat candles. In family settings, it is customary for the woman of the home to light the candles and to represent the entire household in this endeavor. If for some reason she is unable to light, the husband must light in her stead. If a member of the family is away for Shabbat, he or she is responsible to make sure that Shabbat candles are lit at their temporary place of residence. This includes a person on a business trip residing in a hotel or one who finds him/herself in a hospital over Shabbat.

While it is customary to use oil or wax candles to kindle the Shabbat lights, when necessary electric lamps may be used (Responsa of Rav Ovadya Yosef, Yabeah Omar, Vol. 2:17). One turns on a light, covers one's eyes, and recites the blessing.

The Shabbat candles must be placed in a room in which their light will be used. The preferred place mentioned in halakha is the room in which the Friday night meal will take place.

?One who kindles Shabbat lights is destined to observe the full light returned to Zion.? (Yalkut Beha'alotekha, 719). Let us hope that through our observance of this most eloquent ritual the words of the Midrash will come to fruition.

Rabbi Kenneth Brander is the Assistant Rabbi at Lincoln Square Synagogue and Director of the Joseph Shapiro Institute for Adult Education. He is a graduate of Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary.

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