Halakhot of Shabbat Candles

  • Rav Yosef Zvi Rimon

Based on a shiur by Rav Yosef Zvi Rimon

Translated by David Silverberg 


The Reason Behind the Obligation


            The Gemara comments in Masekhet Shabbat (23b): "[If one can afford either] candles for his home [on Shabbat] or Chanukah candles, candles for his home take precedence, because of shalom bayit [the concern for domestic tranquillity].  Candles for his home or kiddush – candles for his home take precedence, because of shalom bayit."  This passage indicates that the reason underlying the obligation to light Shabbat candles is shalom bayit – domestic tranquillity.  This factor supersedes other halakhic concerns, and thus Shabbat candles take precedence over Chanukah candles and kiddush.  To what exactly does the Gemara refer when it speaks of "shalom bayit"?


            Rashi explains, "because the members of his family experience discomfort by sitting in darkness."  He adds that in the dark, people are likely to stumble and fall, a condition that undermines the shalom bayit in the home.  In other words, Shabbat candles are needed to allow for normal functioning in the home, particularly during the nighttime hours. 


            The Rambam, however, writes (Hilkhot Shabbat 5:1), "Even if one has nothing to eat, he must go around to doorsteps to borrow money and purchase oil to light the [Shabbat] candle, for this is included under oneg Shabbat [the obligation to enjoy oneself on Shabbat]."  By contrast, later in Hilkhot Shabbat (30:5) the Rambam writes, "One must prepare his home during the daytime [of Erev Shabbat] for the honor of Shabbat.  A candle should be lit, the table set and the bed made – for all these involve the honor of Shabbat."  In the earlier passage, the Rambam appears to attribute the obligation of hadlakat nerot to the mitzva of oneg Shabbat – enjoying Shabbat, whereas in the second passage he views it as part of the obligation of kevod Shabbat (showing honor to Shabbat).  How may we reconcile these two descriptions of hadlakat nerot?


            Rav Chayim Brisker, in his chiddushim on the Talmud, explains that in the Rambam's view, two separate obligations of hadlakat nerot exist.  One obligation has to do with Shabbat itself, whereas the other relates to the preparations for Shabbat.  The obligation of oneg Shabbat applies on Shabbat itself, while the mitzva of kevod Shabbat involves the preparations for Shabbat.  Hadlakat nerot consists of both elements.  Firstly, the obligation of oneg Shabbat requires ensuring the presence of sufficient light in the home for Shabbat.  Since we cannot light candles on Shabbat itself, by necessity we must do so before Shabbat.  But in addition, there exists a separate obligation of hadlakat nerot stemming from the mitzva of kevod Shabbat – to honor Shabbat by preparing our home for its arrival.  These preparations include as well lighting candles in Shabbat's honor.  Thus, according to the Rambam, hadlakat nerot is required due to both oneg Shabbat as well as kevod Shabbat.


The Obligation to Light


            To whom does this obligation apply?  The Shulchan Arukh writes (O.C. 263), "Both men and women are obligated to have a candle lit in their home on Shabbat."  With respect to the essential obligation of candle lighting, then, there is no difference at all between men and women.  However, the Shulchan Arukh adds, "The women are especially charged with this responsibility because they are present in the home and deal with the needs of the household."  The Mishna Berura (263:12) adds another reason for the particular obligation upon women with regard to hadlakat nerot: "because she [the first woman, Chava] extinguished the 'candle of the world,' bringing death upon Adam."  In any event, if the woman for whatever reason cannot light Shabbat candles, the obligation clearly falls upon the husband.


The Procedure for Lighting


            The Rishonim debate whether one should first light and then recite the berakha, or first recite the berakha and then light.  What underlying issue gave rise to this debate?


            This dispute appears to depend upon the question of whether or not a woman accepts Shabbat through the recitation of the berakha over candle lighting.  According to the view that women do, in fact, automatically accept Shabbat when they recite the berakha, she must light the candles before reciting the berakha.  Since she accepts Shabbat through her recitation of the berakha, it would be forbidden for her light thereafter.  According to the view that one does not accept Shabbat by reciting the berakha, then a woman should preferably recite the berakha prior to lighting, just as all berakhot recited over the performance of mitzvot must be recited just prior to the given mitzva act. 


            Seemingly, the first position, which advocates lighting before reciting the berakha, violates the standard principle requiring the recitation of berakhot before performing the mitzva act.  How can a woman fulfill this requirement if she lights the candles before reciting the berakha?  The Rama (263:5) cites the following solution from the Maharil:


"In order that it [the berakha] be before the act, one should not derive benefit from it [the candle] until after the [recitation of] the berakha.  One places his hand in front of the candle after lighting and then recites the berakha.  One then removes his hand, and this qualifies as 'before the act'; this is indeed the widespread practice."


            In a situation where the woman cannot light, and the husband thus lights in her stead, the Acharonim debate whether he should recite the berakha before or after lighting.  Since a man does not accept Shabbat through his lighting, perhaps he should – according to all opinions – recite the berakha before lighting.  The "Derekh Ha-chayim" rules that a husband in such a case should follow the same procedure as his wife follows, due to "lo pelug" (the interest in having a uniform procedure).  The Bei'ur Halakha, by contrast, cites the view of Rabbi Akiva Eiger and the Chayei Adam requiring a man to first recite the berakha before lighting.


            Which sequence should one follow when lighting candles for Yom Tov?  The wife of the Sema is cited as establishing that since Halakha permits transferring fire on Yom Tov, women should first recite the berakha and then light Yom Tov candles, thereby fulfilling the requirement of "over la-asiyatan" (reciting the berakha before the mitzva act).  The Magen Avraham, however, strongly disagrees, due to the aforementioned factor of "lo pelug."  The Dagul Mei-revava deals with this issue, as well, and ultimately expresses his preference for the Magen Avraham's position.  The Chatam Sofer, by contrast, in his notes to the Shulchan Arukh, rules in accordance with the Sema's wife.  Addressing the issue of "lo pelug," the Chatam Sofer claims that the Sema's wife was well aware of this issue.  However, given that on Chanukah we first recite the berakha before lighting the candles, it turns out that Halakha already distinguishes between different instances of lighting with respect to the proper sequence.  Therefore, we cannot speak of "lo pelug" in the context of hadlakat nerot.


            The Mishna Berura (263:27) cites both views, without explicitly favoring one over the other.  It appears, however, that he accepts the first position he cites, namely, the position of the Sema's wife.  Indeed, the common practice among Jewish women today is to first recite the berakha before lighting Yom Tov candles.


Accepting Shabbat Through Candle Lighting


            The Rishonim debate the issue of when a person accepts Shabbat – at the time of candle lighting, or with the "kabbalat Shabbat" prayer service.  The Shulchan Arukh (263:10) cites both views, and it appears from his formulation that he sides with the position that one does not accept Shabbat through candle lighting.  The Rama there observes the common practice that women accept Shabbat at the time of candle lighting, whereas other family members accept Shabbat at the beginning of the arvit service ("barakhu").


            One practical ramification of this debate involves the match used to light the candles.  If, indeed, women accept Shabbat when they light candles, how do they extinguish the match after lighting?  The Shulchan Arukh, in the aforementioned halakha, writes, "In light of this, some woman have the practice of throwing the wick in their hands, with which they lit, onto the floor after they recite the berakha and light the candles, rather than extinguishing it."  In practice, a woman who follows the custom of lighting before reciting the berakha may extinguish the candle after lighting, since she accepts Shabbat only with the recitation of the berakha, and not through the actual lighting.  It should be noted, however, that the Ben Ish Chai records that all women would follow the practice of throwing the match on the ground rather than extinguishing it, regardless of whether they recited the berakha before or after lighting.  In any event, on Yom Tov, when, as mentioned earlier, all women light the candles before reciting the berakha (in accordance with the Sema's wife's view), they must throw the match down on the ground after lighting, rather than extinguish it.


            If a man lights candles, does he accept Shabbat just as a woman does when lighting?  The Mishna Berura (263:42) writes that the aforementioned custom that women accept Shabbat through lighting does not apply to men, and they therefore may perform melakha after lighting.  Nevertheless, the Mishna Berura recommends that a man stipulate that he does not accept Shabbat through his lighting.  Rav Moshe Feinstein writes in Iggerot Moshe (O.C. 3:38) that in such a situation, where the husband lights, the wife also does not accept Shabbat through the husband's lighting.


            The Rishonim argue as to whether a woman may stipulate when she lights that she does not accept Shabbat through her lighting.  According to some Rishonim, stipulations are effective only when dealing with a halakhic status created through speech.  Here, however, the acceptance of Shabbat occurs as a result of an action – candle lighting.  A stipulation of this sort, they claim, cannot delay the onset of this status.  The Shulchan Arukh cites both views (263:10), presenting the stringent position last, implying that he favors this opinion.  Accordingly, the Mishna Berura (44) cites the ruling of the Magen Avraham that one should not make such a stipulation when lighting candles unless a certain need dictates doing so.  It is not entirely clear how we define a "need" with respect to this halakha.  The Tzitz Eliezer maintains that to pray at the Western Wall qualifies as a "need," and a woman may thus light on condition that she does not accept Shabbat so that she can travel to the Western Wall for Shabbat evening services.


            When making such a stipulation, one must, according to the Peri Megadim, verbally articulate that he/she does not intend to accept Shabbat through candle lighting.  Be-di'avad (ex post facto), however, the stipulation is effective even if it was made mentally and not verbally.


            In any event, a woman who lit candles and accepted Shabbat may explicitly ask someone else, who has yet to accept Shabbat, to perform a melakha (activity forbidden on Shabbat) on her behalf.


Where to Light


            The Rama writes (263:10), "The primary lighting involves the candles lit by the table, and not the other candles in the house."  Why do we consider the candles on the table the primary fulfillment of the hadlakat nerot obligation?  The Mishna Berura explains (263:45), "because the primary mitzva, at the optimum level, involves the candles by whose light one eats, and it is thus appropriate for the berakha to be recited over them."  Meaning, the primary use we are to make of the Shabbat candles is eating.  This would imply that the obligation of candle lighting stems from the mitzva of oneg Shabbat – enjoying oneself on Shabbat.  Recall that earlier we saw that the Rambam ascribes this obligation to both the mitzva of oneg Shabbat and that of kevod Shabbat.  It would appear that the precise location of the candles would depend on whether we speak of oneg or kavod.  If hadlakat nerot stems from oneg Shabbat, then presumably the candles should be situated on the table, whereas if it involves kevod Shabbat, it would suffice for the candles to burn in the room where one eats, not necessary on the table.


            Today, many people place the Shabbat candles near the table, either due to insufficient space on the table or because they want to remove the tablecloth after the meal.  Given the abundant light provided nowadays by electric lighting, it would seem that one's oneg Shabbat is not diminished by placing the candles off the table, and thus this practice is perfectly acceptable.  We might add that the Kaf Ha-chayim brings a Kabbalistic tradition to specifically place the candles near the table, rather than on the table, just as the menorah in the Temple stood to the side of the shulchan (table).


            Halakha requires lighting in all rooms in the house, as well, besides the dining area.  The Mishna Berura explains this requirement as intended to prevent stumbling throughout the house.  Nowadays, therefore, when we illuminate our homes with electric lights, one need not light candles in the other rooms.  The requirement for purposes of kavod or oneg one fulfills by lighting candles in the dining area, and the obligation to light elsewhere stems from the concern for shalom bayit – which we achieve through the use of electric lights.


            Must one recite a berakha when lighting in the other rooms in the house?  The Mishna Berura writes that since we recite a berakha over the candle lighting in the dining area, we do not repeat the berakha when lighting in the other rooms.  In light of this basic principle, let us now discuss several different situations prevalent in modern times.


            First, we will address the common case of several women who light together in the same area.  The Shulchan Arukh (263:8) discusses such a case and follows the view that only one woman recites the berakha over candle lighting.  The Rama disagrees and maintains that each woman recites the berakha.  The Mishna Berura, commenting on the Rama's ruling, explains, "The more light is added, the more shalom bayit and joy there is as a result of the enjoyment of the light in every corner."  Since every candle contributes an additional dimension of joy, each woman who lights may recite her own berakha.


            What are the halakhot of candle lighting in a situation where each person has a separate room for sleeping but they all eat together – such as in a hotel?  The Mishna Berura writes (263:29, 38) – and this is indeed the implication of the Shulchan Arukh (263:6) – that since each woman has a room specifically designated for her use, that room assumes greater importance than the dining room.  Therefore, each woman should light in her room, and one woman should light in the dining room.  Accordingly, students (male or female) spending Shabbat in a dormitory and eating together in a dining room must light candles in their rooms with a berakha.  If one lives with roommates, then Ashkenazim should all recite the berakha, whereas Sefaradim should have one person light on behalf of all the roommates.


            Nowadays, however, when lighting fires in dormitory rooms pose a considerable safety hazard, this is simply not feasible, and "chamura sakanta mei-issura" (we must treat issues of physical safety with even greater care than we do matters concerning halakhic propriety).


[Can one fulfill one's obligation to light using electric lights? This issue hinges on whether the original takana limited lighting to a specific list of wicks and fuel.  From the mishna in Shabbat 20b, one might get that impression.  Many poskim, however, did not seem to see this as a limitation. (See Shemirat Shabbat Ke-Hilkheta vol. II 43:4 and fn. 22.)


Rav Neuwirth, in his Shemirat Shabbat Ke-Hilkheta, rules that one who lights with electric lights, has valid backing among poskim, and should recite a berakha on this lighting.


This would make a strong case for people in dorms or other fire-hazardous situations. (A fluorescent bulb might not do, since it has no filament and is therefore less like a fire.)


Furthermore, it would be advisable that in the modern day household, where the true benefit is derived more from the bulbs than the flames, that one have intention for BOTH when reciting the berakha. – R. Mordechai Friedman, ed.]


Very often, people invited for Shabbat eat with their hosts and have a separate residence for sleeping.  According to what we have seen, it would appear that they should preferably light in the residence where they sleep.


            In a situation where people do not sleep in separate rooms, or where lighting several candles will pose a safety hazard, may one person light on behalf of the others?  This will depend on the particular situation.  If a husband leaves for Shabbat and his wife lights at home, he does not light himself.  If his wife does not light for him, then he must pay his host a coin for a share in the candle lighting.  (See Shulchan Arukh 263:7 and Mishna Berura.)  If the guest depends entirely on his host for his meals, he needs to neither light himself nor purchase a share in the host's lighting.  This would apply to yeshiva students, as well, who are entirely dependent upon the yeshiva for their meals.


            Although strictly speaking this halakha applies equally to both men and women, women commonly make a point of lighting their own candles when they spend Shabbat with others.


Deriving Benefit From the Candles


            One must derive some benefit from the candles he lights for Shabbat.  Therefore, if a person will return home late, he must ensure to place enough oil or use a long enough candle so that the fire burns until he arrives home.  If this is impossible, then, according to some Acharonim, one may leave on electric lights and have them in mind when reciting the berakha over the candles.