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Where Does the Torah Say to Light Shabbat Candles?

Where Does the Torah Say to Light Shabbat Candles?

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Original artwork by Yoram Raanan
Original artwork by Yoram Raanan

Question:

I think this is a beautiful tradition, and I want to learn all I can about it. However, is it actually written in Torah to light a candle, or does it say only to observe the Sabbath and keep it holy?

Response:

The most precious things in life are said silently. Those who need to understand—those who are not strangers, those who hear the words from the inside—understand. Similarly with Shabbat: when G‑d gave it to us, He did not need to spell out its most precious customs.

Take a look: whenever the Torah mentions Shabbat, it always seems to be assuming that we know what it’s talking about. The Torah admonishes us to “keep the Shabbat” and “remember the Shabbat.” We are to rest on the seventh day from the work of the other six, and so are our servants and domesticated animals. Don’t make a fire.1 There’s a strong implication that we don’t build tabernacles on Shabbat.2 From all this we can figure out a lot of things that we are not supposed to do—such as anything that’s involved in building a tabernacle. But regarding what we are supposed to do, not a word. It seems that the Moses crowd just knew—perhaps by intuition, perhaps by tradition.

The prophet Isaiah, however, does elaborate a little on what Shabbat entails. His audience was, after all, a little more distant from the light of Sinai—and so needed things spelled out. He says, “If you restrain your foot because of the Sabbath, from performing your affairs on My holy day, and you will call the Sabbath ‘a delight’ and G‑d’s holy day ‘honored’ . . .”3

So, Shabbat is a day we are to honor and delight in. But how do you honor and delight in it? Apparently, Isaiah’s audience needed no further explanation. But in Talmudic times, things got to the point that it was necessary for the rabbis to spell out every word: you honor the Shabbat with clean clothes, and delight in it with fine food and drink.4

Now, here’s where the Shabbat candles come in:5 Have you ever sat down to a delicious meal in the dark? Not too much fun. Who knows what that fork may end up piercing? But, worst of all, even the finest cuisine becomes a drab affair when you can’t see the colors, textures and forms of those delicious morsels. We are visual creatures, and even our capacity to derive pleasure from our food is tied to our visual experience. “A blind person,” the rabbis say, “is never satisfied from his food.”6

And so, as long as Jews were interested in “calling the Shabbat a day of delight,” they must have had a lamp lit for the nighttime meal. It had to be lit beforehand, since—as we are told explicitly7—we cannot create a fire on Shabbat. And since it is the woman who generally takes the responsibilities of the home, presumably she took the responsibility for the lamp.

Yet it seems that later down the line, there were Jews who felt okay skimping on the visual experience. Maybe the cost of oil was escalating. True, you can’t eat a meal without light and enjoy it. But people said, “Let’s just eat it that way anyway, and say we did.” Now, if people don’t want to enjoy, it’s hard to tell them, “You must enjoy!” But sitting in a dark home all Shabbat creates other problems. Shabbat is meant to be a day of peace and harmony. A dark house, with people tripping over every unseen obstacle8 and falling all over each other is not conducive to peace and harmony.

So, at some unspecified point in history, for the sake of shalom bayit (family harmony),9 the spiritual leaders of the generation made a distinct requirement that every home must have a lamp lit before Shabbat in every room where people may walk and bump into things.10 They declared that anyone who would be careful with it would be blessed with children who would be Torah scholars, as the verse states, “For a mitzvah is a lamp, and the Torah is light.”11 They interpreted this to mean that through the mitzvah of the lamp would come the light of Torah.12

Nevertheless, the principal lamp is the one that shines over the Shabbat meal.13 The other lamps can be replaced today with electric lights, but the light by the meal should be a burning flame—unless that’s just not possible (e.g., in a hospital).

Now you can see that the Shabbat lamp, even though it is technically a rabbinic institution, has always been an integral part of the Shabbat. Our tradition is that Abraham and Sarah kept the entire Torah even though it was not yet given. They knew the Torah from their understanding of the inner mechanics of the universe. Sarah lit the Shabbat lamp, as did Rebecca, Rachel and Leah. It’s reasonable to believe that at no time in our history did a Friday night pass without that light. And with that light we will enter into the “day that is entirely Shabbat and rest for eternal life.” May that time come sooner than we can imagine.

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman

FOOTNOTES
1.

Exodus 35:3.

2.

Ibid.

3.

Isaiah 58:13.

4.

Talmud, Shabbat 113a and 118b; Mishneh Torah, Hil. Shabbat 30:1; Tur and Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 242 and 262.

5.

Mishneh Torah (ibid. 5:1) describes ner Shabbat in terms of delight. In 30:5, however, it is described in terms of honoring Shabbat. The Rebbe (Likkutei Sichot, vol. 11, p. 295) resolves this: lighting before Shabbat honors the Shabbat by preparing for it. Once Shabbat has entered, the light provides delight. I focus here on the second aspect, since (see Shulchan Aruch ha-Rav, 263:11, end) the main mitzvah of ner Shabbat is not the lighting, but the enjoyment of the light on Shabbat (and for this reason, a woman who has not made the blessing at the time of lighting can make a blessing later on Shabbat, when she benefits from the light).

6.

Yoma 74b.

7.

Exodus 35:3.

8.

Rashi to Shabbat 25b, s.v. hadlakat.

9.

Shabbat 23b. Rambam appears to consider ner Shabbat to be principally for the sake of enjoying Shabbat. Shulchan Aruch ha-Rav, however, seems to consider shalom bayit the chief factor. See Likkutei Sichot, vol. 16, p. 374.

10.

Mishneh Torah, ibid.; Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 263:1.

11.

Proverbs 6:23.

12.

Shabbat 23b and Rashi ad loc.

13.

Ohr Zarua, Hilchot Erev Shabbat 11; Rema, Orach Chaim 263:10; Shulchan Aruch ha-Rav 263:1.

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman, a senior editor at Chabad.org, also heads our Ask The Rabbi team. He is the author of Bringing Heaven Down to Earth. To subscribe to regular updates of Rabbi Freeman's writing, visit Freeman Files subscription.
Yoram Raanan takes inspiration from living in Israel where he can fully explore and express his Jewish consciousness. The light, the air, the spirit of the people and the land, energize and inspire him. His painting include modern Jewish expressionism with a wide range of subjects ranging from abstract to landscape, Biblical and Judaic.
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Discussion (46)
February 11, 2014
To Camarillo
It says to abstain from lighting a fire "in your dwelling" (which includes your car or any other building or location) to distinguish the TEMPLE, where fires were lit every day, even on Shabbat, as part of the Temple sacrificial services.
Chaim
Cinncinnati
February 3, 2014
My interpretation of Fire and Candles!
Others pray to idols and statues, we pray to fire as to the flame reaches to G-d.
Not candles per se! Since wax was not yet invented at the time the Torah was given to Moses. Candles came thousand years later as alchemists/chemists discovered wax. Our forefathers used fire and later oil to light their dark places in lieu of candles today. Fire is an analogy to the burning bush on Mt Sinai where Moses received the Tablets from G-d. This must have been a symbol for people to pray facing any kind of fire like facing G-d. It is not only on Shabbat that we light fire but on all other Jewish holidays.
Feigele
BR FL
February 2, 2014
The text of Exodus 35:3.and some history
What the Torah says explicitly (as translated elsewhere on this website) is more specific than don't light fires: "You shall not kindle fire in any of your dwelling places on the Sabbath day".

This raises two points:

1. At one time, there was a dispute as to whether it meant "during Shabbos, you may not kindle a fire in your dwelling places" (the current interpretation) or "you may not, at any time, kindle a fire that will still be burning on Shabbos. The requirement to light Shabbos candles may have begun as a way of teaching that you may light a fire before Shabbos that will burn during it, or as a way of prohibiting the practice of extinguishing all preexisting fires before Shabbos.

2. The text in Exodus does not say that you can't make a fire in other places (at work, in your car engine), etc. If the Torah does not include extraneous words just to waste ink and parchment, then there must be some reason for the specific reference to dwelling places.
Anonymous
Camarillo, CA, USA
chabadcamarillo.com
January 30, 2014
Agree with "Blind Delight"
The answer given by this article as to where Torah commands Shabbat Candles is unfortunately typical.
It is abundantly clear that no matter the custom an explanation is produced. IF the custom was to actually eat the Sabbath Meal in the dark, is there any doubt that the "explanation" would be along the lines of blind delight's; that we honor the injunction against kindling fire by taking one meal on the dark? And that the darkness causes an increase in the pleasure of aroma, texture and taste?
Brian S
Simsbury CT
May 6, 2013
Once a Week Romance
Every week, by wednesday, my soul rejoice in anticipation of the welcoming of Shabbat. That's when preparation starts; flowers, what to wear,what i would prepare for dinner, who to invite, chants selections, and so on. As a Sephardic Jew, my personal experience kindling Shabbat lights is the start of a romantic date with my Creator. By Friday (day of preparation), physically i am already ready with the details of dinner... so by those 18 minutes timeframe where i stand "alone" before Shabbat candles my spirit humbles at the welcoming of Shabbat ceremony. As i pray while kindling Shabbat candles, i am surrendering all of my wants and have tos (the woldly me) to become, as Shabbat, the bride. At dinner, i rejoice with family and friends chanting, and celebrating (the Jewish way). But it is at the Temple service i encounter true intimacy and romance, as between chants and prayers my soul dances before His Holy Presence renewing the vow that i am His and He is mine. Once a week romance.
Sandra
Riverton, NJ -USA
April 4, 2013
Re: Shabbat candles not allowed to be used
Correct about Chanukia. But the light of Shabbat candles are meant for your benefit.
Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
April 1, 2013
Shabbat candles not allowed to be used
I thought that Shabbat candles and even Chanukiah flames were not allowed to be used for any purpose, like a light for reading. You imply they are to shed light on the dinner table but that is using their light for a purpose. They are supposed to be seen by the diners but their light not used.
Susan Levitsky
March 28, 2013
Re: not in the Torah
Ron, what is the Torah? Is it just the five books that Moses wrote? Or does it include the prophets? What about Psalms, Proverbs, etc? And if that is Torah, why stop there? What about Mishnah, Talmud, Zohar—and much more?

Several articles on our site deal with this question. You'll find some of them by searching "Oral Torah." But in a nutshell: Think of the Five Books of Moses as a seed planted in the earth—the earth being us, the Jewish People. As the seed grows, a tree unfolds. And that tree includes everything that emerges out of the seed through its interaction with the earth.

That is how divine wisdom enters our world—through an interaction between heaven and earth, G-d and humankind.
Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
March 28, 2013
not in the Torah
Dear Rabbi,

Why not just say the truth. G-d never commanded us to light candles on Shabbat. It is a beautiful tradition designed to open the Sabbath and honor G-d, but no where in the Torah is it written. First you say:

"The most precious things in life are said silently. Those who need to understand—those who are not strangers, those who hear the words from the inside—understand. Similarly, with Shabbat: when G-d gave it to us, He did not need to spell out its most precious customs."

Then you spell out many of the things that the Torah does say.

I found this page because I was seeking to find out precisely when we started lighting candles on Shabbat and according to this, it took place "at some unspecified point in history," .... can you be any more specific? Thank you.
ron
israel
January 2, 2013
Thanks for the Response.
Thank you for replying to my comment, Rabbi. I was very honored to get a personal response. My question now is, could the Rabbis have decided on another way of fulfilling the mitzvah? Since the mitzvah is to honor the Sabbath, and there needed to be a way to formalize it, could they have decided on another way? Or is it taught that Shabbat candles were really the only thing that can possible serve this function?
Yoshiyahu
UConn
Show all comments
Welcome to our candle-lighting section, where you will find the details and practicalities of lighting Shabbat candles, along with the meaning, spirituality and power of doing so . . .
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