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Where Does the Torah Say to Light Shabbat Candles?

Where Does the Torah Say to Light Shabbat Candles?

Original artwork by Yoram Raanan
Original artwork by Yoram Raanan


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?


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




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


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).


Yoma 74b.


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


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.


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


Shabbat 23b and Rashi ad loc.


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

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman, a senior editor at, 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. FaceBook @RabbiTzviFreeman Periscope @Tzvi_Freeman .
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 paintings include modern Jewish expressionism with a wide range of subjects ranging from abstract to landscape, biblical and Judaic.
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Discussion (55)
June 11, 2016
what a great insight, yes today electrical bulbs replaced the candles, however eating under the lighting of the candles is natural & permanent act.
August 14, 2015
Good Shabbos!
sora devorah
July 8, 2015
Wow. Thank you so much for the insight.
Storm Stephens
June 25, 2015
To Sandra: Once a week romance
To Sandra: I love the way you compare Shabat to a weekly date with Hashem! :) Shabat Alegre, Havera!
Elisheba Flor
June 8, 2015
Chanukkah's lights
How about Chanukkah's lights in winter? lots of houses have them on! and it illuminates lots of streets too!
Boca Raron FL
June 8, 2015
Super helpful! Thanks for posting!
May 17, 2015
Some years ago, I participated in a car pool with Rabbi and Sylvia Yellin, because our children all attended South Peninsula Hebrew Day School in Sunnyvale, CA.
One Friday there was power outage that affected almost all the San Francisco Bay Area.
Traffic, always a horror in the Bay Area, ground to a near standstill, as every intersection, deprived of traffic lights, became a four-way stop. People behaved courteously under the circumstances, but by the time I finally arrived at the Yellins' to collect my daughter, Nomie, the only lights for miles around were the candles on the Yellins' shabbat dinner table.
Rabbi Yellin said, "Yes, we see that "In the houses of the Jews there is always warmth and light".
Consider - it is only a couple of generations that light in winter and in the evening can be taken for granted. I feel sad to drive through neighborhoods and see that the only light in most houses is the blueish glow from the tv.
Marti Wolfe
Chico CA
April 12, 2015
To Judith
The candles should be lit in the room where one eats the Shabbat meal, preferably on the table or near enough so that they can be seen during the recitation of Kiddush and the meal. staff
April 11, 2015
is it a special place in the house that the shabbat candles have to be lit?
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.