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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
2.

Ibid.

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.

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.

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. 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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David Wales UK November 2, 2016

Have the Shabbat candlesticks ever been compared to Jachin and Boaz in Judaism ? Dear Tzvi Freeman,

I have a sort of memory problem : I do not remember where I picked up the idea that " There are two Shabbat candlesticks because they represent Jachin and Boaz " and in performing a few searches I note that this idea is appearing in Christian writings not Jewish ones whereas it seems to me to be unlikely to be the pre-occupation of those who are not using them : so I am taking a guess that I am asking the question in the wrong way ... Can I just pitch it to you instead : does this idea have a Jewish history which I am not successfully locating ?

Regards and Thanks, David Reply

Anonymous September 20, 2016

I also want to quickly add that now I know how the ancients did it Olive oil burns for 24 hours, and earthen stoves, the only kind back then, also burn for 24 hours. Earthen stoves have heating 'pad' areas that merely stay warm, which is likely what they did vs the modern Blech (which is a metal tray people place on their stove tops to keep food warm through Shabbat) I think the biggest confusion started coming when there were no longer 24 hour stoves in everyday use (I believe that was around the 1700's) and candles were the only thing many people could obtain since olive oil was too expensive, and unless you use beeswax (which is also pretty expensive, even back then) a standard candle will not burn for 24 hrs. So people were in the cold and dark. If you can build an earthen stove in your home I highly recommend it (I'm already working on a cast iron heater for Shabbat which also burns for 24 hours straight without needing to be reloaded) it looks like a very rewarding process. For light: electricity, beeswax, and olive oil can all go 24 hrs straight Reply

Anonymous September 20, 2016

Thank you! Thank you so much Rabbi! I appreciate it! Reply

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman Los Angeles September 19, 2016

For Confused The confusion comes just from misinformation.

There is no prohibition in the Torah against benefiting from fire. The only prohibition is to make or increase a fire.

On the second matter, the Torah itself tells the sages to make legislation so that the Torah rules won't be broken. For more on this, search our site for "rabbinic safeguards." Reply

Anonymous September 19, 2016

Rabbi Freeman, if you can please answer, I am confused by two statements here The first is that someone told me that the Torah says that even the light, heat, or any 'benefit' from a fire, is not allowed to be enjoyed during Shabbat itself, and that no one could ever figure out why that was written, and because people were having a bad time in the dark, and falling over, rabbis just bypassed it in the name of us enjoying Shabbat. Is this true?

Second, if the Torah grows with the Jewish people, then why do only certain opinions count as more (like orthdox vs conservatives) if they both do the same thing; put in what they see as their opinions and grow with the jews' needs as they see fit them. And why do many people see it as a sin when something like flicking on a light or touching Muktze was done by accident, if it is only a rabbinic interpretation and decision of opinion, and people agree that it is. People see it as we sinned to the Creator, but in fact He knows all we did was accidentally by pass safeguards or opinions grown from and not His words directly. Reply

Muneendra India 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. Reply

sora devorah golus August 14, 2015

Good Shabbos! Reply

Storm Stephens July 8, 2015

Wow. Thank you so much for the insight. Reply

Elisheba Flor USA/France 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! Reply

Feigele Boca Raron FL 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! Reply

Anonymous June 8, 2015

Super helpful! Thanks for posting! Reply

Marti Wolfe Chico CA 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. Reply

Chabad.org staff via mychabad.org 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. Reply

judith April 11, 2015

is it a special place in the house that the shabbat candles have to be lit? Reply

Chaim Cinncinnati 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. Reply

Feigele BR FL 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. Reply

Anonymous Camarillo, CA, USA via chabadcamarillo.com 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. Reply

Brian S Simsbury CT 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? Reply

Sandra Riverton, NJ -USA 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. Reply

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman 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. Reply

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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