Question #1: Electric lights for Shabbos
“Unfortunately, I need to have a medical procedure performed which will require me to spend Shabbos in the hospital. Because of safety concerns, they will not allow me to kindle candles. Do I fulfill the mitzvah of kindling Shabbos lights if I light electric lights?”
Question #2: Rekindle for Shabbos?
“If lights are already burning Friday afternoon shortly before Shabbos, is there a mitzvah to extinguish and rekindle them for the sake of fulfilling the mitzvah of kindling Shabbos lights?”
Question #3: Unbelieving kindler
“My mother, who unfortunately does not believe in Judaism, kindles Shabbos candles every Friday evening, because ‘that is what Jews do.’ Do I fulfill the mitzvah when she lights?”
All three of the above questions involve laws that result from understanding the rabbinic mitzvah to kindle lights before Shabbos. Several reasons are cited for this mitzvah:
Any place treated with pomp and ceremony is always suitably illuminated. Certainly, the area where the Shabbos is celebrated, which commemorates the fact that Hashem created the world, should have plenty of light.
People will not enjoy the Shabbos meal if they eat in the dark. Therefore, the Sages required that the place where one intends to eat the Shabbos repast be properly illuminated.
Some provide a different and highly practical reason to require illumination on Shabbos. We do not want anyone to hurt himself by stumbling over or bumping into something on Shabbos.
Difference in halachah
There is a difference in halachah among these different opinions. According to the first two opinions, the main halachic concern is that the place where one eats should be lit. According to the last opinion, one must be careful to illuminate all places in the house that a person may pass through on Shabbos, so that he does not hurt himself by bumping into or stumbling over something.
Chazal were concerned that one not remain in the dark on Shabbos. Did they simply require everyone to be certain that his house is illuminated, or did they establish a requirement to kindle a lamp? The Rishonim dispute this question, some holding that Chazal were satisfied that one make certain that he have adequate lighting for Shabbos, whereas others contend that we are required to kindle a light specifically for this purpose.
What difference does it make?
Several halachic differences result from the above-mentioned dispute:
Rekinding lights – keep those candles burning!
- If lights are already burning Friday afternoon shortly before Shabbos, is there a mitzvah to extinguish and rekindle them for the sake of fulfilling the mitzvah of kindling Shabbos lights? If the mitzvah is to make sure that there is illumination, then I am not required to rekindle lights, but may simply leave the lights burning on into Shabbos. However, if there is a special mitzvah requiring me to kindle the lights, then I must extinguish the burning lights and rekindle them!
The Rishonim dispute whether one is required to extinguish the lights and rekindle them or not. Those who contend that one may leave the candles burning maintain that it is sufficient if there is adequate illumination for Shabbos, and one has no responsibility to extinguish the light and rekindle it. Other Rishonim, however, maintain that Chazal required kindling lights especially for Shabbos. Thus, leaving lights kindled is insufficient, if I did not light them especially for Shabbos.[i] We rule according to the second approach.
Later authorities rule that we satisfy the requirement to kindle a special light in honor of Shabbos by kindling just one light. Thus, if there are many lights kindled around the house, one is not required to extinguish all of them and rekindle them all for the sake of Shabbos. It is sufficient to kindle one light for this purpose and leave the other lights burning.[ii] Similarly, if your house is situated in a way that street lighting illuminates your hallway, you are not required to leave lights on to provide additional illumination.
Reciting a brocha
- Does one recite a brocha on the mitzvah of kindling Shabbos lights?
A second dispute that results from our original inquiry (whether the mitzvah is to kindle lights or to have illumination) is whether one recites a brocha when kindling the Shabbos lights. According to those opinions that the mitzvah is simply to see that the house is illuminated, one would not recite a brocha when kindling Shabbos lights, even if he needs to kindle lamps before Shabbos. This is because, in their opinion, there is no special mitzvah to kindle lights.[iii] However, the conclusion of the poskim is that there is a mitzvah to kindle Shabbos lights, and that even if one has lights kindled already, one should extinguish and rekindle them.[iv]
Having a gentile light for me
- A third result of this dispute is whether I can fulfill the mitzvah by having a non-Jew kindle Shabbos lights for me. What happens if I am unable to kindle the Shabbos lights myself? May I ask a non-Jew to kindle them for me? If the mitzvah is to kindle the lights, then I have not fulfilled a mitzvah this way, since a non-Jew cannot be my agent to fulfill a mitzvah. On the other hand, if the mitzvah is for the house to be illuminated, having a gentile kindle lights for me fulfills the mitzvah, since the house is now illuminated.
Since we follow the second approach, I may not have a non-Jew light for me.
In our modern houses, the candles or oil lamps provide very little lighting, and our main illumination is provided by the electric lights. In most houses, one does not even notice when the candles go out, so overshadowed are they by the electricity. May we fulfill the mitzvah with electric lights?
Indeed, most authorities contend that one fulfills the mitzvah of kindling Shabbos lights with electric lights (Shu”t Beis Yitzchok 1:120; Eidus Leyisrael, page 122). There are authorities who disagree, because they feel that the mitzvah requires kindling with a wick and a fuel source that is in front of you, both requirements that preclude using electric lights to fulfill the mitzvah (Shu”t Maharshag 2:107).
The consensus of most authorities is that, in an extenuating circumstance, one may fulfill the mitzvah with electric lights (Shu”t Yechaveh Daas 5:24; Shu”t Kochavei Yitzchak 1:2). Therefore, someone who is hospitalized for Shabbos may recite a brocha on electric lights, since hospitals usually forbid lighting an open flame.
Electricity and then candles
Since we are, anyway, primarily using electric lighting to fulfill the mitzvah, it is therefore a good idea that, immediately prior to kindling the Shabbos lights, one turn off the electric lights in the dining room and then rekindle them for the purpose of Shabbos, then kindle the Shabbos candles or lamps, and then recite the brocha, having in mind that the brocha includes both the candles and the electric lighting. (This is following Ashkenazi practice. Sefardim, who recite the brocha first and then kindle the lights, can recite the brocha, and then turn on the electric lights and light the Shabbos candles.)
Lady of the house
Although long-established custom is that the lady of the house kindles the Shabbos lights (see Mishnah Shabbos 31b), in actuality, each person is responsible for fulfilling the mitzvah (Rambam, Hilchos Shabbos 5:1). This does not mean that everyone should start kindling his own lights. It means that when the lady of the house kindles the Shabbos lights, she does so as the agent of the entire household. Should there be no lady of the house who can perform the mitzvah, a different member of the household should kindle the lights.
Preparing the lights
Although the lady of the house is the one who actually kindles the lights, her husband should assume the responsibility of preparing the lights for her to kindle. This approach, mentioned in the Zohar, is also implied by the wording of the Mishnah (Tosafos Rabbi Akiva Eiger, Shabbos 2:6).
At this point, we are in a position to begin analyzing the third of our opening questions:
“My mother, who unfortunately does not believe in Judaism, kindles Shabbos lights every Friday evening, because ‘that is what Jews do.’ Do I fulfill the mitzvah when she lights?” Let us understand the basis for the question.
Someone who does not observe all the mitzvos of Judaism certainly can and should be encouraged to observe whatever mitzvos they are willing and able to. The question here is that we are told that her mother “does not believe in Judaism,” which I presume means that she has actively rejected the assumption that Hashem has commanded that we observe His mitzvos. A great late authority, the Sho’eil Umeishiv (2:1:51; 2:3:91) discusses whether someone who does not believe that Hashem commanded to observe mitzvos fulfills them, since this person rejects that there are commandments. The Sho’eil Umeishiv concludes that, indeed, someone who does not accept the basis of mitzvos does not fulfill them. He bases this principle on the statement of the Rambam (Hilchos Melachim 8:11) that a gentile who observes mitzvos is considered a righteous gentile and is rewarded with olam haba, provided that he believes that Hashem told Moshe Rabbeinu that the descendants of Noach are commanded to observe the mitzvos that apply to them.
According to the Sho’eil Umeishiv, someone who does not believe in Torah but kindles Friday night lights only because it is a Jewish practice, but without any belief that one is commanded to do so, does not fulfill any mitzvah. If this is so, then their kindling cannot function as an agent for someone else. This would mean that the daughter, who is observant, should also kindle Shabbos lights, and that she should recite a brocha when she does so, since she is the one fulfilling the mitzvah.
If she feels that this will offend her mother, she can turn on the dining room electric lights, which, as we noted above, fulfills the mitzvah. Based on what we have explained above, she could even recite a brocha on the electric lights.
Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch (Shemos 20:10) notes that people mistakenly think that work is prohibited on Shabbos in order that it be a day of rest. He points out that the Torah does not prohibit doing avodah, which connotes hard work, but melachah, which implies activity with purpose and accomplishment. Shabbos is a day that we refrain from constructing and altering the world for our own purposes. The goal of Shabbos is to allow Hashem’s rule to be the focus of creation, by refraining from our own creative acts (Shemos 20:11).
The Gemara (Shabbos 23b) teaches that someone who kindles Shabbos lights regularly will merit having sons who are Torah scholars. Let us hope and pray that in the merit of observing these halachos correctly, we will have children and grandchildren who light up the world with their Torah!
[i] Tosafos, Shabbos 25b s.v. Chovah
[ii] See Ketzos HaShulchan 74:1
[iii] See Tosafos, Shabbos 25b s.v. Chovah
[iv] Tosafos, Shabbos 25b s.v. Chovah; Rambam 5:1; see Mordechai, Shabbos #294