Blessing over the Candles

The beginning of parshas Behaalos’cha discusses the kindling of the menorah. This provides me with enough of an excuse to talk about a different kindling mitzvah.

Blessing over the Candles

Question #1: When Do I Kindle?

“What is the optimal way to recite the brochos and kindle the Shabbos lights?”

Question #2: Purchasing the Candlesticks

Is there a halachic basis for the custom that the chosson’s family purchases candlesticks for his bride?

Question #3: Who Kindles the Candles?

“My mother can no longer light the Shabbos candles herself, but instead has her non-Jewish caretaker kindle them, and then Mother recites the brocha. Should I tell Mom not to do this, since one cannot recite a brocha on a mitzvah performed by a gentile?”

Question #4: When Do We Kindle the Candles?

“My father-in-law insists that whoever kindles Shabbos lights in his house should recite the brocha before kindling, which is not my family’s custom. What should we do when we visit them?”


The questions above concern reciting brochos prior to lighting the Shabbos candles. We are all aware that immediately prior to accepting Shabbos, women kindle the Shabbos candles or lamps, cover their eyes, recite the appropriate brocha and thereby usher in Shabbos. However, most of us do not realize that this is not a universal practice. As a matter of fact, the Gemara never even mentions reciting a brocha upon the mitzvah of kindling Shabbos lights, and the practice of reciting the brocha after kindling them was not exclusive practice, even among Ashkenazim, until relatively lately. As we will soon see, most Sefardim follow a slightly different procedure than what was described above.

Why do we light Shabbos candles?

Let us start with a basic understanding of the mitzvah of having Shabbos lights. The rishonim provide several reasons why we kindle lights before Shabbos.

(1) Respect the meal

The Shabbos seudah should be treated with the respect of a festive banquet. The venue of formal dinners is always well illuminated (Rashi, Shabbos 25b s.v.Chovah; see Rambam, Hilchos Shabbos 30:5).

(2) Enjoy the meal

When someone cannot see what he is eating, he does not enjoy the meal. Therefore, there must be enough light to see the Shabbos meal (She’iltos #63).

(3) Avoid unpleasant atmosphere

It is depressing to sit in the dark, which is contrary to the atmosphere appropriate for Shabbos (Rashi, Shabbos 23b s.v. Shalom).

(4) Avoid getting hurt

If the house is dark, someone might stumble or collide with something and hurt himself, which is certainly not conducive to the enjoyment of Shabbos (Rashi, Shabbos 25b s.v. Hadlakas).

Differences in halacha

The different reasons mentioned may result in dissimilar halachic repercussions. For example, the first two reasons, honoring the Shabbos meal and enjoying it, require light only in the room where the Shabbos meal will be eaten. On the other hand, the fourth reason, preventing a person from hurting himself, requires illumination in any part of the house through which one walks. Therefore, we should kindle lights in all areas of the house that may be used in the course of Shabbos (Magen Avraham 263:1, quoting Maharshal). Some authorities go further, contending that one should make sure that there are lights that burn all night in any such area (Kaf Hachayim). In earlier generations, this probably required a long-burning oil lamp; in today’s world, this is easy to accomplish with electric lighting.

Other authorities suggest that the halachic obligation might extend even further – that we are required to make sure any dark area that may be entered on Shabbos day, such as a walk-in closet, be properly illuminated for the entire Shabbos. The Ketzos Hashulchan (74:1), who discusses this issue, does not reach a conclusion whether this is indeed required or not.

Whose mitzvah is it?

Who is required to kindle the Shabbos lights? Most people are surprised to discover that the mitzvah of kindling Shabbos lights is incumbent upon every individual. To quote the Rambam (Hilchos Shabbos 5:1): “Everyone is required to have a lamp lit in his house on Shabbos.” Although usually the lady of the house kindles the Shabbos lights, she does so as the agent of the rest of the family and also for their guests (Levush, Orach Chayim 263:3; Graz, Kuntros Acharon 263:2). Therefore, if there is no lady of the house, or if she is away for Shabbos, someone else must kindle the lights, instead. A man or group of men together for Shabbos are obligated to kindle lights, and students in a dormitory, whether in a yeshiva or a seminary, are required to kindle Shabbos lights. The requirement is not that each individual kindle his own Shabbos lights — one person can function as an agent for the rest. Usually, this means that they have candles lit in a safe place, and that someone makes certain that there are electric lights burning in other places, as needed.

The Shabbos lights must be kindled by an adult. Although many have the custom that girls under bas mitzvah kindle their own Shabbos lights, this is always done in addition to an adult lighting.

When several women kindle Shabbos lights in one house, it is preferable that each light in a different place, so that each lamp provides illumination in a different area of the house.

Although the lady of the house usually is the one who does the actual kindling, her husband should participate in the mitzvah by preparing the lights for her (see Rabbi Akiva Eiger’s comments to the Mishnah, Shabbos 2:6; Mishnah Berurah 263:12, 264:28). The proper practice is that her husband prepares the lights and the wicks, or sets up the candles so that they are ready for her to light. Shemiras Shabbos Kehilchasah (43:41) reports that he heard that this is the basis for the custom that the chosson purchases the candlesticks that his bride will be kindling after their marriage.

Rekindling lights

Assuming that, when Shabbos begins, the area is already illuminated with lighting that was turned on earlier in the day, is one required to extinguish the light and rekindle it for the sake of Shabbos? In other words: Is there a specific mitzvah to kindle lights, or is it sufficient to make sure that the area one plans to use is illuminated?

There actually appears to be a dispute among the rishonim regarding this question, and there are differences in halachic observance that result from those rulings. Some maintain that Chazal required only that one make certain that there is adequate illumination for Shabbos, but that it is sufficient to use lighting that was kindled earlier, not for the purpose of Shabbos (see Rambam, Hilchos Shabbos 5:1). Others maintain that Chazal required kindling lights especially for Shabbos. In their opinion, leaving lights already kindled does not fulfill the mitzvah that Chazal established (Tosafos, Shabbos 25b s.v. chovah).

Later authorities conclude that one needs to kindle only one light specifically in honor of Shabbos. 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, but one may leave most of the lights burning, provided one light is lit especially for Shabbos (see Ketzos Hashulchan 74:1). The brocha is recited on the light that is kindled in the area where one will be eating (see Rema, Orach Chayim 263:10; Mishnah Berurah 263:2).

Some contemporary authorities have pointed out the following: The main illumination in our houses is electric lighting, which was not turned on specifically for the mitzvah of kindling Shabbos lights. Often, the illumination provided by the Shabbos candles is so insignificant that one hardly notices their light. Thus, if the primary purpose of kindling Shabbos lights is to provide illumination, the Shabbos candles are not really fulfilling their role. For this reason, the Shabbos lights should be placed where they provide illumination. Alternatively, one should turn the electric lights off immediately prior to kindling the Shabbos lamps, turn them on again for the sake of fulfilling the mitzvah of kindling Shabbos lights, then kindle the Shabbos oil or candles and recite a brocha which now includes both the electric lights and the oil or candles. (This is assuming that one is following the practice of reciting the brocha after kindling the lights. The order would be modified for those who recite the brocha before kindling the lights. See ahead.)

When to light?

When is the optimal time to kindle the Shabbos lights? In this context, the Gemara recounts an interesting story (Shabbos 23b). Rav Yosef’s wife was accustomed to kindle the Shabbos lights immediately before Shabbos. She reasoned that it was a bigger honor for Shabbos if it was obvious that the kindling was being done for Shabbos (as explained by Ran). Rav Yosef corrected her, saying that it was better to kindle somewhat earlier in the day and not wait until right before sunset to light Shabbos candles.

Mrs. Yosef then thought that she should kindle much earlier, until an older scholar taught her that a beraisa (a halachic teaching dating back to the era of the Mishnah) teaches that it is best not to kindle the lights too early and not too late. Rashi explains that if one kindles the lights too early, it will not be noticeable that they are being kindled for Shabbos.

When is too early?

When is too early? The Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayim 263:4) rules that one should not kindle the lights earlier than plag hamincha, and that one should accept Shabbos shortly after one kindles the lights. The decision to accept Shabbos at the time of the kindling demonstrates that it was performed specifically for the sake of Shabbos.

Did I automatically accept Shabbos?

Does kindling the Shabbos lights always mean that one is now accepting Shabbos?

This involves a dispute among early authorities. One of the geonim, the Baal Halachos Gedolos, contends that kindling the lights for Shabbos indicates that one intends to accept Shabbos immediately afterwards. This kindling is the symbolic acceptance of Shabbos. Others disagree with the Baal Halachos Gedolos, contending that although one is required to kindle lights for Shabbos, this kindling does not constitute accepting Shabbos (Ramban, quoted by Ran Shabbos 10 in the standard edition of the Rif’s halachic code; Tosafos quoted by Tur Orach Chayim 263). The Ramban cites several reasons to support his approach: One reason is that since kindling the Shabbos lights is a forbidden melacha activity, how could performing a melacha be an act of accepting Shabbos? Furthermore, the Ramban contends that one might want to kindle the lights early, so that they are ready for Shabbos, and then take care of other Shabbos preparations that are more time consuming. This would be similar to someone setting up their Shabbos clocks on Friday morning in order to make sure that this task has been done. Could this possibly be considered an act of accepting Shabbos immediately?

Notwithstanding the Ramban’s objections, the Ran, who quotes both sides of the dispute, concludes in accordance with the Baal Halachos Gedolos, that kindling the lights is considered accepting Shabbos.

When does one recite the brocha?

The Rema, when he quotes these laws, mentions two practices:

  1. To recite the brocha before kindling.
  2. To kindle the lights first, which today is common Ashkenazi

Although one always recites the brocha on a mitzvah prior to performing it (see Pesachim 7b), in this instance, reciting the brocha is considered accepting Shabbos (Magen Avraham). If that is true, how can one kindle the lights after one has already accepted Shabbos?

Women who follow this approach kindle the lights and then place their hand in front of the lights. Upon completing the brocha, they remove the hand so that the brocha is recited immediately before benefitting from the lights. Alternatively, a woman closes her eyes until she completes the brocha, and then opens them immediately after reciting the brocha.

The Shulchan Aruch cites both opinions in the dispute between the Baal Halachos Gedolos and the Ramban. He then notes that those who follow the Baal Halachos Gedolos’ approach should recite the brocha, kindle the lights and then drop the match, but not shake it out. This is because kindling the last light is the actual acceptance of Shabbos. Thus, we see three different approaches:

  1. The Ramban, who contends that kindling the lights is not an acceptance of Shabbos.
  2. The standard Ashkenazi practice that reciting the brocha on the Shabbos lights accepts Shabbos.
  3. The custom mentioned by the Shulchan Aruch that kindling the last of the Shabbos lights is the act of accepting Shabbos.

Mincha before lighting

According to the opinions mentioned above that kindling the lights constitutes an acceptance of Shabbos, women should daven mincha prior to kindling the Shabbos lights. Once one has accepted Shabbos, one may no longer daven a weekday mincha.

When men kindle the Shabbos lights, they generally do not accept Shabbos immediately. This is because a man who must kindle the Shabbos lights has yet to go to shul to daven mincha, which he could not do if he had already accepted Shabbos.

There are extenuating circumstances in which a woman may not want to accept Shabbos immediately at the time that she kindles. The authorities conclude that it is preferable for a woman who does not want to accept Shabbos to verbalize, before she kindles the lights, that she is making a condition not to accept Shabbos this week when she recites the brocha on the lights.

In these situations, should an Ashkenazi woman recite the brocha before she kindles, or should she follow her usual practice of kindling the lights and then reciting the brocha? We find a dispute among later authorities as to which is the better procedure (see Bi’ur Halacha 263:5 s.v. Achar).

Brocha before kindling

At this point, let us examine one of our opening questions: “My father-in-law insists that whoever kindles Shabbos lights in his house should recite the brocha before kindling, which is not my family’s custom. What should we do when we visit them?”

Most people refer to this as the difference between Ashkenazi and Sefardi customs. But, as we noted above, even the Rema, the primary halachic codifier of Ashkenazi practice, did not consider lighting before making the brocha to be a universal Ashkenazi custom. Furthermore, as we noted above, all authorities agree that, if one has a valid reason for not accepting Shabbos when kindling, one is not required to do so.

Consequently, it would seem to me that the goal of shalom bayis, in this instance maintaining peace in the house between the visiting married children and their father (father-in-law), is a valid enough reason that the married daughter should not accept Shabbos when she recites the brocha. Once she decided not to accept Shabbos with the reciting of the brocha, she has halachic basis to follow her father’s request and recite the brocha before kindling. (Please do not draw a conclusion that I agree with the father’s approach, either to halacha or to hachnasas orchim. I don’t.)

Having a gentile light

At this point, let us examine the last of our opening questions: “My mother can no longer light the Shabbos candles herself, but, instead, has her non-Jewish caretaker kindle them, and then Mother recites the brocha. Should I tell Mom not to do this, since one cannot recite a brocha on a mitzvah performed by a gentile?”

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.

We usually assume that the mitzvah is indeed to kindle a light especially for Shabbos. Therefore, it would seem that I cannot have a non-Jew light for me, and this is indeed the conclusion of several authorities (Magen Avraham 263:11; Mishnah Berurah 263:21). However, there is an early authority who rules that one can have a gentile kindle the lights and the Jew may recite the brocha (Maharam, quoted by Magen Avraham 263:11). (Among the later authorities, Rabbi Akiva Eiger [ad locum] questions the Maharam’s suggestion, but Rav Pesach Frank [Shu”t Har Tzvi #141] justifies it. I suggest that this she’eilah  be discussed with one’s rav or posek.

In conclusion

The Gemara (Shabbos 23b) teaches that someone who kindles Shabbos lights regularly will merit having sons who are Torah scholars. It is for this reason that, immediately after kindling the Shabbos lights, women recite prayers asking that their children grow in this direction. 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!