When the enactment of lighting Shabbos candles was made, the idea was that the Shabbos candles will provide light for the home or room. One of the basic purposes of Shabbos candles is for shalom bayis—to ensure that people can see where they are going, and not stumble on household items and furniture.
Today, this is generally not the case. Our homes are well lit by electric lighting, and in terms of lighting up the room the effect of Shabbos candles is negligible. The question is therefore raised: Does such lighting fulfill the mitzvah? And if this is a problem, how can it be remedied?
The present article will expound on these questions. Is there an obligation to turn off the electric lights before kindling the Shabbos candles (as some do)? What should be done when more than one person is lighting candles in the same place? And how should candles be lit in hotels and dormitories?
These questions, among others, are discussed below.
The Light of the Menorah
Parashas Behaalosecha opens with the lighting of the Menorah. The wording of the Pasuk implies that the purpose of the menorah is the light it produces: “When you kindle the lights, towards the face of the Menorah the seven lights shall shine” (Bamidbar 8:2).
The Rambam explains that the reason for the light is in honor and awe of the Mikdash: “It is an elevation and an honor for the House. For a house in which lights are constantly kindled… stirs powerful emotion. You already know the emphasis the Torah places on the elevation of the Mikdash and its awe, so that a person will experience humility and humbleness upon beholding it.”
A similar idea, whereby the purpose of the Menorah’s light is in honor of the Mikdash, is articulated in the Midrash (Tanchuma, Tetzaveh 1): “Hashem told Israel: My children! Do for Me as I did for you! … ‘Hashem walked before them in a pillar of cloud … and at night in a pillar of fire to light up for them.’ The corresponding instruction is: Kindle a constant light.”
Yet, the Midrash (Tetzaveh 4) also mentions an idea whereby the purpose of the menorah’s light was not the honor of the Mikdash, but rather the practical value for the Kohanim serving therein: “Hashem said to Moshe: It is not that I require the light… but it is for you, so that you should know where you are going in, and where you are leaving.”
The Mishkan was closed from external daylight, and the constant candlelight enabled those officiating therein to see where they were going.
Purpose of Shabbos Lights
In a similar vein to the light of the Menorah, two principle reasons are suggested as the purpose of the Shabbos candles. In one place (Shabbos 25b), Rashi explains that the purpose of the Shabbos candles is for the honor of Shabbos, for a meal is honored when eaten in a well-lit place.
The Rambam, moreover, writes explicitly (Shabbos 5:1): “The candle must be lit, the table laid, and the bed made, for all these involve the honor of the Shabbos.” Sefer Yere’im (429) likewise states that the lights must be kindled in honor of Shabbos.
Yet, elsewhere (5:1) the Rambam writes that the purpose of the Shabbos candles is for the “delight” (oneg) of the Shabbos, meaning in order that one should be able to enjoy the day (or, rather, the night). The Shulchan Aruch HaRav (263) opens the section on Shabbos candles by explaining that their purpose is to provide light, allowing people to feel comfortable and guarding them from obstacles.
In a similar vein, the Gemara (Shabbos 23b) writes that the purpose of the Shabbos candles is shalom bayis (harmony of the home). Rashi explains that “the household is distressed to walk in the dark.” The Aruch HaShulchan (263:2) explains that the concept of shalom bayis is included in the “delight” of the Shabbos.
It is noteworthy that in order to fulfill the concept of shalom bayis with the Shabbos candles, one should ensure that there is some illumination in every area of the home that will be used on Shabbos, so that everyone will be able to find their way around without discomfort.
Because of the numerous sources pointing to both rationales, the halacha follows both, and by lighting Shabbos candles one fulfills both the mitzvah of honoring Shabbos, and the mitzvah of Oneg Shabbos.
Lighting in a Well-Lit Room
The question of lighting in a well-lit room applies both concerning the honor of Shabbos and concerning Oneg Shabbos. One cannot rely on the existing electric light to fulfill the mitzvah, because the electric light was not lit in honor of Shabbos. As the Rema (263:8) rules, the Shabbos lights must be kindled expressly in honor of Shabbos.
One solution to this issue is to first turn off the electric lights, then to kindle the Shabbos candles and, before reciting the beracha, to turn on the electric lights as part of the Shabbos candle-lighting itself. Thus, all the lights will be lit in honor of Shabbos, and the candles themselves will be lit while the electric lights are off. Does one need to go through this procedure in lighting candles?
The basic source on this matter refers not to modern electric lights, but to the question of how to act when several people light Shabbos candles in the same room.
Addressing the issue, the Shulchan Aruch (263:8) mentions an opinion whereby several people may light Shabbos candles in the same room—each with his own candles and each reciting his own beracha. However, the Shulchan Aruch notes that this ruling involves a dispute and concludes that only one of the people lighting—the person who lights first—should recite a beracha. The Rema, however, adds that our custom follows the first opinion, so that even several people may light in the same room, all with a beracha.
The Magen Avraham (15, citing the Maharil) explains that according to the ruling of the Rema, a person fulfills the mitzvah by “adding something” to the light already present in the room, and a beracha may be recited over this additional light. Based on this premise, it appears that for those following the rulings of the Rema, it is permitted to light Shabbos candles even in a well-lit room; the candles will always be adding some light, and this is sufficient for lighting with a beracha. Of course, if possible it is better to light in a separate place.
This ruling is issued by several Poskim (as cited in Yalkut Yosef, 263:8; see also the approbation of Rabbi Asher Weiss to the book Milta De-Shechichah, p. 15, who also rules that for Ashkenazim one is not obligated to turn the lights off before kindling the Shabbos candles).
Making a Significant Contribution
However, the Magen Avraham also cites the Shelah that two people should not light with the same candelabra, since the person lighting second will not be making a significant contribution to the lighting in the room.
The Eliyah Rabbah (263:18, 20) disputes this ruling, and writes that even the slightest contribution is sufficient, and there is no need to light a separate candelabra.
The ruling above noted is therefore based on the lenient opinion of the Eliyah Rabbah, and it is noteworthy that the Chayei Adam (5:12) writes that this is the common custom. However, the Mishnah Berurah (263:37) cites both opinions and continues to quote from the Peri Megadim that the opinion of the Eliyah Rabbah should not be relied upon, barring extenuating circumstances.
For this reason, some suggest (as mentioned above) turning off the electric lights, and turning them back on—preferably after lighting the candles—in honor of Shabbos. The candles are thus lit in a darkened room, and the beracha applies both to the candles and to the electric lighting. This was also the custom in Rav Moshe Feinstein’s home (Radiance of Shabbos, p. 20, note 3), and Rabbi Yehoshua Neuwirth (Shemiras Shabbos Kehilchasah 43:34) likewise suggests turning off the lights before kindling the candles.
For those who follow the rulings of the Shulchan Aruch (for those of Sephardi origin) this is certainly the proper practice (Yalkut Yosef, 263:8).
Lighting for the Honor of Shabbos
The distinction between lighting for the honor of Shabbos or for Oneg Shabbos raises another possible reason for leniency in the matter of lighting in a lit room.
The Vilna Gaon (Orach Chaim 529:1) writes that the respective obligations of lighting candles for the honor of Shabbos and for the delight of Shabbos are fulfilled at different times. The mitzvah of Oneg Shabbos is fulfilled during Shabbos itself, when we enjoy a well-lit room. The mitzvah of honoring Shabbos, however, is already fulfilled in the very act of kindling the candles, which is of course done before Shabbos commences.
In light of this distinction, there is room to suggest that the Shabbos candles can be lit even in a well-lit room, because by contrast with electric lighting, Shabbos candles are special to Shabbos, and there is more honor in the candles than there is in regular electric lights.
A similar idea is suggested by Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (Shemiras Shabbos Kehilchasah 43, note 171), who writes that the honor of Shabbos is particularly prominent in the candles, and adds that because married ladies are extremely particular about this mitzvah, it follows that it become an “important custom” that a beracha can be recited over (it is interesting to consider when this began; before electric lighting, in a well-lit room filled with candles the extra Shabbos candles would not have had special status).
Based on these ideas, Rav Shlomo Zalman mentions (in the milu’im) that where couples are invited to their parents, each lady may light her own candles and recite a blessing over them, even though according to the strict halachah there is no obligation of doing so.
The custom of Sephardim, however, is to be stringent in this matter. Concerning a well-lit room, we have seen that even for Ashkenazim, several authorities advise that lights should be turned off before lighting the candles.
Lighting Candles in a Hotel
A closely related issue is the question of how to light candles when staying at a hotel or at a dormitory.
The ideal is for each family to light in their own room, but hotels almost universally prohibit this practice, out of concern for the fire hazard. The general practice is for all guests to light in the dining room (or just outside), which raises the double-problem: The electric lights are on, and many women are lighting in the same place.
The easiest way of avoiding the problem is for families to light in their private room by means of the electric lighting in the room. Rav Moshe Feinstein was reluctant to allow this, and allowed the use of electric lights only in pressing circumstances and without a recitation of the blessing (Radiance of Shabbat p. 12 note 26, and p. 19).
However, the consensus of Poskim is that electric lights may be lit even with a beracha if one uses incandescent light bulbs (we have expounded on this issue here). Certainly for Sephardic families, and even for Ashkenazi families (in particular where the place of lighting is far from the place where one is eating), this will be the preferred method.
It should be noted that even if a family lights candles in the dining hall, the obligation to have a light on in the sleeping area remains. A small light should therefore be turned off and on in honor of Shabbos before Shabbos commences, if there is not sufficient light available from other sources such as street lights.
 Some recommend switching off the lights, switching them back on for the sake of Shabbos, then lighting the candles, and reciting the berachah on both the candles and the lights (see Az Nidberu 5:3, who stresses that one may not speak between turning on the lights and lighting the candles). However, the more common, and apparently preferable practice is to light the candles while the lights are off, so that the principle mitzvah is fulfilled by means of the candles themselves. It is permitted to turn on the lights after lighting the candles (and before the berachah is recited), because the lights are turned on in honor of Shabbos, and they are also considered Shabbos candles.