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Bahaaloscha – “Lights Off” – Lighting Shabbos Candles in a Lit Room

A common Shabbos question of the modern day, which many authorities have addressed, is the question of lighting Shabbos candles in a room, well-lit by electric lighting.

In terms of lighting up the room, the effect of Shabbos candles in a room lit by electric lighting is negligible. The question is, therefore, raised: Is such a lighting of candles sufficient to fulfill the mitzvah, or must the lights be turned off – as some are careful to do – before kindling the Shabbos candles?

Naturally, the latter option runs into trouble when there are two days of Yom Tov (unless one sets a Shabbos clock), or where Shabbos leads into Yom Tov (as we recently had on Shavuos), and in the present article we will try to clarify this important halachah.

In addition, we will elucidate the halachah of lighting candles in a room where other candles are being lit (such as when married children visit their parents), and the halachah of lighting Shabbos candles when staying in hotels or in dormitories.

The Light of the Menorah

This week’s parashah opens with the obligation to light the menorah. The wording of the pasuk clearly 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 purpose of the light is honor and fear of the Mikdash: “It is an elevation and an honor for the House. For a house in which lights are constantly kindled… stirs powerful emotions. You already know the emphasis the Torah places on the elevation of the Mikdash and its fear, so that a person will experience humility and humbleness upon beholding it.”

A similar idea, whereby the purpose of the menorah’s light is the honor of the Mikdash, is found 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 that the purpose of the menorah’s light was not for the honor of the Mikdash, but rather for the practical value to 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 off from most of the outside daylight, and the constant candlelight enabled those officiating therein to see where they were going.

Purpose of Shabbos Lights

Similar 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 honor of Shabbos, for a meal can only be considered ‘honorable’ if eaten in a well-lit place.

The Rambam, moreover, writes explicitly (Shabbos 5:1) that “the candle must be lit, the table laid, and the bed made, for all these involve the honor of the Shabbos.” The Yere’im (429) likewise states that the lights must be kindled in honor of the Shabbos.

Yet, elsewhere (5:1) the Rambam writes that the purpose of the Shabbos candles is for the ‘enjoyment’ (oneg) of the Shabbos, meaning that we need light in order to enjoy the day (or, rather, the night). The Shulchan Aruch Ha-Rav (263) opens the section on Shabbos candles by explaining that their purpose is to provide light, allowing people to feel comfortable and helping them avoid obstacles.

In a similar sense, the Gemara (Shabbos 23b) writes that the purpose of the Shabbos candles is Shalom Bayis (harmony of the home). Rashi explains that “the members of the household are distressed to walk in the dark.” The Aruch Ha-Shulchan (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 Shabbos candles, one should insure that there is some illumination (it can come from the street lights) in every area of the home that will be used on Shabbos, so that everyone will be able to find their way around without any discomfort.

Because of the numerous sources pointing to both rationales, the halachah follows both, and by lighting Shabbos candles one fulfills both the mitzvah of honoring the Shabbos, and the mitzvah of enjoying the Shabbos.

Lighting in a Well-Lit Room

The question of lighting in a well-lit room applies both with regard to the honor of the Shabbos, and with regard to its delight. 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 the Shabbos. Is there an obligation to turn off the lights before kindling the candles?

The halachah on which the answer to this question is based is the ruling of the Shulchan Aruch concerning a number of people lighting Shabbos candles in the same room.

The Shulchan Aruch (263:8) mentions an opinion that a number of people may light Shabbos candles in the same room – each with his own candles and each reciting his own berachah. However, the Shulchan Aruch notes that this ruling is disputed, and concludes that only one of the people lighting – the person who lights first – should recite a berachah. The Rema, however, adds that our custom follows the first opinion, so that several people may light in the same room, all with a berachah.

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 berachah can be recited over this added light. Based on this, 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 always add some light, and this is sufficient for the mitzvah of lighting and for the berachah.

This is the ruling of a number of 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 there is no obligation to turn the lights off before kindling Shabbos candles).

Making a Significant Contribution

However, the Magen Avraham continues, citing the Shelah, who writes that people lighting in the same room must ensure that each one of them lights up a different portion of the room. For this reason, he points out that two people should not light with the same candelabra, for the person lighting second will not make 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 ensure that one’s candles make a significant difference to the lighting in the room.

The ruling above is 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 quotes the Peri Megadim saying that the opinion of the Eliyah Rabbah should not be relied upon, barring extenuating circumstances.

For this reason, some suggest turning off the electric lights, and turning them back on – preferably after lighting the candles ((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.’)) – in honor of Shabbos. The candles are thus lit in a darkened room, and the berachah applies both to the candles and to the electric lights. 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, this is certainly the proper practice (Yalkut Yosef, 263:8).

Lighting for the Honor of Shabbos

The distinction raised above, between lighting for the honor of or for the delight on 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 on Shabbos, are fulfilled at different times. The mitzvah of delight on Shabbos is fulfilled during Shabbos itself, in actually enjoying a well-lit room. The mitzvah of honoring Shabbos, however, is fulfilled by 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, in contrast to electric lighting, Shabbos candles are special for Shabbos, and there is more honor in candles than there is in regular electric lights.

A similar idea is put forward 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 became an “important custom” that a berachah can be recited over.

Based on these ideas, Rav Shlomo Zalman mentions (in the milu’im) that where couples are invited to their parents, each lady can light her own candles and recite a blessing over them, even though according to the strict halachah there is no obligation to do so.

The custom of Sephardim, however, is to be stringent in this matter; with regard to 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 would be for each family to light in their own room, but hotels usually 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 to avoid 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 permitted 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 can be lit even with a berachah – and certainly incandescent light bulbs – as we have expounded on here.

Certainly for Sephardic families – and even for Ashkenazic families, in particular where the place of lighting is far from the place where one is eating – this is 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 the sleeping area in honor of Shabbos before Shabbos commences.

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