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Candle Lighting

By: Mrs Leora Bednarsh

A berakhah recited over a mitzvah must generally be recited before the mitzvah is performed, known in halakhah as “over le-asiyyatan,” “before the performance.” This principle appears in Pesachim 7b in a discussion about the blessing recited over the burning of chametz on the day before Pesach. The Amora Shmuel states, “On all mitzvot, the blessing is stated over le-asiyyatan, [preceding the performance of the mitzvah].”

Why must the berakhah precede the mitzah? The answer might depend on how we understand the purpose of reciting a berakhah over a mitvah. One way is to see the berakhah as praise of G-d for giving us the mitzvot, or for granting us the ability to fulfill them. This fits very nicely with the phraseology of the blessings: “Blessed are You, our G-d, King of the universe, Who has sanctified us with His commandments and has commanded us...". Under this understanding, the relevance of the requirement that the blessing precede the action is not completely obvious. Perhaps it is the anticipation of performing the mitzvah which inspires this expression of praise. Alternatively, perhaps the blessing is an expression of praise for the command (chiyyuv) itself, as opposed to the performance of the mitzvah, and that command only exists prior to the performance of the mitzvah.

The Rav zt”l, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, had a different understanding of the berakhot over the mitzvot. He compares them to birkot ha-nehenin, the blessings over pleasure, such as eating and drinking. Just as these berakhot function as a matir (license), giving us permission to partake in the pleasures of the world, so too the blessings on the mitzvot allow us to come closer to G-d by performing His commandments. This understanding, of course, works well with the requirement of over le-asiyyatan. One asks for permission before one does something.

A third understanding of the purpose of berakhot over mitzvot and, in turn, the requirement of over le-asiyyatan is found in the Ritva on Pesachim, who suggests that the berakhah serves to set the mood of the mitzvah. Before performing the act, a person reminds himself or herself and announces that he or she is doing the act because of G-d's command and in order to fulfill the mitzvah.

There are noted exceptions to the requirement of over le-asiyyatan – generally in situations where there is a conflicting requirement. The classic exception which the Gemara discusses is the ritual immersion of a convert. Since the convert is not a Jew before he or she dips in the mikveh, and therefore not required to say the berakhot or perform mitzvot, he or she cannot say the berakhah before immersing in the mikveh. Once the immersion is completed, he or she is now a Jew and can say the berakhah, and so does so then – after having performed the mitzvah. Another exception is the berakhah over washing hands before eating bread. Since one cannot say berakhot when one’s hands are not clean, the berakhah is said after the washing of the hands. Interestingly, the halakhah is that one should say the berakhah before one dries one’s hands: Since it is considered disgusting to eat bread with wet hands, drying one’s hands is still part of the mitzvah of washing before eating bread, and saying the berakhah at that point, before drying the hands, preserves over le-asiyyatan.

Another exception which is well-known nowadays is the berakhah over candlelighting on Erev Shabbat. Rabbi Moshe Isserles (Rema), in his comment on the Shulchan Arukh, cites two opinions about when the berakhah should be said. One opinion is that it should be said before the lighting of the candles, just like all other mitzvot. The other opinion is that the berakhah should be said after the lighting of the candles and, similar to the compromise in the case of hand washing, in order to fulfill over le-asiyyatan, one should light, then cover one’s eyes while saying the berakhah, and then uncover one’s eyes and look at the candles. To understand this second opinion, which is actually the prevalent minhag, we need to understand what is gained by saying the berakhah after the performance of this mitzvah. This requires an excursion into the laws of Kabbalat Shabbat, the acceptance of the Shabbat.

The halakhic concept of tosefet me-chol al ha-kodesh introduces the idea that it is possible to add from the non-holy to the holy. One example of this concept is Tosefet Shabbat, adding from the weekday onto Shabbat by starting Shabbat early and ending it late. Most of the Rishonim (great medieval authorities) see this practice as a positive command. By performing this mitzvah, one blurs the demarcations of the Shabbat day, allowing it to spill over on both ends into the secular week and thereby infusing the holiness of Shabbat into one’s regular life. The amount of time that should be added seems to be variable, as long as one accepts Shabbat at least a few minutes before sunset (at which time it is not yet night, but no longer definitely halakhic daytime). The widespread custom in most of the world nowadays is to accept Shabbat 18 minutes before sunset. (Here in Jerusalem, the minhag is to accept Shabbat 40 minutes before sunset).

In order to fulfill this mitzvah of Tosefet Shabbat, adding from the weekday to Shabbat, one must actively accept Shabbat; a passive imposition of the prohibitions of Shabbat would not suffice. How does one signify or enact this acceptance of Shabbat? The general custom is that the community accepts Shabbat together in prayer by reciting Kabbalat Shabbat in the synagogue.

For many, the mitzvah of candlelighting has come to signify the moment of accepting Shabbat. This is certainly true among women, who customarily are the ones who light the candles (although the mitzvah is obligatory upon men just as it is upon women).

The mitzvah of candlelighting, while not of Biblical origin, has extreme significance attached to it in the course of halakhic history. Even a poor person who has trouble finding food to eat must beg on doorsteps for oil with which to light a candle for Shabbat; Rema cites the halakhah that a woman who once forgets to light candles should from then on light an additional candle every Shabbat as a knas, a penalty.

There are several themes or reasons for candlelighting. One of the themes is Kavod Shabbat, honoring Shabbat by preparing for it properly. Connected with this theme is the obligation to light candles close enough to Shabbat so that it is recognizable that they are being lit for the sake of Shabbat. In practice, this means lighting no earlier that an hour and a quarter before sunset.

The most prominent theme connected with candlelighting is Oneg Shabbat, the enjoyment of Shabbat. This is connected with the theme of shalom bayit, peace in the home. One must ensure a pleasurable atmosphere is one’s home on Shabbat, one that will lead to enjoyment and comfort. The prohibitions that Shabbat brings, such as the inability to cook and to kindle a flame, might make Shabbat seem too restrictive and, if not prepared for properly, uncomfortable and unpleasant. In reality, Shabbat is meant to be a time of rest, relaxation, and enjoyment. If one plans well, preparing tasty food in advance and insuring that it will remain warm for the meals and making sure that the house is well lit, one creates an environment of peace, tranquility, and comfort. I believe it is for this reason that the mitzvah of candlelighting has taken on such significance, because it represents a theme that is so crucial to the way one observes Shabbat overall. It can transform Shabbat from a potentially oppressive and uncomfortable day to a day of warmth and peace.

This also might be why candlelighting has come to be so integrally linked with the active accepting upon oneself of Shabbat (Kabbalat Shabbat). Ensuring an atmosphere of enjoyment by providing enough light in the home and welcoming Shabbat early through an overt act both emphasize the positive and liberating aspects of Shabbat as opposed to the restrictive ones.

There are two opinions in the Shulchan Arukh about the connection between accepting Shabbat and candlelighting. These opinions also affect the timing of the berakhah. The first opinions says that acceptance of Shabbat and the lighting of the candles have nothing to do with each other, and that Shabbat is accepted with the actual Kabbalat Shabbat prayer in shul. The berakhah over the candles, therefore, should be recited before the lighting of the candles, like all other mitzvot, so that it will be over le-asiyyatan, preceding the action. The second opinion says that when one recites the berakhah, one accepts Shabbat with the berakhah, and therefore the berakhah must be recited only after the candles are lit, since reciting the berakhah first would make it forbidden to kindle flame and make it impossible to light the candles. Rema states that the custom follows the second opinion, and therefore we light the candles, cover our eyes, recite the berakhah, and uncover our eyes immediately and gaze at the candles, as explained in last week’s discussion.

What if a person states explicitly that he or she is not accepting Shabbat with the lighting of the candles? The need to do this comes up in certain situations – for example, if one still needs to do melakhah (acts which are prohibited on Shabbat after one lights the candles), e.g., if one needs to drive somewhere after he or she lights the candles. According to the opinion in the Shulchan Arukh (that of Bahag) that one accepts Shabbat with the berakhah over the lighting of the candles, there does not seem to be any possibility of doing melakhah after candlelighting. What if when a person lights he or she has in mind an explicit condition that he or she is not accepting Shabbat upon him or herself with the lighting of these candles? Some say that this condition is effective, while others say that it is ineffective, and once one lights candles, Shabbat has come, and melackah is prohibited. (Clearly, according to the opinion which holds that the acceptance of Shabbat has nothing to do with candlelighting, one could do melakhah even after one lit candles, until the time when the community accepts Shabbat, i.e. the recitation of Kabbalat Shabbat in shul).

Rema adds that the custom is that a woman (specifically a woman, as we will see) who lights candles without an explicit condition that she is not accepting Shabbat with this lighting, automatically accepts Shabbat when she says the berakhah. If, however, she does explicitly delay her acceptance of Shabbat until later, then she is not considered to have accepted Shabbat merely by lighting candles. (This condition need not be spoken; having it in mind is sufficient). The reason this applies specifically to women is because the custom of accepting Shabbat with candlelighting was prevalent among women. Mishnah Berurah adds, however, that even for a man who is lighting and intends to do work afterwards, it is preferable that he should also make the condition. Mishnah Berurah also adds that since some opinions hold that even an explicit statement of non-acceptance of Shabbat does not work, one should use this method only in a situation of dire need.

An interesting halakhic custom was put into practice by a woman, Beila, the wife of Rabbi Yehoshua Falk Katz, famous for his commentaries on the Tur (Derishah U-Perishah) and on the Shulchan Arukh (Sma, acronym for Sefer Me’irat Enayyim), and daughter of Rabbi Yisrael Eidels, a communal leader of the Jewish community in Lemberg during the sixteenth century. She was noted for her piety, charity and erudition, and her son, in his preface to the Derishah U-Perishah, cites several halakhic customs which she put into practice. She innovated a custom based on the above discussion of the tension between Kabbalat Shabbat through candlelighting and the requirement that the berakhot over mitzvot precede them. She said that since on holidays it is permitted to transfer (although not to ignite or extinguish) a flame, there is no clash between accepting the sanctity of Yom Tov and its prohibitions through saying the berakhah over candlelighting, and the lighting of the candles after that acceptance. Therefore, she said that on Yom Tov, a woman should change the order from that of Shabbat, and first say the berakhah and then light the candles.

With the exception of Magen Avraham, one of the great commentators on the Shulchan Arukh, this innovation was accepted. Magen Avraham’s objection to this practice was that there should be no distinction made between such similar actions – “lo plug.” The principle means that in similar situations, few distinctions should be made, in order to limit confusion. Once it is decided that the berakhot should be said at a particular time on Shabbat, this should apply to all occasions where candles are lit. He cites other examples where this principle of “lo plug” is used. For example, Tosafot assert, based on the exception to over le-asiyyatan of the immersion of a convert, that in all immersions in the mikveh, the berakhah should be recited after the immersion. In his commentary on the Shulchan Arukh, Rabbi Yechezkel Landau defends the minhag of the wife of the Derishah, saying that the case of candlelighting on Shabbat and Yom Tov is not a case where the principle of “lo plug” need apply: since the text of the berakhah is different in each case, switching the order will not lead to confusion. In addition, if the rabbis applied the principle to all mitzvot of candlelighting, irrespective of the wording of the berakhah, then the berakhah over Chanukkah candles should be said after they are lit, and that is not the way that we practice. Therefore, Rabbi Landau upholds the innovation of the wife of the Derishah, and concludes by praising her as a “...woman whose heart has been elevated in wisdom.”




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