Shabbat Lights: The Tradition of Great Scholars to Light with Olive Oil


Entering the Shabbat through kindling with Olive Oil

The Sephardic custom and what it teaches us about ones temperament
Do Sephardim bless before they kindle their Shabbat lights?

I feel privileged to have a great collection of siddurim (prayerbooks). In fact I have not met a person that owns more siddurim that me in many, many years. Each one of them is important to me because they help shed light on various minhagim. I love to learn about different traditions and the halachic process that led to them.

Shabbat CandlesOne of my favorite prayerbooks is the Siddur Ish Matzliach. It is a Mizrahi/Sephardic prayerbook that conforms to the customs of the near-east and Mediterranean (it refers to itself as “lifnei minhag haSephardim v’Edut haMizrach”). As this is the native nusach (style) of the Land of Israel, it is accepted widely outside of the Sephardic community and holds much weight in the Dati Leumi (Religious Zionist) circles. However, it should be noted that it goes to great lengths to document the nuances of the North African minhagim, being edited and checked under the tutelage of Rav Matzliach Mazzuz (of blessed memory; 1912-1971) who was a tzadik of the Minhag Djerba of Tunisia.

Many of my Sephardic friends, and those who are newly religious and accept the Sephardi minhag have asked me to relate to them any advice I can give them regarding the lighting of Shabbat candles and how to do it in keeping with the minhag. The Siddur Ish Matzliach is a great place to start, because it does show us some unique ideas regarding how the Sephardic communities approach the tradition of kindling Shabbat lights. With the blessing and prayers related to kindling you will find the following instructions presented (however, the translation is my own as this siddur has never been translated before):

מצוה מן המובחר |

להדליק נר של שבת |

בשמן זית. |

(שוע סימן רסד סעיף ו‘) |

ומעשה באחד |

שהאריך ימים |

ולא מצאו לו שום זכות |

אלא שהיה מדליק |

נר של שבת |

רק בשמן זית. |

(כהח שם אות לה) |

ובמקום |

שמצוי שמן זית, |

צריך ליזהר בו, |

שהרגיל בנר, |

יהיו לו בנים תלמידי חכמים |

|

המאירים בתורה |

שנמשלה לשמן זית. |

(מרן החידא בספרו מחזיק ברכה שם אות ב‘) |

ולכן לאשה |

להתפלל אחרי שתדליק, |

שתזכה |

לבנים תלמידי חכמים |

וצדיקים. |

(כהח סימן רסג א‘) |

A mitzvah done to perfection

is to kindle lights for Shabbat

with olive oil.

(Shulchan Aruch 264, Siman 5)

And the act of one

who extends his days;

of him there is not found any credit,

except that he kindles

a Shabbat light

only of olive oil.

(Kaf haChaim 34)

And places where

olive oil is commonplace

it is right to be careful in this,

and to make a habit of [Shabbat] lights,

only are sons of Talmidei Chachamim

(great Torah Scholars)

who are illuminated by Torah

compared to olive oil.

(Maran haChida, in his book, part 2)

And if a wife

prays after you light up,

you are credited as one of

the sons of the Talmidei Chachamim

and Tzadikim (saints)

“(Kaf haChaim on Sadia Gaon, Siman 1)

Siddur Ish Matzliach

הדלקת מרות של שבת – “Kindling Shabbat Lights”, page 306

When presented with that, those who are unfamiliar with the Sephardic customs can be thrown for a loop. This is strikingly different from what most of us are familiar with, no matter what our custom or where our community is in the world. Though this is the correct approach for the Sephardic minhag, it is not how most of us understand Shabbat lights if we have any connection to mainstream Judaism. Where do we start?

Hanging Shabbat Oil Lamp

Hanging Shabbat Oil Lamp for multiple wicks from the 19th century

First off, for those of you who studied along with me concerning the lighting of the Chanukah Lights it should come as no surprise to you that it is the Sephardic custom to use olive oil for Shabbat lights. This what the Temple menorah utilized for providing light by which the mitzvot of the Kadosh Kadoshim – the sanctuary containing The Holy of Holies, could be done by. Oils and fats are the standard type of fuel used for providing light, however in some parts of the Ashkenazi world such oils could not be found so out of necessity people began to utilize bees-wax candles. Even citing the Kaf haChaim (Rabbi Yaakov Chaim Sofer; 1870-1939) it is noted that this is the custom where olive oil is readily available, in the third part of the instructions.

The reason given to us by The Ben Ish Chai (Rabbi Yosef Chaim of Baghdad; 1832-1909) for why we utilize lamps of olive oil is because they burn to produce a clean and steady light, which keeps the house from the harm of a “ruach ra / evil spirit” (Shana Rishon, Halachot Chanukah §12). Of course by this we don’t mean demons or malicious beings, we are talking about a negative spirit; meaning a bad mood, attitude or energy (think of the term “school spirit”). We brighten up the house to encourage shalom bayit – or peace in the home. Sitting in the dark we would be prone to negativity, confusion and mix-ups that lead to arguments. We should brighten up the house to brighten the mood. We use olive oil because of the steady light it provides that does not flicker; this also improves the mood of the home.

The tradition of lighting with oil lamps thus also hints to us the type of person that we should be; ones whose light burns steady, without flair-ups or smoldering out. Flickering of lights is like fighting, instead we want to be a steady stream of light that is peaceful and temperate. Thus it is the tradition of Sephardim, and of many Chassidim who daven by the Nusach Sephard, to light with oil lights for Shabbat. In fact, myself living in a Chabad chassidic community I remember every family I knew to utilize oil or liquid parafin (kerosene) in keeping with this spirit of shalom bayitpeace in the home.

This does not seem hard to understand when we consider it. But there is something curious that is brought down to us second, in the name of the Kaf haChaim. What does it mean about a man not having any “zichut / credit?” If that isn’t confusing enough, the siddur then goes on to provide the blessing for kindling, but it leads with the instructions:

קודם הדלקת נרות של שבת, |

תברך: |

Before kindling the lights for Shabbat,

bless:”

Siddur Ish Matzliach

Any of us who have ever seen people light candles in our local synagogues anywhere in the world know that the overwhelming custom is for a woman to light the candles. The process begins by lighting the candles, then gently putting the match down, waving over the candles three times to welcome in the light of the Sabbath day, then covering the eyes and lastly saying the blessings over the candles. This is the custom that is well known to all of us, no matter what our tradition is. It is what we see regularly practiced in normative Judaism. However, here the siddur changes the method around on us.

Now as with the Chanukah lights, the practice we all know is the normative way as prescribed in the Ashkenazi (Eastern-European) tradition. Just as the Sephardic tradition differs in what we utilize to light, so too the mechanics change. However, unlike the tradition of the Chanukah lights where classical instructions are going to be silent regarding this and leave us to just accept that we have different approaches, this is going to stand out as a striking difference pointed out by siddurim. However, in all honestly, the majority of even Sephardic siddurim and halachic works are going to prescribe that we say the blessing after kindling the Shabbat lights.

Now one might wonder, on what basis does this respectable siddur depart from this tradition? How can a universally known approach stand to be challenged? This simple answer is, this is the ikar ha-din; this is the letter of the law!

To understand the law we should probably start with the Shulchan Aruch (also popularly known as The Code of Jewish Law). This is always our first stop. Our text reads:

כשידליק יברך |

ברוך אתה ה‘ |

אלוקנו מלך העולם |

אשר קדשנו במצוותיו |

וציוונו להדליק |

נר של שבת” |

אחד האיש ואחד האשה |

גם ביום טוב |

צריך לברך |

להדליק נר של יום טוב” |

וביום הכיפורים |

|

בלא שבת |

“When one lights, bless [saying]

‘Blessed are You Hashem

our G-d King of the universe

who sanctifies us with His commandments

and commands us to kindle

lights for Shabbat.”

One man, and one woman.

And on yom tov (holiday, festival)

be careful to bless,

“kindle the festival lights;”

and on Yom haKippurim

(the Day of Atonements),

and not Shabbat.”

Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim, 263:5

The Maran; Rabbi Yosef Karo, Tzfat, Israel in 1563

Nothing seem apparent to us yet, in fact it will not be the Maran (the Sephardic master who authored the Shulchan Aruch) what would present our position to us, interestingly it is going to be the Rema (the Ashkenazi master that provided the glosses by which Eastern-European Jews hold by) that would do so:

יש מי שאומר שלא יברך… |

יש מי שאומר |

שמברכים |

קודם ההדלקה |

ויש מי שאומר |

שמברך אחר ההדלקה |

וכדי שיהא עובר |

לעשייתו |

לא |

יהנה |

ממנה |

עד לאחר הברכה. |

ומשימין |

היד לפני הנר |

אחר ההדלקה ומברכין , |

ואחר כך מסלקין היד |

וזה מקרי עובר לעשיה |

וכן המנהג |

“There are those who do not bless…

there are those who say

that the blessing

comes before the lighting,

and there are those who say

that the blessing is recited after the lighting.

In order to meet the requirement

as though it was said

immediately before the act

to which it pertains one should not

derive any enjoyment from [the lighting]

until after the blessing.

One should place

one’s hand in front of the light

after the lighting and recite the blessing.

Afterwards, remove the hand.

This fulfills the requirement,

and this is the minhag.”

Glosses to Shulchan Aruch, Printed 1578

Rema; Rabbi Moshe Isserlis of Kraków, Poland

And here the Rema acknowledges that there are those who do not say a blessing over the lights, those who say it before, and those who say it after. Then he goes into presenting the Ashkenazi tradition of blessing after the kindling, and explaining why one should cover their eyes before blessing. Thus the Rema expounds on the different approaches, two of them being Sephardic and one of them Ashkenazi. But how do we know that this is the Sephardic method presented first, when the Maran doesn’t seem to know there is a difference so he doesn’t elaborate and the Rema doesn’t identify who holds by what? Second, and an ever better question, is why is the Rema concerned that we pass this mitzvah off as though we were blessing before the lighting? Notice, and I don’t say this to be condescending in any way, but in reality all one is doing by covering their eyes with their hands is pretending that they haven’t lit yet; why does one go out of their way to do this?

Both these questions can be answered by one text. We turn to the writing of the the Rambam, the Sephardic master who codified all of Jewish law for us in his Mishneh Torah. He explains to us the general principal of fulfilling a mitzvah as follows:

“There is no mitzvah

for which the blessing should be recited

after its fulfillment;

ever.”

אין לך מצוה |

שמברכין |

אחר עשייתה |

לעולם |

Mishneh Torah, Hilichot Berachot 11:9; §7

Rambam, Rabbi Mosheh ben-Maimon, Maimonidies;

the 12th Century Spain and Egypt

The halacha is that we say a blessing before we do something, period. (the Rambam here is citing Talmud Pesachim 7b) This is known, this is accepted law and therefore to circumvent this fact one covers their eyes so that after they say the blessing and they uncover their eyes the lights are now there for them to enjoy.

The Rambam, as a detailed writer, explains the line of thinking to us clearly as to why we should bless first. In paragraph 7, halacha 5 he gives us the sample of tzitzit, tefillin and sukkah. We say a blessing before we even engage in the acts of acknowledging them because the performance of them is ongoing. The act of doing it is not an act in and of itself, but engaging in it was the commandment therefore we say the blessing before. The only time we say the blessing after is if the act requires many steps and then we say the blessing last after all the steps are completed, but this is not one of those cases.

When we Sephardim light for Shabbat we do so for utilitarian purposes, our oil lamps are in order to provide light for our homes throughout the Sabbath. They are dressed with finer wicks and oils than we would use the rest of the week so that they sustain and don’t need to be meddled with, but nonetheless they are just standard lamps and we use them for providing our light. We light lamps shel Shabbat, meaning “for the Sabbath;” to enable us to do our sabbath duties.

This is very different than lighting “Shabbat candles.” The candles in Ashekanzi tradition are a sign and symbol in and of themselves of the Sabbath. Whereas Sephardim just light up the house in order to have light to live, learn and dine by, so that the act is merely utilitarian; to Ashkenazim this is a ritual of the Shabbat customs that symbolizes the start of the sabbath. More precisely, with the saying of the blessing over the candles one symbolically takes on their observance of the Sabbath. The lighting is a mitzah to Ashkenazim, to us Sephhardim it is observing Shabbat that is the mitzvah and having a bright home helps us accomplish that but the candles are no mitzvah themselves.

For this reason many different Sephardic siddurim and halachic works that deal with the welcoming of the Sabbath point out that it’s traditionally the custom of Sephardim to not say a blessing, or say a blessing before kindling the lights; the custom varies by community. But when stating this it is noted that this is in on account that Sephardim do not recognize the beginning of the Shabbat to commence with the saying of the blessing over the candles.

Now lets back up to the statement made by the siddur’s explanation, regarding a man not having any “zichut / credit” when lighting. At first it looks to be the a simple phrase that tells us that candle lighting on Shabbat is not a virtue for a man, but for a woman. But it’s not saying this at all. What it is doing is giving us an example, of a person who takes in Shabbat early (as we can start enjoying Shabbat at any time we like), the custom is often to begin by kindling Shabbat lights to signify taking in the sabbath. However, here the siddur tells us that if one lights a lamp for Shabbat they are just lighting an oil lamp and nothing else. It is not a special demarcation of any sort. However, it calls us to look at the hidur mitzvah – the beauty, the detail of care to which we perform a mitzvah, as a symbol of our temperament and in pursuit of shalom bayitpeace in the home.

However interesting the approach of the Siddur Ish Matzliach is, even more interesting is the number of Sephardic prayerbooks that do not hold by this halacha. Normally I would point to certain books like the Artscroll’s Nusach Sephard siddurim and decry them being a Sephardic approach to Ashkenazi tradition, stating that they are not Sephardi sidddurim in that that don’t follow Sephardic minhag. But even those sources that are firm in Sephardic minhag for ideological purposes tend to favor the blessing after the lighting. In fact, you will be hard pressed to find a halachic work of Sephardi origin that does not explain the kindling of Shabbat lights and follow the minhag of blessing last as prescribed by the Rema. Among the few that are going to champion the approach of the Shulchan Aruch is Maran Rabbi Ovediah Yosef, shelita (1920 – present; Rishon LeTzion, former Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel).

The majority of the Sephardic poskim would in the end prescribe the blessing as being last, but few who insist on this method contrary to Maran Yosef Karo would be as honest as the Mekor Chaim haLevi in their explanation as to why. He states in his kitzur:

“For all mitzvot one blesses

on their way through,

(before) one does it.

And one must bless “before

the kindling;

and bless ‘Blessed are You…

…to kindles the lights for Shabbat.’

And so this is the letter of the law,

but instead we are already

accustomed to blessing after

kindling…”

כל המצוות מברך |

עליהן עובר |

(קודם) לעשייתן. |

וחייב לברך קודם” |

הדלקה, |

ברוך וכו‘ |

להדליק נר של שבת. |

וכך הוא עיקר הדין, |

אלא שעתה כבר |

נהגו לברך אחר |

ההדלקה… |

Kitzur Mekor Chaim, Chapter 60:5 (p.127)

Rabbi Chaim David haLevi (1924-1998), Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv-Yaffo

What all this means when we walk through the steps of the halacha and history is we find that the Ashkenazim took on the tradition of lighting as a symbolic ritual act at some point along the way. In reality if you consider the way they lived, their candles were superfluous for use for light anyhow; most people used bonfires, stoves and fireplaces as their primary source of light anyhow. This was a way of them connecting to an age old tradition of bringing light, life and joy into the home. However, the tradition of lighting up the house for Shabbat has always remained a practical act in the Sephadic halachic approach. But our own custom of lighting Shabbat lights is adopted from Ashkenazim, and at this point in history even our lights are also merely symbolic because these lamps are not our primary source of light either; our electric lights are.

Hanging Oil LampMany rabbis do not make a big deal concerning when you say the blessing because in reality there is nothing wrong with follow the ritual lighting of Shabbat lights according to the custom of the Rema since this is a wholesale adoption of this ritual custom anyhow. We became accustomed to this tradition through their practice of it this way, so its okay for us to follow likewise. In fact though the way of Maran Yosef Karo and the Rambam is the ideal way, the only reason that people do not follow the ikar hadin – the letter of the law – is to not show contempt for ones elders, as we are not allowed to change the tradition that we are taught by our forebears.

Some might wonder on what basis does Rabbi Ovedia Yosef and here the Ish Matzliach have the authority to go against hundreds of years of halachic tradition documented by Sephardic sages? Though it is true that some Sephardic communities have been following the tradition of lighting Shabbat lights for hundreds of years, others have only come to know this tradition since becoming reconnected to the greater streams of Judaism once their communities made aliyah to Israel. When adopted by newly established communities it seems only logical that they apply the law as-is. Secondly, there are many people who are newly religious and have only recently taken on mitzvot. For these people, there is no tradition they received regarding this from their parents so for them to adopt the actual custom in accordance to the rule of law poses no problems (people such as anusim, crypto Jews who have recently become religious Jews). In fact, it is best that we not frown upon such people because such individuals have the rare opportunity of applying the ikar hadin without the hangups of trampling a minhag.

Even though the Sephardic tradition has been influenced by the other communities regarding this, there are certain halachic consequences that remain that one must be careful to keep in mind. Even if one decides to light with a blessing after in avoidance of doing a melacha after a blessing, you still have not taken upon the Sabbath and are therefore still able to engage in acts of work or preparation until one officially davens to bring in the sabbath once sundown comes. We do not begin with lights. Likewise we do not end with lights. For instance, Sephardim do not make havdalah before lighting Chanukah candles. As the lighting of Chanukah candles is a mitzvah and making havdalah is not so much so, one engages in the mitzvah first to not put it off and this is permissible because there is no consequences of breaking Shabbat because your havdalah does not break Shabbat any more than lighting begins Shabbat. This is true in all Sephardic communities. But we will deal with this more once its time for Chunukah again.

Though we might adopt traditions from among the different communities, and this is acceptable and has happened over time, the tradition of using oil lamps and the significance of them to us points to how even when we accustom ourselves to new ways we should still be mindful to perform our devotion according to our own style!

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4 responses to “Shabbat Lights: The Tradition of Great Scholars to Light with Olive Oil

  • Michal Michelle Ramos

    That was very interesting!

    Re: “…there is no tradition they received regarding this from their parents so for them to adopt the actual custom in accordance to the rule of law poses no problems (people such as anusim, crypto Jews who have recently become religious Jews). In fact, it is best that we not frown upon such people because such individuals have the rare opportunity of applying the ikar hadin without the hangups of trampling a minhag.”

    This is the situation my husband and I were in. We both come from anusim families and he and I, along with our two children, converted (halachically) a few years ago. Aside from knowing the family was Jewish 500+ years ago, we have no minhag that was handed down but knew we wanted to get as close as possible to what our ancestors would have done. We did a tremendous amount of research to learn, as much as is possible, the Spanish-Portuguese Jewish customs and have implemented them as the minhag of the home, even though the community in which we live is mostly Ashkenazi. This includes lighting for Shabbat with the blessing (sung) and then lighting. (And, for Chanukah lighting, we follow Otzerot Yossef Halachot Chanukah & Purim, which has been translated into English.)

    • "Shmu the Jew"

      kol hakavod. i commend you because doing the research to learn the minhagim, when its just so easy to meld into the minhag around around you, it is really a rare and under appreciated approach. sometimes it even comes with hostility. like as i was working on this my mom was asking how it was coming along and i just mumbled “one of these days i’m gonna get an award for this stuff, or get put in herem (excommunication), either ways its great publicity for the blogosphere!” :) it shakes peoples world up when they find out everyone doesn’t do it their way and it wasn’t always “our way.” but i think its important that we know we have diversity in Judaism, and to embrace that. not demand mindless uniformity. secondly, its great to keep these ancient traditions alive and redeem them as our heritage. but the research is very difficult. very little of the Sephardic works are understood by the average western reader, and even then few religious people who do understand can speak plain English enough to describe what is being said in the vernacular. id love to make a theme out of this and study the variations in tradition.

  • Yehuda Franco

    I am a “true” Sephardi and follow our mihagim accordingly when among our tribe, even though when around non-Sephardim I try to go their way since I was thought not to upset or disrupt anyone in anyway as long as they try to comply with the Mitzvot as they are used (as their minhag) My Grandfather used to say “As we try to do our gratest Mitzvot we must avoid to do our gratest chet ” (to be arrogant). The article is great and expands the approach that I was tought at home. Kol Tov, todah rabah l’hem!

    • "Shmu the Jew"

      Thank you very much. I believe that one of the great things about halachic maturity and greater knowledge is that we can learn to not be so rigid, we can see the points behind the other customs as well. We thus look see the heart of the mitzvah, and approach the various traditions with respect. I believe your grandfather showed great wisdom in helping your family maintain a sense of harmony and respect for other minhagim. B’Shalom, Shmu

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