Tag Archives: Blessings

Parshat Pekudei (5774)


Exodus 38:21-40:38

What Moses Teaches Us About Blessing People’s Accomplishments

mosesblessingChagall

What is this blessing really for? The objects or the people? And why does Moses bless them at the end of their task, and not at the start?

Do you think our religious communities do enough to honor and encourage artistic contributions? What examples does the Torah have for us on how to respond to people’s creativity?

We are going to discuss creative artistry again this week. Are you proud of your craft and trade? Are you a person who takes pride in the beautiful and goodly things which you have helped create?

This week we are completing Shemot (The Book of Exodus), with the reading of Parshat Pekudei. We are also going to begin to look at our parsha from the point in which the people have just completed their work on the Mishkan – the Tabernacle sanctuary.

In the fourth aliya we read that after the people made everything, “now they brought the Mishkan to Moses, the tent and all its furnishings…” (Exodus 39:33) Everything, all the items, including the items to be housed inside. They are all accounted for as they are brought before Moses in this fourth Torah reading.

Now that these items are completed, the objects and the people are blessed, as our text reads:

“Moses saw all the work

and behold, they done it;

just as the L-rd commanded,

so they had done it.

So Moses blessed them.”

| Vayar Moshe et-kol-hamelachah

| vehineh asu otah

| ka’asher tzivah Hashem

| ken asu

| vayevarech otam Moshe

Exodus 39:43

How notice it might appear that Moses was blessing the items. The people had made them just so, and now he blessed them – the items of the Mishkan. However, many of our rabbis contend that the final blessing is primarily for the people, and not necessarily for the items themselves. The people made good in actualizing the vision of the Mishkan as delivered through Moses, so he blessed them.

Their reason for seeing it this way is because this type of application of “vayevarech” is quite often used for people. From the beginning of the Torah, the phrase “vayevarech otam” is used in relation to people and living things; otam means them, them people. After man and woman were created, we see that G-d blessed the people. Our Torah reads, “vayevarech otam elohim vayomer lachem elohim peru urevu umil’u et-haretz / And G-d blessed them; and G-d said unto them: ‘Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth…” (Genesis 1:28) The “them” is the people, not the objects.

As students of the rabbinic tradition, we choose to see it this way because we are aware that we have a living Torah. When we look into the lessons of Torah, they are not just existent for one distant point in history. We are able to, and indeed we must find, an application for our lives today. In a post-Temple reality, the true focus is the building up of people and not shrines.

However, in all honestly I must point out that we do actually see the term vayevarech used to mean a blessing for people, as well as conveying a blessing upon their possessions by extension. We see this was even true already in the time of the Judges, and even in the presence of the Tabernacle items themselves: “And the Ark of G-d remained with the family of Obed-edom in his house three months; and Hashem blessed (vayevarech Hashem) the household of Obed-edom, and all that he had.” Because of their act of hospitality to the Ark they were blessed, along with their possessions.

Now just for a second, I want to hit on that topic of sacred space. Making space for G-d in our lives. In fact that is what the whole point of this Mishkan is for, in order that people make a dwelling place for G-d. As commanded, “Let them make me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them (veshachan’ti betocham).” (Exodus 25:8)

When we consider it, our understanding of the Divine is that G-d is beyond any understanding or representation. Nothing created, in fact not even all of creation, would be able to contain G-d’s type of raw energy. G-d is just that awesome and transcendent.

So why are they doing this? We actually don’t need to ponder too much. We act like what the Israelites were doing here is so strange and weird, making this Mishkan. When in reality they were just doing what we also do today, taking ordinary things of a mundane nature, then making something holy and extra-ordinary out of them. By taking what they had and making a mitzvah out of it, the Israelites elevated their possessions and raw materials to a level of sacredness that wasn’t there for them before.

The Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks calls our attention to the human element over the physical relics even more so:

“’Let them make a sanctuary for Me, and I will dwell in them’ – not ‘in it’ but ‘in them‘ — not in the building but its builders, not in wood and metal, bricks or stone, but in those who build and those who worship. It is not objects, buildings, or places that are holy-in-themselves. Only acts of heart and mind can endow them with holiness.” [emphasis added; to show how the Rabbi is directing our attention to his understanding of the ב in this phrase]

G-d does not just ask us to make Him a place to dwell with us, but to dwell within us. G-d is not One to merely dwell in objects, He is manifesting in us through the creative acts which we dedicate to His service. In our handiwork we are able to create things of holiness and sanctity. We are able to make sacred space in ourselves, and through toil actualize it as a physical reality as well. The more we create, the more presence of the Divine we have in our lives.

Through our skills and creativity, we make a space for the Presence of G-d to dwell with and with-in us.

Now to bring us back to the blessing itself. As the people finish bringing forward all the fixtures, now Moses blesses the people and the items they have made for the Mishkan. Let us take notice of how Moses responded to their handiwork. He didn’t just give them a “thank you,” nor did he merely praise them. No instead, “vayevarech otam Moshe / Moses blessed them.”

Now what is the difference? And why does he bless them here at this point, after they created everything? This is actually a curious question, because as we know, in nearly all cases we bless before we perform a mitzvah. (Mishneh Torah, Hilichot Berachot 11:9; §7) One ought to bless first, but here we have their blessing last.

It’s even more curious to many of us Sephardim and Chassidm, as we are most often used to asking our Rav and Rebbe (our personal rabbi) for a blessing before we embark on any big venture or task. Seeking a sign of approval from our Rav, which also comes with a blessing to help us along in whatever our pursuits are. But this is something different here, when Moses blesses them last. So why is this?

First off, we should take notice of how G-d Himself blesses. As we spoke of in Genesis chapter 1 with the creation of people and animals, they are worthy of blessing upon their completion. Humans being blessed after their creation was complete. After they were completely formed, “vayevarech otam / [He] blessed them. Moses likewise blessed upon the completion of the Mishkan items. Something is especially worth of a blessing once it is completed.

Actually, if we consider it. The fact that we accomplish something is a reason in itself to bless. Many people, myself included, have put their hand at many projects. But few of them actually get completed in the end. Be it circumstance or just a matter of our own waning enthusiasm, completing a project is not as easy as starting. Many of us can look back over the years and see numerous half-built and incomplete endeavors along our journey. For this reason it is even more appropriate that we should also bless after a completed project. To start a great task is honorable, but to complete a task is really worthy of blessing.

As a community, we should recognize and receive the creative and artistic works of the people in our communities with our blessings. Taking notice of skill and complexity of people’s contributions. Embracing their imaginative forms of Jewish expression, especially through the arts. Honoring the dedication and skill that went into producing them. Blessing the items, but also blessing the people as well. But how should we then bless?

Though the Torah does not tell us how Moses blessed, Rashi tells what the rabbis believed he said. The commentary surrounding this reads:

So Moses blessed them: He said to them:

May it be His will that the Shechinah should rest in the work of your hands.

And may the pleasantness of Hashem our G-d be upon us and establish the work of our hands for us, and the work of our hands establish it.” (Ps. 90:17)

This is one of the eleven psalms in “A prayer of Moses” (Ps. 90:1).”

ויברך אותם משה: אמר להם

יְהִי רָצוֹן שֶׁתִּשְׁרֶה שְׁכִינָה בְּמַעֲשֶֹה יְדֵיכֶם:

וִיהִי נֹעַם אֲדֹנָי אֱלֹהֵינוּ עָלֵינוּ וּמַעֲשֵׂה יָדֵינוּ כּוֹנְנָה עָלֵינוּ וּמַעֲשֵׂה יָדֵינוּ כּוֹנְנֵהוּ: (תהלים צ יז)

והוא אחד מאחד עשר מזמורים שבתפלה למשה:

Rashi to Exodus 39:43, from Num. Rabbah 12:9

As we look at these blessings we are presented with one phrase which was handed down through our rabbinic tradition, and we also have another verse from one of the eleven Psalms attributed to Moses.

Now what do we notice about these blessings? As I have asserted, they do also seem to apply to when one blesses actual items; mere objects. This is obvious from the use of the phrases “bema’aseh yadechem / in the works of your hands” and “uma’aseh yaddeinu / the works of our hands.”

But its is also completely logical for the rabbis to make the assertion that we are talking about a blessing primarily for the people right now, as later on the items are actually consecrated themselves. By looking at it this way, the tone of the statement changes. So that we are asking G-d to bless others and ourselves in our ma’aseh yadeinu – in the works (ma’aseh; the actions, the deeds; the positive actions) of our hands.

In such a blessing as this one it is asking for a person’s creative abilities and actions to be blessed, so that we will see many more good deeds to come in the future. From Moses’ example we learn that we should spring forward to bless people for the works of your hands. This is more than just a mere thank-you, and acknowledgement that one did a good job. When we bless a person we are doing so much more. We bless them with the hopes that G-d gives them the strength to continue to be a blessing to the whole congregation of Israel.

So now as we complete the book of Exodus, and move into the next book of the Torah, we say, “Chazak, Chazak, V’nitchazeik / Be strong! Be strong! And let us strengthen!” May we take strength is our completion of this book of Torah and be strengthened with blessings for the journey yet ahead!

Things to Consider: Can you say that you truly take pride in the things which you have completed? Can you identify some projects and goals that you have not yet fully actualized yet? How do you keep momentum up while working on long projects? What helps you keep focus, so that you follow through until the end?

One of the reason it is important to complete our goals, and not just shy away from them because of distraction or even boredom, is because as we fulfill our goals our confidence increases. The feedback from our accomplishments and the pride we have in the final deeds, this nurtures our self-confidence. Just by virtue of completing what we start, we reinforce in ourselves that we have what it takes to complete our goals in the future. However, leaving incomplete goals scattered about can be demoralizing,

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Parshat Nasso (2012)


Parshat Nasso
Numbers 4:21 – 7:89

The Priestly Blessing: What Does It Mean to Have Favor?

Last year we explored the ritual of the Sotah the ancient ceremonial practice for a suspected adulteress. This parsha also talks about the almost ascetic Nazarite vow. And among these seemingly otherworldly mitzvot is the command of the Birkat Kohanim – the Priestly Blessing.

In our tradition few things are considered more sacred than the Birkat Kohanim, and probably nothing is more loved. That is because this ritual is one of the deepest rooted traditions in all of Judaism. Those who are critical of biblical representation of history have had to concede to the ancientness of this traditional blessing after finding it partially preserved on a silver scroll dating from the 7th century BCE, which is the latter part of the Assyrian exile. This predates the previously presumed authorship in the post-exile period in the days of Ezra the prophet. The item was a personal amulet, showing that already in those days this blessing was a considered deeply endearing and culturally pervasive.

The ethereal nature of this benediction comes from the honored place that it has in our tradition as being the height of blessing during the Temple service in ancient times. This was pronounced during the hight of the day and immediately after the priests would emerge from sacrificing in the Holy of Holies.

In order to distinguish and honor the Birkat Kohanim it became common Ashkenezi tradition that it be recited by the Kohanim – the living descendants of the priesthood – on high holidays when one was in a mindset of joy and expectation. The priests are called up during the Musaf service, to remove their shoes, wash their hands, lift hands to the sky and recite the ancient blessings presented to us here in this parsha. Though Sephardim (Jews from Spain through the Middle-east) have maintained the older custom of it being recited on weekdays as well during the Mincha prayer service; thus Jews in Israel and Sephardim worldwide are accustomed to recitation of the Priestly Blessing daily.

Though today in modern Israel nothing is more spectacular than watching the recitation of the Birkat Kohanim said from the Kotel – the Western Wall in Jerusalem, outside of the site of the Holy Temple. The entire plaza filled with Kohanim lifting their hands, spread out under their tallitot, fingers spread uniquely and widely to represent the windows of heaven. It makes the scripture come alive for us, “Behold, He stands behind our walls, He looks in through the windows, peering through the lattices.” (Song of Songs 2:9) We reckon G-d peering down to us from the windows of heaven to send us blessing. We cover our eyes in reverence, and do not attempt to peer knowing that we cannot comprehend such greatness anyhow; but as we stand facing the priests we look inwards to G-d and accept blessing into our lives.

And that is precisely the point that needs to be stressed about this blessing. Even though we call it the Birkat Kohanim, the Priestly Blessing, it is actually not a blessing from the priests. Notice how our parsha begins:

“And Hashem spoke to Moses, saying:

Speak to Aaron and his sons, saying:

This is how you shall bless

the children of Israel,

saying to them…”

| Vayedaber Hashem el-Moshe lemor.

| Daber el-Aharon ve’el-banav lemor

| koh tevarachu

| et-benei Yisra’el

| amor lahem…

Numbers 6:22-23

Let us follow the Rashi, and some other pieces of commentary to help us interpret this text. Though this blessing is short and simple, the meaning of these few words runs very deep.

What we notice first-off is that G-d is speaking to Moses, to tell Aaron and his sons to bless the people in this manner; and with these words. It is not something they thought up themselves, nor was it merely the advice of Moses. This is a mandate from G-d. Not just in that generation, but for all generations; as Rashi points out that it commands the Kohanim to “amor / say” in the infinitive tense, just like when we are commanded to “zachor / remember” (Exodus 20:7) and “shamor / keep” the Sabbath (Deuteronomy 5:11); meaning it is a perpetual commandment to do so from that time on to the present. This blessing is to be pronounced loudly and clearly, so that all can hear. It is to be said patiently and with full intention and concentration; as Rashi says “u’b’lev shalem / with wholeheartedness.” Even though they are pronouncing the blessing, it is G-d who is providing the blessing. This is made obvious to us from the first words of the blessing:

“May Hashem bless you

and safeguard you:

| Yevarechecha Hashem

| veyishmerecha

יְבָרֶכְךָ יְהֹוָה וְיִשְׁמְרֶךָ:

There are three lines of blessings that are pronounced by the priests. It is the tradition that after each verse is said the congregation responds “amen” and “kein, yehi ratzon” in agreement and acceptance. This is our first blessing, that G-d should protect us, and keep us. That he should watch and guard over us.

Now one of the first questions we should ask ourselves is, “why should these blessings start this way?” Why do we start with this concern first? Any of us who have taken basic psychology in college will quickly see why, once we consider Rashi’s commentary. Despite the clearly and simply meaning being that G-d should bless and guard us, it does not just apply in extreme cases of G-d saving our lives. He does not watch over us like a superhero. It means G-d watching over and protecting us and our needs on all levels.

Bless: that your assets be blessed

|

Safeguard you:

that robbers should not come

and take your money…”

יברכך: שיתברכו נכסיך |

|

וישמרך: |

שלא יבואו עליך שודדים |

ליטול ממונך… |

Rashi on Numbers 6:24

The first blessing that G-d wishes to bestow upon us is for our physical needs, and also to grant us security. In Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, where our needs are laid out like a pyramid as it is theorized, we as human tend to rate our needs from most fundamental to the auxiliary. Our basic needs are our first needs and foundation of the others, with our more abstract feelings and self-actualizing at the top. But in this theory of human behavior we cannot move on to other luxuries of healthy, higher human behavior until we get our most essential needs met. The first of these is our physiological needs; shelter, food, water, and sleep, and the like. What we need to live. Then second, closely tied to the first comes the need for safety; only when our physical needs are met can we even begin to consider our personal safety. For example, one doesn’t even have the luxury of consider the quality and safety of your home or food until they have those type of provision met. G-d seems keenly aware that He needs to start with what we need the most first! The rest of the blessings nicely follow this same patters.

Rashi begins to further explain this verse to us through a parable of sort in the latter part of his commentary to verse 24. He says its like if a master was to was to give a servant a gift, sadly you are not able to watch the gift once it is handed over so anyone can steal it from him. Rashi comments that this would be terribly sad. Quiet frankly it would be better if he had never gotten the gift at, if he never got any enjoyment out of it himself. Rashi thus explains that for this reason G-d not only gives us blessings, but the Almighty also protects those things He blesses us with as well.

Our second blessing continues the pattern:

“May Hashem cause His face to shine on you

and be gracious to you.”

| Ya’er Hashem panav eleicha

| vichuneka

יָאֵר יְהוָה פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ, וִיחֻנֶּךָּ:

In this we see the “face” of G-d, meaning the attention and consideration of the Divine, focused on us, radiating on us in pleasantness. G-d shinning His face upon us means to convey the mental picture of G-d turning to us with smile and laughter, aglow with happiness as He looks down upon us from heaven. But how Rashi literally describes it in his words is as smiling, breaking out into laughter, and “yellow-faced;” meaning radiating with pleasantness, instead of flushed with anger.

Now the second part of this blessing here is one of the parts of the Birkat Kohanim that I find the most interesting, as it’s probably one of the least understood parts. Actually its just a one-word phrase. “Vichuneka / and be gracious to you.” That is because most of us are more used to using this phrase poetically; “and deal kindly with you,” “have pity on you,” and more commonly “have mercy on you.” It is the last of these meanings that most properly conveys the literal and simple understanding of this word; as to chanan means to pardon someone, or grant them amnesty. It means to show merit-less mercy to a person. One does not presume to be worthy of G-d blessing them, but we do have full trust in the concept that G-d is gracious enough to want to bless us.

Rashi and our sages also break it down even more precisely for us to consider.

And be gracious to you:

Give you favor.”

ויחנך: |

יתן לך חן: |

Rashi on Numbers 6:25

Rashi’s interpretation gets to the heart of the word. Chen means grace; a noun. It is charm and etiquette, a beauty that comes with refinement and good form. When one shows another grace they mercifully look down upon someone with an attitude that is favorable.

This is not to say that we are expecting G-d to play favorites. Though it might appear so to outside people, this just isn’t the case. But what it does mean is that G-d, who is on a higher level of compassion and understanding, chooses to look down on us humble people in a kind way. It’s like the poise that one shows when they interact with a silly or confused child; you do not yell at them in their folly, but instead react with laughter and smiles. So should it be for us that Hashem should look upon us this way.

The Ohr haChaim explains it this way:

Be gracious to you, etc.:

Which should be interpreted by us to mean

grace and favor.

The reference of this interpretation

is from the verse:

‘And Hashem was with Yosef

and showed kindness unto him,

and gave him favor

[in the sight of the keeper of the prison].’

(Genesis 39:21)”

ויחנך וגו‘: |

פירוש יתן לך |

חן וחנינה, |

ועיין מה שפירשת |

י בפסוק: |

ויהי ה’ את יוסף |

ויט אליו חסד |

ויתן חנו |

וגו’: |

(בראשית לט, כא) |

Ohr haChaim on BaMidbar

The Kabbalist Rabbi Chaim ben Mosheh Ibn Attar z”l

of Morocco and master Kabbalist of Jerusalem

In this explanation we are shown the example of Yosef haTzadik – Joseph the righteous patriarch. He asks us to call to remembrance the situation in which Joseph was unjustly imprisoned in an Egyptian jail. He was in the most lowly situation possible, sold into slavery and then further humiliated by being wrongly incarcerated. But even in that situation G-d was with him, by providing a person that would do kindly for him. G-d gave him favor in the sight of the prison warden, who lightened his suffering as much as he could. May it be that G-d should do likewise for us, placing people above us who choose to look kindly upon us.

But G-d does not just wish to look down at us. He also wishes to look up at us! This is expressed in our final line of the Birkat Kohanim:

“May Hashem raise His face to you

and grant you peace.”

| Yisa Hashem panav eleicha

| veyasem lecha shalom.

יִשָּׂא יְהוָה פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ, וְיָשֵׂם לְךָ שָׁלוֹם

Even during this most grandiose of religious rituals, when we are considering G-d and reverencing Him as the awesome and transcendent One in order to receive blessing from Him, G-d does not ask us to humiliatingly grovel before Him. Instead G-d takes a remarkably accessible and demure position when considering us for this final blessing.

“May Hashem raise His countenance toward you:

by suppressing His wrath.”

ישא הפניו אליך: |

יכבוש כעסו: |

Rashi on Numbers 6:26

G-d restrains any inclination to react towards us in a way that appears to bear anger or scorn. G-d says He wishes to restrain and hold back His wrath; and unlike us humans, not become overcome by rage. Instead His will is to level His anger, and look up towards us to grant us peace. Amein, so should it be for us and all Israel.

Again, this is not just our wish for ourselves, nor just an extension of the good wishes of the Kohanim. This is G-d’s wish for us. For this reason it calls back to remember who is really doing the blessing here, it is G-d through the benediction of the Kohanim:

“And so shall you bestow My Name

upon the Children of Israel

and I shall bless them.”

| Vesamu et-shemi

| al-benei Yisra’el

| va’ani avarachem.

Numbers 6:27

The blessing is a way for G-d to connect with the people, to attach His essence with them. The priests would bless them with His explicit Name, Havayah (יהוה). They stand as witnesses to this blessing and partners in the mitzvah of pronouncing it, but the blessing is G-d’s insomuch as He is the one to actually bring it to fruition in our lives. This blessing is the Birkat Kohanim because they stand as witnesses, but it is G-d’s Holy Name that endorses this blessing.



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 264:5)

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] light,

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 נרות 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

light for Shabbat.”

One man, and one woman.

And on yom tov (holiday, festival)

be careful to bless,

“kindle the festival light;”

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) who 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 kindle light 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 off it fulfilment. 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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