Tag Archives: Shabbat Candles

Parshat Vayakhel (5774)


Exodus 35 – 40

What Grandpa Taught Me About Making Olive Oil

olive-press-capernaumThis week we are going to talk about inherited wisdom, while exploring the significance of the Menorah instruments and the precious oil with which the lamps were filled.

All throughout the detailed description of the creation of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) we have heard that G-d has given abilities to the chachmah – the wise-hearted, people of wisdom and understanding. (see Exodus 31; Parshat Ki-Tissa 2013) But what do we mean by wisdom? This is what we are going to explore, because wisdom is something more than mere “knowledge.” It is something that most often comes from personal experience. Experience which is often transmitted through our traditions.

Let us to jump right into text:

“The Menorah for lighting

and the implements,

and its lamps

and oil for lighting.”

| Ve’et-menorat hama’or

| ve’et-keleiha

| ve’et-neroteiha

| ve’et shemen hama’or.

Exodus 35:14

Here near the start of our parsha, during the listing of all the items that need to be constructed for the sanctuary, we have this description of a complete Menorah provided for us. It is right in between the listing of the components from which the Mishkan was to be built, and the mention of the sacred items such as incense and the anointing oil (which we discussed last week, see Parshat Ki-Tissa 5774).

As we see from the description offered here, this candelabrum – the Menorah – it was made of a huge mass of gold. Most of us can picture what is needed to construct a functioning menorah. We need the candelabrum and the lamps which need to be lit. We understand that they also need to have oil for it to function, which we will further discuss as we continue.

However, there are certain things which some people do not so quickly recognize in this description. Right along with the mention of constructing the Menorah we are told that G-d orders the making of the matching implements, the utensils (keilecha).

What are these utensils, and what were they made of? We are told later on in our parsha, in the sixth aliyah, when their creation is tallied:

“And he made seven lamps, and the wick-tongs and the ash-scoop, of pure gold.

“He made it of a kikar (a talent) of pure gold, including all its implements.

וַיַּעַשׂ אֶתנֵרֹתֶיהָ, שִׁבְעָה; וּמַלְקָחֶיהָ וּמַחְתֹּתֶיהָ, זָהָב טָהוֹר:

כִּכָּר זָהָב טָהוֹר, עָשָׂה אֹתָהּ, וְאֵת, כָּלכֵּלֶיהָ:

Exodus 37:23-24

All of the Menorah and its various parts were made of one huge chunk of gold. From it was beaten the candelabrum itself, as described in the previous verse (v.22); it is one entire piece, hammered into shape.

In Rashi's commentary for Exodus 35:14, here he used an interesting word to describe the lamps of the menorah. He used the word “לוציי"ש" – luzes (or maybe even, lozes) for lights. This word could be just another translation into old-French of the 11th Century, but also any other language as well (notice the wording, בלעז). Though it might seem easy to assume that because this word sounds a lot like a Spanish word, it is Ladino (Judeo-Spanish). However, this is not the case. It actually appears to be based on the Latin word for lamp – or a lucerna, as sown here. While Rashi did live in Iberia, he was a French Ashkenazi, of a different cultural and linguistic influence. Also, the Ladino translations of the bible most often use the word “קנדילאש” – candelas, which does not necessarily mean the same thing as our English term “candle,” but often lamp instead; the same as lucerna, in Latin.

In Rashi’s commentary for Exodus 35:14, here he used an interesting word to describe the lamps of the menorah. He used the word “לוציי”ש” – luzes (or maybe even, lozes) for lights. This word could be just another translation into old-French of the 11th Century, but also any other language as well (notice the wording, בלעז). Though it might seem easy to assume that because this word sounds a lot like a Spanish word, it is Ladino (Judeo-Spanish). However, this is not the case. It actually appears to be based on the Latin word for lamp – or a lucerna, as shown above. While Rashi did live in Iberia, he was a French Ashkenazi, of a different cultural and linguistic influence. Also, the Ladino translations of the bible most often use the word “קנדילאש” – candelas, which does not necessarily mean the same thing as our English term “candle,” but often lamp instead; the same as lucerna, in Latin.

Here this verse tells us about the additional seven lamps individually crafted to go on top of the candelabrum, and filled with pure olive oil. In order to position the lamps in the correct direction – with all the wicks facing inward toward the center of the Menorah – it was required to use the wick-tongs. And later when cleaning and redressing the lights after their use, the ash-scoop would be used to clear the burnt remains from the lamps. And then the lights are reset again using these wick-tongs.

One of the reasons why we miss the point of the usefulness of these items, is because we don’t have the presence of these items as part of our Chanukah menorahs. Also, today most often people use wax-candles instead of the original oil lamps. In the lack of practice, or experience with oil lamps, the actual usefulness of these items doesn’t really appear obvious to most people.

As we have previously discussed, Sephardim and Chassidim still hold by the custom to ideally light with oil lamps. Not just on Chanukah, but also on Shabbat and festivals as well! (see “Chanukah: The Ner Mitzvah and the Shamash” and “Shabbat Lights: The Tradition of Great Scholars to Light with Olive Oil”)

However, even though these implements might seem practical for people who regularly utilize olive oil lamps, our lights are only temporary and so do not need to be constantly tended and trimmed like the Temple Menorah. Furthermore, on Shabbat we are not allowed to fix the wicks of our nerot (lamps, lights). If they go out or begin to smolder we must just let them go out, we are not permitted to tend them on the sabbath.

The need for these items is mentally superfluous for us. But the Torah and the rabbis harp on these points because we are not just talking abstractly about a sanctuary, as part of a mental exercise. We need them, because in a real world they are useful.

One of the reasons that these utensils are also not so necessary for our own sacred light sets is because we take special care regarding the oil itself, in order to make sure we do not need to tend our lamps or trim our wicks.

If we look in the halachic works, like the Shulchan Aruch and Mishneh Torah, some of the most heavy discussions we have is surrounding is the quality of the oils (shemen; oils, or fats such as tallow-wax) and when one needs to use new wicks. We learn how it is that the finest and purest oil, the best grades of oil, burn steady without separating.

Also on special nights such as Shabbat and holidays we are instructed to additionally use new cotton wicks, as they are able to soak up a fine oil better. Use the best oil and wicks so they burn without incident, providing a steady and soothing light until they extinguish.

Lights which burn without flicker, which we think of as symbolic of competing and fighting which we want to also avoid during our sabbath’s rest. We consider the idea that we should burn steady and strong, without neither flaring up nor smoldering out. Aspiring that our names and honor be good, as good and fine as pure olive oil. (see Parshat Mikeitz 2012) For all these reasons, traditional people prefer oil lights.

I would encourage people to take a look at the many halachic works regarding the details of lighting of nerot – of lights. Their instructions offer us some practical life experience many of us miss today. This is also something helpful for my many friends who are also reclaiming the ancient tradition of lighting with oil lights for themselves.

The oil of the Menorah. It is last, but not the least, among the Menorah dressings that we will address.

Not only is it last mentioned here in our key verse above, but interestingly the shemen zayit – the olive oil – is also the very last item mentioned later on when we read of the actual completion of the Mishkan. It is the last item that is presumably made. Without it, the rest of this whole operation will not function. (see Exodus 37:29)

Now interestingly, most of the knowledge and wisdom I have to teach about olive oil doesn’t actually come from books. It comes through experience with making olive oil.

Though in our own books, in the very commentary of the Torah itself by Rashi, it is there that I am reminded that some things are only taught through a lot of hands-on experience. And that making olive oil is a complicated task reserved for the wise and most skilled, as it is just as hard as any other skilled craft. The commentary reads as follows:

And the oil for lighting: That too required wise-hearted [people] because it was different from other oils, as is explained in Menachot (86a): he picks it [the olives] at the top of the olive tree, and it is crushed and pure.

ואת שמן המאור: אף הוא צריך חכמי לב, שהוא משונה משאר שמנים, כמו שמפורש במנחות (דף פו א) מגרגרו בראש הזית, והוא כתית וזך:

Rashi for Exodus 37:14

Rashi asks us to remember the Talmudic discourse regarding this matter of making olive oil. We are taught there in detail, the olives are picked from the tree starting from the top. A tree is harvested from the sun-beat top olives, working your way down until you get to the bottom olives. Three harvests from a tree in total. Working your way down until all that is left is softened olives below, so soft that they must actually be sun-dried before they are pressed for oil. This systematic way of harvesting helps maximize the output of oil and reduces spoilage.

Furthermore, different grades of olive oil that are produced from each harvest. During the first pressing the olives are milled, basket-ed and drained of oil. The second is a pressing with a wooden mortar, a pressing beam made of wood. The third pressing would be once again through mill to get any last bit out. This is how olive oil is extracted today.

Of course the first pressing is the best. This is oil of this purity and wholeness is akin to the claims of the extra-virgin olive oil grade of today. Then the purity and usefulness goes down from there, the more times you press the fruit. How can this be? Our Talmudic text doesn’t really elaborate. It just tells us not to soak the olives in water. But it’s not exactly clear otherwise. Only a skilled craftsmen of oil would understand the meaning of these instructions really.

When I think of the skill and complexity of olive oil making, the first person that comes to mind is actually my grandfather John Hernandez Briones. He was the one who taught me how to make olive oil.

I think back to when my grandparents lived in that old small house, the pink one with all the olive trees in yard back in Mexico. My grandfather would lay down tarps under the trees, hand us baskets, and we would go up into these thick trees to pick the olives. The raw olives would then be taken and pressed almost exactly like the process described in the Talmud.

Olive Oil PressingThe olives would be carefully and thoroughly crushed, expressing everything held in the fruit. The pulp and solid matter being carefully retained, and only the oozing goodness of the olives would drip from the press to the vats. (see a demonstration of this process in a beautiful blog piece by the Emmett Family of their visit to an oil press in Israel)

Notice there is no previous soaking or processing that is involved or allowed in making of olive oil. As mentioned, we are not allowed to soak the olives. Soaking and brining them makes them edible, but it makes them impossible to press for oil. The reason is because as we juice the olives we are not just removing oil. Along with it we are also removing all forms of vegetable fluid from the fruit; water.

The more times you press the fruit in order to get the most out of them, the more of the pulps water is released and flows into the mix with the oil. Thus the last pressing of oil is the least useful, often separating between oil and fluid in use, making it inferior as a fuel for oil lamps. The fluid would eventually snuff out the oil lights. However it is edible, just not as tasty as the golden first pressing.

When we look at the Talmud in this light, it thus makes very obvious sense why we are told the first pressing is fit for the Menorah, while the second pressing is fit for the grain offerings. Not only was the oil used for lighting, it was an essential ingredient that was needed for the sacrificial offerings. Being mixed in with the grains offerings on the altar as well.

One of the reasons that we read of the mention of the olive oil first, when the items are ordered by G-d in the first account, is because the oil is a necessary prerequisite to making the incense and anointing oil that are next mentioned.

However, the olive oil is mentioned last during the account of the actual construction of the Mishkan, because it was the last and essential craft needed in order for this tent of light and offerings to function. Without it you didn’t just lack light, you also lacked the ability to sacrifice as well.

Many people get “bored” as they read through all the details of this. The points of all this, to mere religionists, is pretty dull and seemingly useless because they have no life application for it. It’s merely a mental game. All of this seems cold. And to the speculative its even demanding and cruel in their minds, that for some unknown reason G-d only wants the best oil for His Menorah. It’s easy to come to strange conclusions until someone has personally shown you the how and why of this craft.

The point of such descriptiveness is to demonstrate that there is a real practical nature of these Torah instructions. It’s about real deeds, not myth. We aren’t talking about abstract spiritual ideas, we are talking about a real lifestyle and its cultural ingenuity.

In light of all this, it makes sense to us when the Torah likewise says:

“And you shall command the children of Israel, that they bring unto you pure olive oil beaten for the light, to cause a lamp to burn continually.”

וְאַתָּה תְּצַוֶּה אֶתבְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְיִקְחוּ אֵלֶיךָ שֶׁמֶן זַיִת זָךְ כָּתִיתלַמָּאוֹר: לְהַעֲלֹת נֵר, תָּמִיד.

Exodus 27:20

And this is the point that I would like us to consider this week. Our sages further tell us that when the Torah commands the children of Israel regarding the making of olive oil to bring to Moses, it wasn’t because there was just a one time pressing. Indeed oil would be continually needed, it was regularly being made and brought forward to meet the needs of the congregation. (Sifrei, Parshat Chukat)

When we talk about these things, we aren’t talking about lessons that were useful at some point in the past. These lessons are here for “v’yik’chu elecha / for when you bring.” We focus on the “when,” as a future and continuous act that stretches to us today.

Our Discussion Point: I have learned so much from my family growing up. Most often from the elders of my family, they loved to show me everything because I was always curious and easily engrossed in their activities. So I have so many good memories, and a lot of life skills that I wouldn’t have otherwise. In fact, I’m more knowledgeable about our culture and traditions than even my parents, who didn’t have the same space and time to explore their roots as I did. My grandparents were mindful to pass the language, the arts, the recipes, the crafts and the stories to me. Show me how it was done, so I could show the others.

We all should ask ourselves, are we passing on our culture and traditions? Are we passing on our cultural and religious know-how to others, so that it doesn’t just end with us?

One of the reasons we need to pass on our traditions is because often times once a craft is lost, it is not easily regained. My many ethnic friends often warm me against loosing touch with one’s own roots, as through ignorance and apathy many groups are left unable to reproduce their own beloved culture. I’m warned not to let the Jewish community also become accustomed to thinking of their native crafts and delicacies as, “Ahh… just like grandma used to buy.”

Can we reclaim culture over consumerism? What essential tasks or crafts do you want passed down through the generations, which your family and community would not be the same without? Though we are in an era in which we are often out of touch with hands-on cultural expression as in days gone by, can we reclaim some of that organic cultural diversity for ourselves? What have you learned which you want to pass on?

Related articles:


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 light 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

light for Shabbat 

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 who are going to champion the approach of the Shulchan Aruch to bless first before lighting 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 that is 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 fulfillment. 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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