Vayakhel: Kindleh, baby, kindleh!

Each Erev Shabbat, Jewish women around the world light candles and recite the following blessing (in Hebrew): “You are Blessed, Adonai our G-d, Sovereign of the Universe, Who has Sanctified Us with His Commandments, and Commanded Us to Kindle the Sabbath Lights.”  

Any other “fires” burning in the home at that moment may continue to burn throughout Shabbat; hence, even those who are fully Shomrim Shabbat (Shabbat observant) may continue to enjoy -- but not turn on or off -- light (i.e. electrical appliances) and heat throughout the 25 hours between candle lighting and havdalah (separation).

There is no commandment in the Torah to “Kindle Sabbath Lights.”  Indeed, to the extent that the Torah says anything about “burning” lights on Shabbat, it forbids it. It in this week’s portion, Yayakhel, appears the verse: 

Lo t'vaaru eysh [You shall "kindle"/"burn" no fires] throughout your settlements on the Sabbath Day.”  Exodus 35:3.  

How, then, did we get from this prohibition, whatever it means, to an obligation to light?  

Two thousand years ago, when the (Second) Temple still stood in Jerusalem, the Sadducees and the Pharisees vied for control.  The former construed the Torah command  “Lo t’vaaru eysh” broadly to outlaw the burning of any flames on Shabbat. [Indeed, the root word, in modern Hebrew, means "to burn," and the blessing we use to light candles is "L'hadlik," which is also the word we use in modern Hebrew for turning on a light.]  The Sadducees' Shabbats were thus cold and dark.  

The Pharisees, however, interpreted the verse to only prohibit kindling fires on Shabbat. Lights already kindled could continue to burn. To assert their position (as well as force people to publicly take sides in this dispute, and thus to align with the politics of one or the other, the Pharisees instituted a requirement that a light be kindled just before Shabbat and kept burning. When the Temple was destroyed, the Sadducees were killed and/or lost their power base.   The rabbis continued the Pharisees’ policy as part of the Mishnah and Talmud; that is, the “oral Torah” that came to define rabbinic Judaism (and still does today).  

Many Jews have heard this part of the “story” of the Shabbat candles (or lamps).  But the next major chapter is much less well known.  The power of the rabbis was severely challenged by the Karaites in the later centuries of the first millennium of the Common Era.  They rejected the “oral Torah,” arguing that only the text of the written Torah (“Karate” being derived from “read” or “scripture”) was legitimate.  The Karaites were not merely a Jewish splinter group; they were a major threat to Rabbinic Judaism itself.  

Eventually, the rabbis prevailed, thanks in large part to the brilliance of leaders such as Saadia Gaon.  They argued that the written Torah must be interpreted to be understood and followed, and that even the Karaites, of necessity, had their own “oral Torah.”   

Indeed, it was the Geonim of the major world Jewish community of the time -- Babylonia -- who invented the Shabbat blessing over the light(s), mirroring the already long-established rabbinic mandate of a blessing over the Channukah candles.  Previously, Jews had lit a lamp to bring in Shabbat, but not said a blessing.  We owe much to the leaders of the Gaonic period in Babylonia, and this period deserves more attention in Jewish history.   

Today, of course, the greatest threat to rabbinic Judaism’s continued influence is post 18th-century modernity.  Most Jews now accept or reject aspects of the oral tradition/oral Torah (to the extent they are aware of them) at their individual discretion. In America, the majority of Jews do not light Shabbat candles at home every week, and many do so seldom -- or never.  

Nevertheless, the candle-lighting tradition continues to be an essential link to our history and heritage.  Many of us have heard stories of non-Jews whose “grandmother had a tradition of lighting candles on Friday night, but no one knew why.”  These individuals concluded that at least part of their family history was Jewish, and this discovery has led some to reclaim that heritage.  

Others of us have heard of Jewish parents or grandparents who asked their daughters and granddaughters, before going away to college and/or getting married: “if you just do one Jewish thing, light Friday night candles” – hoping that this would somehow maintain a link, however tenuous.  

Lighting Shabbat candles is much, much more than a nice and very easily accomplished tradition.  As I’ve only alluded briefly to here, it carries deep historical (as well as spiritual, emotional, Kabbalistic, and halachic) significance.  It would not be too much to say that one can learn a tremendous amount about Judaism, its history, culture, politics, philosophy, spirituality, etc. etc. just by studying this one "simple" ritual in depth!  But perhaps the most important benefits about lighting Shabbat candles is the experience.  Knowledge is secondary. 

If you do have a weekly practice of lighting Shabbat candles, I invite and encourage you to learn more about the multi-faceted and fascinating aspects of this tradition.  More importantly, if you don’t yet have a practice of lighting them, or have “lapsed” from former practice, why not begin, or begin anew?  Feel the warmth and light of welcoming the Sabbath Queen. Feel the family come together in peace.  Feel the n’shamah y’teirah, the extra soul, enter your body and mind.    

Shabbat shalom!   

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A bird that you set free may be caught again, but a word that escapes your lips will not return.
Jewish Proverb