Ask the Rabbi: Let there be light

Ask the Rabbi Let there

December 3, 2009 14:26
3 minute read.
hanukkah candles good pic 248.88

hanukkah candles good pic 248.88. (photo credit: Courtesy)


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The propriety of manufacturing ritual lights without a "classical fire" has engaged halachic authorities since the advent of electricity. To better understand the possibility of using electric candles, one might first appreciate the underlying reasons for these rituals, and the consequential criterion for the light or fire needed to properly perform them. Although Shabbat candles remain one of the most poignant symbols of the Sabbath, most authorities believe this law stemmed from a rabbinic ordinance. The sages offered three different reasons for this practice (Shabbat 24a-25b). First, the act of lighting candles before the Sabbath's commencement adds dignity and grandeur to its sanctity (kavod Shabbat). Second, the light facilitates a more enjoyable holiday environment (oneg Shabbat), especially at meals, and therefore the custom emerged to light candles on or near the dining room table (Tosafot Shabbat 25b). Finally, the candles prevent the tension and mishaps that frequently occur in darkened environments (shalom bayit). For this last reason, the sages determined that one with insufficient funds should prioritize purchasing Shabbat candles before Kiddush wine or Hanukka candles. Similarly, one must ensure appropriate lighting throughout one's residence (MB 263:2). Today, most homes remain well lit from electric lights, diminishing the role of the candles in providing illumination. Nonetheless, kindling the candles still adds grandeur to the day and remains an essential part of welcoming Shabbat. While a few decisors ponder whether one should turn off the electric lights before kindling the candles, thereby distinguishing the candles as they become lit, most people do not take note of this concern (Shemirat Shabbat Kehilchata 43:34). Twentieth-century scholars debated whether one can entirely forsake using candles, and instead fulfill this mitzva with electric lights. Some rabbis deemed electric lights problematic, concluding that Shabbat lights require both a wick and fire (Shu"t Levush Mordechai OC 59). While this would proscribe the use of LEDs and possibly fluorescent lights, most decisors denied the necessity of this requirement for Shabbat candles, which are intended to simply provide illumination. In any case, this requirement would not preclude using incandescent bulbs, in which an electric current flows through a metal filament, generating both light and heat. (For this same reason, rabbis proscribed turning on these "fires" on Shabbat). While Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach preferred that these lights should possess an independent source of energy (like a battery), the vast majority of decisors, including Rabbis Moshe Sternbuch (Teshuvot Vehanhagot 2:157), Yosef Henkin and Joseph Soloveitchik, all deemed incandescent bulbs as permissible Shabbat lights. Since these lights, however, do not bear any distinct mark as being lit for Shabbat, most rabbis advocate employing them when no alternative is available (Yechaveh Da'at 5:24). The requirement for a "fire" becomes more definitive with havdala candles, since the blessing itself praises God for creating "the lights of fire." While fluorescent lights would not fulfill this requirement, incandescent bulbs do fit the bill. Some have nonetheless objected that the glass case prevents direct vision of the fire (OC 298:15), illuminating only displaced light (Yabia Omer 1:17). Others respond that glass per se does not create an outside blockage, since it represents an integral part of the light. Nonetheless, to allow one to see the glowing filament, the bulb must be transparent and not frosted (Tzitz Eliezer 1:20:13). While Rabbi Auerbach raised other objections, many decisors, including Rabbi Benzion Uziel (Mishpatei Uziel OC 1:8) permitted using these bulbs, even as they continued to recommend a multi-wick candle. One prominent scholar, Rabbi Chaim Grodzinsky, even preferred using bulbs for havdala to teach his early 20th-century audience that this relatively new technology was considered a flame prohibited to use on Shabbat (Hashmal Le'or Hahalacha 3:8). Most scholars, however, took a decisively prohibitive approach for electric Hanukka candles. Many contended that in addition to requiring a flame, Hanukka candles must resemble the miraculous lights which the holiday seeks to commemorate. Electric lights, while considered a fire for other purposes, certainly do not function like conventional fire, nor do they have a flame or wick. In fact, most sources advocate using oil and wicks, with wax candles deemed an acceptable alternative. While Rabbi Grodzinsky (Ahiezer 4:6) and Rabbi Yosef Massas (Mayim Hayim OC 279) permitted electric hanukkiot, contemporary decisors have rejected them, deeming it preferable to have family members light the candles on your behalf, or by alternatively becoming a "partner" in someone else's candlelighting by contributing a minimal amount (say, half a shekel) to their hanukkia costs. (This latter solution is frequently done by travelers staying in someone else's residence.) Nonetheless, all agree that public displays of electric hanukkiot help publicize the story of Hanukka, and while they may not fulfill the mitzva, these and other joyful displays contribute to the holiday spirit. The author, on-line editor of Tradition and its Text & Texture blog (, teaches at Yeshivat Hakotel. Submit questions to

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