Thursday, November 14, 2013

Shabbat Candles: Development of a Mitzvah

This post is a modified transcript of a lesson given at Kehillat Hod veHadar. It is dedicated to the  memory of רבקה בת יצחק ודבורה  Ruth Sherman Schaffer, the mother of Carol Goldin.
Although the Torah is very clear about the important of observing the Sabbath, it does not specify any specific, positive acts in its observance outside of the Temple (where there were special sacrifices), unless you count “resting” as an action. Candle-lighting, Kiddush, special meals and Havdalah were all later developments.
For this discussion, the key verse from the Torah is Exodus 35:2-3:
On six days work may be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a Sabbath of complete rest, holy to the Lord; whoever does any work on it shall be put to death. You shall kindle no fire throughout your settlements on the Sabbath day.   
This verse specifies that “kindling a fire” is forbidden, but does not exclude the possibility of leaving a preexisting fire burning. Although that is clear to us, as inheritors of the rabbinic tradition, this reading is not and was not universally accepted. Indeed, the dispute over the permissibly of leaving a fire burning on Shabbat may be the oldest and longest standing focal point of the tension between the idea that the essence of the Sabbath is strictly following a clear set of regulations versus “the Sabbath is given to you but you are not given to the Sabbath (Mekhilta, Shabata 1; TB Yoma 85b).

Some scholars believe that this was a point of dispute between the Sadducees and Pharisees (who were the predecessors of the rabbis). We don’t have any Sadducean sources to confirm or refute but point but the Mekhilta, which preserves some of the oldest rabbinic traditions, clearly states that the purpose of this verse it to refute the idea that a fire may not be left burning on Friday so as to benefit from its light and heat on the Sabbath: 
I might understand this to mean that one should not be allowed even on Friday to light a candle or put away food to be kept warm, or to light a fire for the Sabbath. Therefore, it says: ‘You  shall kindle no fire throughout your settlements on the Sabbath day.” Only on the Sabbath day [itself] you shall not kindle any fire.’” (Mekhilta de Rabbi Ishmael, Shabata, end). 
Similar to the Sadducean case, the position of the Dead Sea/Qumram community on the issue of leaving a fire burning on the Sabbath is a matter of scholarly dispute.

The Mishnah (edited c. 200 CE), the normative code of early Rabbinic law, has no doubt about the matter and does not hint at controversy. It deals with technical questions regarding the lighting of a lamp before the Sabbath, notes that this is a practice of women and stresses the importance getting the timing right. There is no discussion of whys and wherefores.
With what may they kindle [the Shabbat light] and with what may they not kindle them? They may not kindle with cedar fiber, uncarded flax, a raw silk, a desert wick, or seaweed, and not with pitch, wax, castor oil, [terumah] oil [which must be] burnt, tail fat, or tallow. Rabbi Ishmael says: they may not light with tar, because of the honor of the Shabbat. But the sages permit with all oils: with sesame oil, nut oil, radish oil, fish oil, gourd oil, tar and naphtha. Rabbi Tarfon says: they don’t light with anything but olive oil….
On account of three transgressions women die in childbirth: For not being meticulous in the practice of niddah [family purity],[taking] hallah and lighting candles.

A person must say three things in his house on Sabbath eve at sundown: “Have you tithed? Have you prepared the Eruv? Light the candle.”  If it is doubtful, whether it is night or not, they do not tithe that which is certainly [untithed], they do not immerse utensils, and they do not kindle the lights.’ (Mishnah Shabbat 2:1-2, 6-7)
Translator's nore: the Hebrew ner shel Shabbat is variously translated as Sabbath candles, lights or lamps. The differences are technological or sociological. There is no religious significance to the various terms.
Liturgical note: This mishnah, known as Bameh Madlikin is quoted in the Friday evening services in many rites, particularly the Ashkanazic one. For more on this, see below.   
From here there are two ways to continue. The traditional way would be study the Talmud page – meaning the Gemara and the commentaries on it – simultaneously in an intergenerational dialogue.
However, that tends to blur the developmental lines so I want to look at the sources in chronological order (with a little help from Rashi in understanding the Gemara).
The Gemara is the rabbinic explication of the Mishnah. Mishnah + Gemara + commentaries = Tamud but people often aren't carefully about making those distinctions in everyday language. 
The Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shabbat 23b reports:   
Rava said: It is obvious to me that in reference to the light of the home and the Hanukkah light, the light of the home is preferable because of the peace of the home; light of the home and Kiddush of the day, the light of the home is preferable because of the peace of the home. Rava asked: What of the Hanukkah light and the Kiddush of the day, is the Kiddush of the day preferable because it is regular or is the Hanukkah light preferable because of the publicizing of the miracle? After he asked, he solved it - the Hanukkah light is preferable because of the publicizing of the miracle.
Rav Huna said: One who is regular with the light will have scholarly children; one who is meticulous with mezuzah will merit a beautiful dwelling; one who is meticulous with tzitzit will merit a beautiful garment; one who is meticulous with the Kiddush of the day will merit full barrels of wine.
The first part is concerned with setting priorities for people who lack the resources to observe all of these practices/commandments. Note that the Sabbath lights are called “light of the home” and they are considered the highest priority because they ensure the “peace of the home.” This “peace” is not the “shalom bayit” of the rabbinical courts that send unhappy couples home to fight it out rather than granting a divorce. It is the health and safety of the inhabitants who won’t have to suffer sitting in the dark or tripping and falling.

The second part is harder to understand. Clearly Rav Huna wants to encourage careful observance of these commandments but while connection between the commandment and the promised reward is clear in the last three cases, the connection between Shabbat lights and scholarly children is less obvious. Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzhak, 1140-1104, France) explains: “Scholarly children: As it is written: For mitzvah is a lamp, Torah is a light. Through the kindling of the commanded lamp of Shabbat and Hanukah comes the light of Torah.”

Further along in the discussion, the Gemara (page 25b) tries discern the reasons Rabbi Yishmael in Mishnah we saw above forbids lighting tar.
What is the reason? Rava answered, Since it is malodorous, lest the occupant of the house leave it and go out. Said Abaye to him: Let him leave! He replied: I say that the kindling of the light for Shabbat is obligatory, for Rav Nahman bar Rav Zavda, and others say, Rav Nahman bar Rava said in Rav’s name, the kindling of the light for Shabbat is obligatory, washing of the hands and the feet in warm water in the evening is optional. But I say it is a mitzvah…  My soul was removed from peace; I forgot prosperity. (Lamentations 3) What is the meaning of, “My soul is removed from peace?” Rav Abbahu said: This refers to the kindling of the light of Shabbat.
Clearly, if the foul smell of burning tar forces people out of the house, lighting the lamp has not contributed to the “peace of the home.” Abaye seems unconcerned with this problem but his colleagues consider honoring Shabbat important, only disagreeing over whether it is a an obligation or a commandment.

Rashi here explains that the candles are in honor of Shabbat “for it is not a meal of importance unless it is in a well-lit location.” Today, we consider a “candle-lit” dinner something romantic and special but for people who ate every evening meal by candle light, a brightly illuminated dinner was the treat.
The importance of ensuring light for the Sabbath evening meals is undoubted here and some of the rabbis do use the word “mitzvah” to describe the obligation but there is no mention of the blessing with which we are familiar, even the similar blessing for Hanukkah candles (which have no apparent source is the written Torah) does appear in the Talmud on the very same page (Shabbat 23b).

The first surviving mention of the blessing for Shabbat candles comes in Seder Rav Amram (Babylonia, 9th century), which was the first Jewish prayer book, or at least the oldest to survive:
The order of the Sabbath is thus: They gather in the synagogue on Friday afternoon and pray the eighteen blessings as is customary, and light the Sabbath lamp, it is necessary to bless “who sanctified us with His commandments.” What is the reason? Because it is an obligation, as we said “the Sabbath lamp is an obligation as Rav Yehuda said in the name of Rabbi Shmuel, lighting a lamp for the Sabbath is obligatory. Proof from the rabbis is “On account of three transgressions… Just as one says a blessing for those [hallah and niddah], here, too, one must bless. If you say it is only rabbinic, Rav quoted, “Ask your father and he will tell you (Dt. 32:7)”
Note the candle lighting being discussed takes place in the synagogue and that Rav Amram Gaon does acknowledge that the justification for the blessing might not be obvious. Despite this he is very firm in his formulation, invoking both legal precedent and a classic verse that rabbis often use to support traditions with weak (if any) scriptural basis.

Rav Amram’s decisiveness is not surprising when we consider that he was deeply involved in an ideological conflict with the Karaites (from the Hebrew k’ra, meaning “scripture,”) who followed the teachings of Anan ben David (8th century) who challenged the authority of rabbinic interpretation, and argued that Jews consult only the Bible to understand God’s law and that the Sadducees, not the Pharisees from whom rabbinic Judaism claimed to be descended, had understood the biblical injunction correctly. According to Anan ben David:
It is evident that even if the work was begun on a weekday, before the arrival of the Sabbath, it is necessary to desist from it with the arrival of the Sabbath. The same rule must therefore apply also to the kindling of fire… even if the fire has been kindled on a weekday, prior to the arrival of the Sabbath, it must be extinguished. (“Book of Precepts,” Karaite Anthology: Excerpts from the Early Literature [trans. and annotated by L. Nemoy; Yale Judaica Series 7; New Haven: Yale University Press, 1952], 17-18)
Even the world of the Babylonian yeshivot, the blessing did not immediately win universal acceptance. In his prayer book a century later, Rav Saadiah Gaon (c. 930), writes, “On Friday before sunset, it is necessary to kindle Shabbat light, over which most of us say, ‘ ... to kindle Shabbat light.’”

Many liturgical texts from roughly the same period, but according to the tradition practiced in the Land of Israel were preserved in the Cairo Genizah. Among them is one published by Naphtali Wieder,  "An Unknown Blessing on the Reading of the Chapter Bameh Madlikin
Blessed are You, Lord, our God, Sovereign of the universe, who chose wise scholars and their students, and gave them Torah from Mount Sinai through our Rabbi Moses, and commanded them to read Torah, Mishna, Talmud and law to acheive eternal life, who choose our Rabbi Moses from among all of the prophets and spoke to him face to face, "With him I speak mouth to mouth" (Numbers 12:8). After Moses, You chose Joshua his disciple and 70 elders, prophets, wise scholars and their students, and commanded them to observe the Sabbath and light Sabbath lamps.  "With what may they kindle..."
ברוך אתה ה' אלהינו מלך העולם, אשר בחר בחכמים ותלמידיהם ונתן להם תורה מהר סיני על ידי משה רבנו, וצוה אותם לקרא בתורה במשנה בתלמוד בהלכה לקנות חיי שני עולמים, ובחר במשה רבנו מכל הנביאים, ודבר עמו פנים בפנים פה אדבר בו וגו' ואחריו בחר ביהושע תלמידו ושבעים זקנים ונביאים וחכמים ותלמידיהם, וצוה אותם בשמירת שבת ובהדלקת הנר של שבת , במה מדליקין וכו'              (מצוטט ביצחק ד' גילת, פרקים בהשתלשלות ההלכה)
The language of this blessing is reminiscent of the haftara blessings and strongly emphasizes the validity and divine origin of the rabbinic tradition, exactly what the Karaites disputed. Moreover, Mishna Shabbat has 24 chapters, mostly dealing with the laws of carrying and cooking. In some ways it would make more sense to study one of those during the service because, presumably, the Sabbath lights have already been lit and any mistake cannot be corrected. However, if the objective is to reinforce the belief that lighting special Sabbath lamps is commanded, this practice is the most appropriate.

Rabbeinu Tam (Rabbi Yaakov ben Meir, 1100-1171, France) continued the battle for lighting candles with a blessing in very forceful language:
I have also heard that they uprooted the blessing of Shabbat lights and desecrated the sanctuary and the cherishing of the mitzvah. For many “obligations” require a blessing, and this is not comparable to mayim aharonim which is obligatory and does not require a blessing. For mayim aharonim is done not as a mitzvah but only to avoid danger… In works of aggada we read that this practice is specifically for women, for they extinguished the light of the world as is explained in Bereishit Rabba.  In the siddur of Rav Amram Gaon it is written that the observance of niddah, hallah, and lighting are all obligatory and there is a blessing for all three. And it [candle lighting] takes precedence over Kiddush and the lights of Hannukah. We find many blessings in the siddur of R. Saadiah and the Halakhot of Rav Yehudai although they are not recorded. How much more so if it is recorded in works of aggada and Shabbat drashot. All who hear this opinion will mock him and all who uproot the blessing shall be uprooted (Sefer Hayashar, 45:4).
In good rabbinical tradition, he then quotes the rival position of his contemporary Rabbi Meshullam ben Yaakov (died 1170, Provence):
Regarding the blessing over the light: this was also how he ruled and practiced originally, and in many other places we see that they do not bless. The rationale is that the act of lighting is not the completion of the act of a mitzvah and it is only to achieve the result of bringing light to the night. And if a lamp were already lit, one is not obligated to extinguish it and light again, as we find regarding Hanukkah lights (ibid. 47:6)
Rabbeinu Tam then refutes Meshulam's position again, quoting both Rav Amram and the woman of his family. Because lighting Sabbath candles is a women’s mitzvah he clearly states that their expertise in the matter exceeds his own.
You wrote and ruled that one should not bless and the reason is that it is not the complete act of a mitzvah. This is not so, for it is a complete act like that of the Hanukkah lights, which are to publicize the miracle. Here it is to create peace in the home, and one does not perform this too early or too late… I am astonished that you accept, in your faulty approach, the authority of the Gaonim on much graver matters but you will not rely on Rav Amram Gaon – from whom we learn blessings and prayers like the blessing of the maftir and most blessings which do not appear in the Talmud of Tractate Soferim – to bless on Shabbat lights. Be smart and keep quiet and no one will mock you and the angels of peace won’t punish you. Since the women make the blessing silently, you have forgotten the practice. I too never heard it and sometimes when I lit, I forgot since it is not as habitual among men as women. Further evidence for this blessing: it is written in Halakhot Gedolot that when one lights both Shabbat and Hannukah lights, one lights the Hannukah lights first for if one lights the Shabbat lights first, it is forbidden since one says the blessing. Without the blessing, where is the acceptance of Shabbat? You wrote that if the lamp was already lit, you do not extinguish and light it again. So what! ... it is like a sukkah that has already been constructed, you do not bless but if one does add something new, one does make a blessing. Additionally, the women in our land have the custom of extinguishing and relighting them. And I have seen this and inquired of them and this is what they said. And if they are not themselves prophets, then they are daughters of prophets (ibid. 48:6-7).
Rabbeinu Tam won the day. A key point here is that he argues from the living tradition, not only from text

When learning this section on a traditional Talmud page, Rav Amram, Rabbeinu Tam and Meshullam (as "there are those who wish to suggest") appear in the Tosafot, which were edited about a century later. The arguments remain, without the aggressive language.
After the 12th century, the controversy in rabbinic circles wanes, although the Karaites continue to maintain their practice. Some do leave an electric light lit on Shabbat but there is no ceremonial candle lighting practice.   
Credit for gathering most of the above rabbinic texts & translations: Devorah Zlochower. You can hear her lesson on this subject on the Mechon Hadar website: “Shabbat Candles: Evolution of a Mitzvah.” 

Ingathering of the Exiles

In his book, From Sinai to Ethiopia, Rabbi Sharon Shalom (one of the first Jews from Ethiopia to be ordained as a rabbi in Israel) explains many practices of the Ethiopian community that differ from the usual practice in Israel and advices Jews from Ethiopia living in Israel about how they should act in each case.  He writes (my translation):
Ethiopian Halakha
Neither fire nor candles are lit for the Sabbath on Friday (nor is any work forbidden on the Sabbath allowed to begin on Fridays and continue on the Sabbath). Moreover, it is forbidden to benefit from fire on the Sabbath, even if it was left burning from beforehand. However, almost everywhere a candle was left burning for purposes of illumination only. After it extinguished itself, it was not to be touched. However, candles were not lit in honor of the Sabbath.

Note "However, almost everywhere a candle was left burning for purposes of illumination only." The consideration of "peace of the home" (safety and enjoyment on the Sabbath) prevailed over  the theoretical idea that no light should be left. He then outlines the history we have described above, and concludes:
The Custom Recommended in the Land of Israel
Among the Jews who observe it, lighting Sabbath candles has become a very dear and beloved commandment. The candles bring relaxation and calm to the home, infuse it with an atmosphere of special spirituality and create family unity. Lighting candles is a clear sign of identity for a Jewish home. Therefore, if it is very difficult for someone to light Sabbath candles, they may continue their previous custom and desist, but anyone, especially the younger generation, who can succeed in understanding that lighting Sabbath candles is a special segula should light them because, in the final analysis, the lighting itself happens before the Sabbath begins.    
I find it interesting that the practice of the Jewish community in Ethiopia was the same as the Karaite practice, which might be a sign that they separated from the mainstream of Jewish history before the Pharisee/rabbinic stream became dominant. However, Shalom accepts the authority of the rabbinic tradition and tries pave a way for his community to join the mainstream without trampling on the feelings of the older generation who wishes to maintain their particular customs.

The non-developmental perspective

And what do Jews who firmly believe that the entire oral tradition was given through Moses on Mt. Sinai but cannot deny the documents showing the development outlined, do with all of this?  Rabbi Tzvi Freeman at explains

The most precious things in life are said silently. Those who need to understand – those who are not strangers, those who hear the words from the inside – understand. Similarly, with Shabbat: when G‑d gave it to us, He did not need to spell out its most precious customs… Even though it is technically a rabbinic institution, [the Sabbath lamp] has always been an integral part of the Shabbat. Our tradition is that Abraham and Sarah kept the entire Torah even though it was not yet given. They knew the Torah from their understanding of the inner mechanics of the universe. Sarah lit the Shabbat lamp, as did Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah. It’s reasonable to believe that at no time in our history did a Friday night pass without that light.