of the Rabbinical Assembly in Israel


Bet Midrash Virtuali



Someone who is not expert regarding these times should light [the candles] at the time when the sun is still [resting] on the tops of the trees. If the day is cloudy one should light [the candles] as the roosters settle on their perch while there is still daylight. If one is in the open country where there are no roosters one should light [the candles] when the crows settle while it is still daylight.

After the response to Barkhu, even though there may still be daylight we may [no longer] create an eruv nor may we put food on the stove. This is because one has [thereby] accepted upon oneself [the sanctity of] Shabbat. As far as we are concerned the recital of Psalm 92 is the same as responding to Barkhu was for them.


We saw how in the first paragraph of this section [see Shabbat 011] Rabbi Karo described an extremely convoluted calculation to ascertain the precise moment of the end of twilight, which is also the moment of the onset of Shabbat. He wrote:

When it might be day or night, which time is twilight (which is the time it takes to walk three quarters of a mil after sunset, when [the time it takes to walk] a mil is one third of an hour less 99 seconds), [we may no longer perform tasks which are forbidden on Shabbat].

Karo had opted for a definition of twilight and nightfall which had the backing of great authorities in bygone generations. The particular champions of this method of calculation were the Tosafists, a school of thought that had compiled a monumental commentary on the Gemara in western Europe during the 12th and 13th centuries CE - about 300 years before Karo himself. This method of calculating nightfall is now almost universally abandoned. (It is still used in some ultra-orthordox circles to calculate the end of Shabbat on Saturday night, which means that for them Shabbat ends much later than for everybody else. But even they do not use this calculation for the onset of Shabbat.)

Because the method of calculation was so convoluted, in paragraph 3 of this section Karo is forced to offer practical alternatives, calculations which will be of use for "the ordinary man in the street". When the sun has declined to such an extent that its lower edge is hovering around the tops of the trees one should assume that the time has come to light the Shabbat candles (the last act before Shabbat begins). But, of course, this method is not foolproof because on a day when the darkening sky is also overclouded it may not be possible to ascertain the moment when "the sun is still on the tops of the trees". Therefore an alternative method must be offered.

In an age when almost everybody had some farmyard animals in their living space it was but natural to assume that when the roosters wandering around in one's courtyard (or in the courtyard of one's neighbour) began to settle for the night one could assume that twilight was nigh. However, because some birds settle earlier than others, Karo adds that one must go by the birds who settle down while there is still daylight, and one may not use the fact that there will be some roosters who will settle down when night has already fallen as an excuse for desecrating Shabbat.

But, of course, even this method is not appropriate for all eventualities. Someone who is spending their Shabbat in the open countryside will not have roosters handy by which he or she can tell the time. However, most birds settle down for the night just before nightfall. I was on vacation last week and from the balcony of the place where we were staying we could see - and hear! - quite literally hundreds of swallows settling down for the night, all on the same tree! Their combined twittering was certainly a time marker.

Already in the 18th century one of the truly great poskim [decisors] to hail from the Sefaradi communities, Rabbi Ĥayyim Yosef David Azulai, had determined that a wristwatch (or other timepiece) was a method for determing the time of Shabbat that was no less valid than the sun, roosters or any others birds! (Rabbi Azulai [1724-1806] was born in Jerusalem but was much travelled, so he was also very well known in Europe. He bears the sobriquet "Ĥida", which in Hebrew are the intitial letters of his name.)

So, if we have now established that we can determine the moment that Shabbat begins by "telling the time" we should note that in this matter too custom is varied. Despite what Rabbi Karo wrote in the first two paragraphs of section 261 it is now universally accepted that Shabbat begins some time before sunset on Friday. As I mentioned in our last shiur, the earliest time that we may legitimately assume the sanctity of Shabbat is the time of Plag ha-Minĥah. This time varies throughout the year, but on average it is about 75 minutes before sunset. This is extremely useful for modern congregations where the institution of 'daylight saving' would otherwise make Shabbat begin very late indeed - particularly in the more northerly (and southerly!) latitudes. However, under 'normal' circumstances 75 minutes is a long time before sunset.

The amount of time before sunset that one must add from Friday onto Shabbat varies according to custom - which explains why in a country as small as Israel the candle-lighting times can vary so greatly from city to city and from town to town. In Jerusalem, for example, it became the custom to usher Shabbat in 40 minutes before sunset. Because the founding fathers of Petaĥ Tikvah came from Jerusalem they brought this custom with them to their new city. The founding fathers of Tel-Aviv decided that 18 minutes before sunset was quite sufficient! Most places in Israel use a happy mean between these two and set candle-lighting time at 30 minutes before sunset. Obviously, in public at least one should observe the custom of the place where one is.

In medieval times in Europe it was the custom to recite the afternoon and evening services one after the other so as not to make it necessary for the people to assemble twice. This meant, of course, that the evening service was usually recited before dark. It is for this reason that in paragraph 4 Rabbi Karo states that when the congregation has started reciting the evening service on Friday evening Shabbat must be deemed to have started for the whole community. This would be the case even if there were still daylight, since it is permissible to recite the evening service from Plag ha-Minĥah onwards. (However, it goes without saying that in congregations where the evening service is recited after nightfall, Shabbat must nevertheless be deemed to have started some time before sunset.)

The evening service begins with the Reader's invocation, inviting the congregation to join in public worship. The Reader says Barkhu et Adonai ha-mevorakh - Praise God who is most praisworthy. The congregation then responds: Praised be God who is eternally most praiseworthy. From that moment, says Karo, for that congregation Shabbat must be deemed to have started even if there is still daylight outside. This was the custom in the middle ages. Later on it became customary to preface the evening service on Friday night with the recital of Psalm 92: "A psalm, a song for the Sabbath day". (This was before the Kabbalists of Safed added the whole ceremony of Kabbalat Shabbat.) As Rabbi Karo points out, nowadays it is the recitation of Pslam 92 that marks the onset of Shabbat if it is recited before sunset.

Let us summarize. Shabbat must begin some time before sunset. The earliest possible time to commence Shabbat is Plag ha-Minĥah, approximately 75 minutes before sunset. If the congregation recites the evening service before sunset, Shabbat begins for all the members of that community at the moment the evening service begins with Barekhu. Where the evening service is recited after dark Shabbat begins some minutes before sunset, the number of minutes depending on local custom. The most prevalent customs seem to be 18 minutes and 30 minutes before sunset. The Shabbat candles must be lit no later than at least one minute before sunset.


Even though I am officially on vacation I hope that the next shiur in this series will be on 2nd November 2004, as usual. Forgive me if I should fail in my good intentions .