of the Rabbinical Assembly in Israel


Bet Midrash Virtuali



When lighting [the Shabbat candles] one should recite this blessing: "Blessed are You, God our Lord, King of the Universe, Who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to light the Shabbat light". Both men and women [must recite the blessing when lighting the candles]. On a [biblically instituted] festival as well one must recite the blessing "... to light the festival light". On the Day of Atonement which does not fall on Shabbat there is [an halakhic authority] which says that a blessing should not be recited. Note: There is [an halakhic authority] which says that the blessing is said before lighting [the candles] and there is another which says that the blessing is to be recited after the lighting, but so that one may perform the mitzvah immediately [after reciting the blessing] one should not derive any benefit from it [i.e. the light] until after the blessing. We put our hand in front of the candle after lighting it and then recite the blessing, then removing our hand [which was obstructing the light], and this is held to be "performing the mitzvah immediately". This is the [prevalent] custom.


Having discussed in the first four paragraphs of section 263 several peripheral matters, Paragraph 5 now brings us to the manner of actually lighting the Shabbat light. Since the lighting of candles is now the universally accepted custom henceforth I shall refer to the "Shabbat candles" rather than to the "Shabbat light". ("Light" rather than "lights" because as we noted in Shabbat 016 "strictly speaking, one need only light one wick in order to fulfill the requirement of the sages".)

Most often, when we fulfill a ritual mitzvah we are required to recite a berakhah before doing so. This is in order to impress upon our consciousness that we are fulfilling a divine command. When lighting the Shabbat candles also we are required to recite a berakhah. The blessings that attend upon the ritual mitzvot have the usual formula, the specific mitzvah being referred to only in the last phrase of the benediction. Most people know that the formula for such blessings is "Barukh attah Adonai, Elohenu Melekh ha-olam, asher kideshanu bemitzvotav vetzivanu..." [Blessed are You, God our Lord, King of the Universe, Who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to...] In the case of the Shabbat candles the specific phrase at the end is "lehadlik ner shel Shabbat" [to light the Shabbat light].

Since the purpose of such a berakhah is to concentrate our thoughts on the task in hand I feel that it would not be amiss at this point to address the rather singular translation that I give above of the basic formula "Barukh attah Adonai Elohenu". Traditional translations into English reverse the order: "Blessed are You, Lord our God". I have chosen otherwise. This is what I wrote in an essay which you can find online here at your leisure if you wish:

There are two appellatives that have been used by Jewish sources to refer to the Deity from the very beginning: in Hebrew they are the Tetragrammaton, a four-letter-combination that is nowadays pronounced Adonai, and the word Elohim. Adonai is usually translated 'Lord' and Elohim is usually translated 'God'. However, for reasons that hopefully will soon become apparent, these translations are woefully inadequate. (They would be less inadequate, interestingly enough, if Adonai were construed as 'God' and Elohim as 'Lord'.) In the original Hebrew the Tetragrammaton (as the term derived from the Greek suggests) was a combination of four letters whose original pronunciation is now irretrievably lost... The consensus of opinion is that the meaning of the Tetragrammaton is something like He or That which causes to be, brings into existence, injects being. The word Elohim, which is an amplification of the form El, which also occurs regularly in the sources, comes from a Hebrew root meaning power or capability.

Adonai is a personal name: when God introduces Himself to the Israelites [Exodus 20:2] He says "I am Adonai". On the other hand, Elohim is a title. In modern English, the term we use as the personal name of the Deity is "God", and this would be the most appropriate translation of the Hebrew Adonai; since the word Elohenu indicates "power" an appropriate rendition in modern English would be "Lord".

The formula "Who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to..." indicates that the specific ritual mitzvah that is the subject of the berakhah derives from the Torah. To give but a very few obvious examples:

  • we are commanded to eat Matzah at the Seder service in Exodus 12:8;
  • we are commanded to wear Tzitzit in Numbers 15:38;
  • we are commanded to circumcise our sons in Genesis 17:10.

And in all such cases the text of the blessing praises God for having "sanctified us with His commandments", one of which is the specific mitzvah with which we are involved at that moment.

However, if we scour the Torah through thousands of times we shall never find a command to light lights or candles in our homes (or anywhere else!) in honour of Shabbat. The "command" to light the Shabbat candles is not biblical but one of the seven 'commands' that were instituted by the sages 'as if' they were biblical commands. We have referred to them previously. In Shabbat 016 I wrote:

It is not the Written Torah which requires us to have lights in our homes on the Sabbath eve; this requirement is one of seven innovations of the sages. That is to say, in seven instances the sages require us to do something as if it were a mitzvah of the Torah when, in fact, it is not. The Seven Mitzvot of the Sages are:

  • Lighting lights (candles) in honour of Shabbat (and YomTov);
  • Lighting lights on Ĥanukah;
  • Reading the Megillah on Purim;
  • Reciting Hallel on festive days;
  • Washing the hands before eating bread;
  • Reciting a berakhah before enjoying the good things of this world;
  • The institution of the Eruv.

In all these cases we recite a berakhah before performing these religious tasks, just as we do when performing a mitzvah that is written in the Torah.

In Shabbat 017 Jerry Langer asked the obvious question: It is ... curious ... that the b'rachah that is said includes the wording, "v'tzivanu". Let us phrase Jerry's question less politely: how can the rabbis arrogate to themselves the right to institute a mitzvah that is not commanded in the Torah and even require us to recite a berakhah that ostensibly contains a falsehood? Nowhere in the Torah does God command us to light Shabbat candles and yet the berakhah says that He does! Moreover, the Torah [Deuteronomy 4:2] specifically states:

You shall add nothing to what I am commanding you.

And here we find the sages adding seven mitzvot for which we make the berakhah which includes the words that we praise God for having "sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to" perform the specific mitzvah, even though He did not do so. In making these decrees the sages based themselves on the Torah. The Written Torah is the ideological basis of Judaism, but in its details it was never intended to be a `once and for all time' statement. Built into the very mechanism of the Written Torah itself [Deuteronomy 17:8-11] is an assumption, a demand for interpretation.

When any case ... is too difficult for you, go to that place which God shall have selected, and approach...the judge that shall be at that time, and ask your question: they will tell you what the law is... According to the Torah as they teach it to you and according to the law as they tell it to you, so shall you do. Do not depart from whatever they tell you to the right or to the left.

Here it is quite explicitly stated that the Written Torah is not exhaustive, but at various times in the future will have to be supplemented and expanded by "the judge that shall be at that time". When the sages made their decrees and prohibitions they were basing their right to do so upon this text. If obedience to the innovations of the sages ("the judge that shall be at that time") is required by the Torah, is a mitzvah to do so. Thus, when we perform one of these seven mitzvot we are doing something that God has commanded us to do: to obey the institutions of the sages.

To be continued.


Last time Nehama Barbiru asked a question about whether someone who does not know when it is Saturday is required to observe Shabbat. I gave my answer, but I must have been very weary because two people have taken the trouble to supplement what I then wrote. Sheridan Neimark writes:

Respectfully, I believe your answer to Ms. Barbiru's question about the hypothetical situation of not knowing when Shabbat arrives, due to being unconscious for an unknown period, is unhelpful. How can one possibly count the days if one has been unconscious for an unknown period of time?

I respond:

I was not sufficiently specific. Sincere apologies. Put it down to 'recuperation'. What the sages say is that in such a situation the person who does not know when it is (or was) Saturday must immediately start counting six days and observe the seventh as Shabbat - regardless of what day of the week it may be for the rest of the world. When that person is able to resume a normal life they begin to observe Shabbat once again together with all other Jews.

In trying to answer the original question I quoted Rabbenu Beĥayyé; his comment culminated with the words "he must count six days and then observe Shabbat on the seventh, as taught by the sages". Sol Freedman writes:

By the oddest coincidence, I was reviewing Shabbat 69b. A possible more specific answer to the question raised by Nehama Barbiru is the mahloket between R. Huna and Hiyya b. Rab concerning what does one do when traveling on a road or in the wilderness and does not know when it is the Shabbat.

I respond:

Of course it is! This is what Rabbenu Beĥayyé was referring to when he said "as taught by the sages". I must have been really tired to have missed that one! Thank you so much, Sol - for this and for so much else.