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Shabbat Parashat Chayei Sarah 5772

Ask the Rabbi: One Who Lit Shabbat Candles Properly but Failed to Use Them

Rav Daniel Mann

Question:  A yeshiva student ate with us on Friday night. He lights candles with a beracha in his room and usually spends a few minutes benefiting from them before the meal. When he realized that he forgot to do so, he took leave for several minutes because he did not think his candles would last until the end of the meal. Was this necessary?


Answer:  The Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayim 263:6) says that single men not living with their families must light Shabbat candles. The Mishna Berura (263:29) adds that this is so even if they eat away at someone’s house. (This is a topic of its own.) Regarding this case, the Mishna Berura (ibid. 30) says that the candles should be long enough that he will use them when he returns; otherwise, his beracha is l’vatala (in vain). This seems to be based on the Shulchan Aruch’s (ibid. 9) ruling that if one lights in her house but eats in his courtyard and the candles will not suffice for him to use them, her beracha is l’vatala. What many women who go away for the meal do is have some benefit from the candles during twilight (see Mishna Berura 263:41). Presumably, your guest does not accept Shabbat with the lighting before davening Mincha and, thus, cannot do this. Therefore, at first glance, what your guest did was necessary.

However, the primary sources discuss a slightly different case: where there was no plan to use the lights. Given that your guest’s practice is to benefit from the candles and something arose to alter that, would he fulfill the mitzva without returning? It depends on which of the following formulations of the mitzva of lighting candles is correct: 1) The act of lighting candles is a matter of k’vod Shabbat, i.e., honoring Shabbat on Friday by preparing in a manner that should make it pleasant; 2) Ensuring that the house one occupies is set for pleasant usage on Shabbat; 3) The mitzva is the oneg Shabbat (enjoying the light, parallel to eating tasty food) itself on Shabbat, just that this must be prepared before Shabbat.

According to #1, your guest’s visit at home was unnecessary. At the time of the lighting, there was an expectation that the light would be of value. Therefore, at that time he honored Shabbat, and this is not uprooted retroactively by changes in the situation. (If one often does not benefit, then his “plan” is disingenuous and his lighting valueless). According to #2, the same is true. His room was properly lit, and it does not matter that he unexpectedly was not in there at the relevant time. According to #3, your guest’s actions were necessary because without benefit, it turns out that the mitzva was not fulfilled. The rulings of the Shulchan Aruch and Mishna Berura (above) do not apply here because in those cases, there was no expectation of using the lights.

One can find a basis for all the approaches, but we can only scratch the surface in this forum. The simple reading of Rashi (Shabbat 25b) is that the mitzva is kavod (#1) and of Tosafot (ad loc.) is that it is oneg (#3). The Rambam (Shabbat 5:1 and 30:4) mentions kavod and oneg, but his language implies that #2 is correct. Possibly, while the mitzva was instituted with the hope people will benefit (shalom bayit- see Shabbat 23b), the formal mitzva and its beracha relate to the act of kavod by lighting (Beit Halevi  I,11; Az Nidbaru 9:1). This side is bolstered (but not proven) by the fact that there is a beracha, which is recited well before the benefit (see Yaskil Avdi III, OC 18), and that if the candle was lit too early, it has to be re-lit (Rama, OC 263:4). If we follow the model of Chanuka candles, then as soon as the candles were lit properly, the mitzva is fulfilled even if they went out. (One telling matter is the machloket between the Magen Avraham (263:11) and R. Akiva Eiger (ad loc.) whether a non-Jew can light the candle on a Jew’s behalf (see Shulchan Aruch Harav 263, K.A. 3).)

Since the simple reading of the poskim is to require your guest to return and it is difficult to prove it wrong, you can applaud his diligence. On the other hand, we would not label failure to do so a breach of responsibility, especially if going would cause his host hardship.


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