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Contemporary Jews treat the lighting of Yom Tov candles with the same seriousness as the lighting of Shabbat candles; in essence, they see both as part of a general mitzvah to turn on lights in honor of holy days.[i] It may therefore surprise many people that the Talmud and many early authorities do not mention a formal requirement to light “Yom Tov candles” at all.
It is understandable why Chazal did not necessarily see fit to impose an official obligation to light candles for Yom Tov. On Shabbat, it is forbidden to light a flame; Chazal therefore instituted a mitzvah of lighting candles shortly before the start of Shabbat to ensure that people’s homes were lit on Friday evening.
In Yom Tov, however, kindling is allowed (from an existing flame). Since one can light a candle at any time when and if one is faced with darkness on Yom Tov night, there is no need for institutionalized religious practice to light candles (cf. Orchot chaim, Hilchot Yom Tov).
Nevertheless, several Ashkenazi Rishonim write that the Yerushalmi orders a blessing on the lighting of Yom Tov candles (for example, Or Zarua 2:11),[ii] which clearly indicates that this constitutes a formal religious requirement. This blessing does not appear in our text of the Talmud Yerushalmi, and it is well known that Ashkenazi Rishonim sometimes uses the term “YerushalmiTo describe other ancient halachic works that are not part of the current Talmudic canon. In all cases, the practice of reciting a berachah on the lighting of candles Yom Tov has gained general acceptance and is codified in the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayim 514: 11).
Some Yemeni Jews, however, maintain to this day a practice of not reciting a berachah by lighting the Yom Tov candles. Rav Yihya Salah, one of the foremost Yemeni halakhic authorities (18e century), writes that not to say a berachah was the ancient practice of Yemeni Jews based on the opinion of the Rambam, which omits any mention of a formal obligation to light candles for Yom Tov in its Mishneh Torah (Responsa Pe’ulat HaTzadik 3: 270). He notes, however, that at some point some Yemenis began to give a blessing in accordance with the Shulchan Aruch.
Rav Ovadia Yosef maintains that the Rambam never objected to lighting the Yom Tov candles with a berachah (Beit hillel flight. 22 p. 9ff). Rav Ovadia bases his claim on the fact that the Rambam completely assimilates the non-melachah aspects of Shabbat and Yom Tov: “Just as it is a mitzvah to honor and enjoy Shabbat, likewise Yamim Tovim… And we have already explained honor and enjoyment in Hilchot Shabbat“(Hilchot Shvitat Yom Tov 6:16). Although the rules for prohibited work are clearly different on Shabbat and Yom Tov, all the rules governing the character of the day are the same.[iii]
In Hilchot Shabbat, the Rambam writes that an integral part of honoring Shabbat is ensuring that one’s house is fully prepared before the holy day, including making sure the table is set and the candles are lit (Hilchot Shabbat 30: 5). So it would seem that the Rambam considers it just as obligatory to light candles before a festival as it is to light candles before the start of Shabbat. Although the Rambam does not explicitly mention saying a berachah on Yom Tov candles, Rav Ovadia Yosef maintains that it is implied in his statement that Yom Tov be honored as Shabbat. Rav Ovadia therefore encourages all Yemenis to adhere to the decision to Shulchan Aruch.
This analysis of Rambam’s opinion is questionable, however. The Rambam’s decision that Shabbat candles should be lit with a berachah is not found in his discussion of honoring and enjoying the Shabbat (in chapter 30, which contains the halachot which refer to Yom Tov). Rather, it is in chapter 5, in the middle of its discussion of the beginning of the Shabbat and the activities that one cannot do in the light of a flame (lest one accidentally tilt the oil lamp that maintains the flame to add fuel to the fire).
Indeed, it seems that one do not make a berachah by lighting candles if that was just part of meeting the requirement of kavod va’oneg – after all, no blessing is recited for setting the table, taking a shower before Shabbat or before going to bed for a Shabbat nap. On the contrary, the obligation to say a berachah Friday night stems from another, formal takkanah to light Shabbat candles.[iv] The Rambam gives no indication of the existence of an equivalent takkanah to light Yom Tov candles, probably because you can light a candle on Yom Tov (from a pre-existing flame) whenever needed. As such, the ancient Yemeni practice is quite understandable and genuine, and those who maintain it should not change their custom (cf. R. Rason Arusi, Sinai flight. 85 p. 55 et seq.).
Regardless of whether a berachah should be recited, it is clear that the Rambam maintains that the necessary candles on the night of Yom Tov should be lighted before the start of Yom Tov, as it is a greater honor for the day to have one’s house beautified and prepared for the start of the festival. This corresponds to the famous opinion of the wife of R. Yehoshua Falk (author of Sema and Perishah), who strongly criticized the common practice of women in her time (early 17e century Poland) to wait until night, just before the meal, to light the Yom Tov candles (introduction to Perishah at Yoreh Deah).
In contemporary times, it is especially important to light Yom Tov candles before sunset because the main lighting in the house comes from electricity. So, it is normal for the electric lights to be lit in honor of Yom Tov at the same time as the candles are lit and the berachah should be recited on both. As one cannot use electricity in Yom Tov, this activity must be done before the start of the festival (Hilchot Chag beChag Yom Tov, ch. 2 n. 60).[v]
On the second night of Yom Tov, however, the candles must be lit after dark because one cannot perform melachah on the first day of Yom Tov for the second day.[vi] The same is obviously true when the first night of Yom Tov falls immediately after Shabbat. In these cases, the electric lights – which really light up the house – will already be on by the time the Yom Tov candles need to be lit. How, then, should we fill in the mitzvah light candles on the second night of Yom Tov or the Motzei Shabbat?
Rav Hershel Schachter suggests that nowadays Yom Tov candles should in fact not be lit at all on the second night of Yom Tov (or the Motzei Shabbat) because their light is not really needed. After all, even the work normally permitted during the holidays may not be done on Yom Tov if it is not really necessary for the day (cf. Orach Chayim 518: 1 with comments). Further, Chazal specifically identifies an “inactive candle” as potentially prohibited from lighting Yom Tov (Yerushalmi, Beitzah 5: 2, Orach Chayim 514: 5; it is not within the remit of this article to analyze the different interpretations of the halachot governing a “candle at rest”).
Most authorities, however, support the common practice of lighting Yom Tov candles even in the presence of electric lights (if there is no other option). Although the candle in itself is not necessary, candles add a feeling of honor and joy to the Yom Tov meal. Indeed, the universal custom is to insist that candles be lit on Shabbat and Yom Tov rather than relying on electric lighting (although, according to most poskim, electric lamps are technically sufficient for mitzvah). Thus, they are not considered “empty candles” (Hilchot Chag beChag Yom Tov 11: 4).[vii]
Nonetheless, it is a commendable practice to set the electric lights in the dining room on a timer so that they go off for a few minutes on the second night of Yom Tov (or Motzei Shabbat day), resulting in l opportunity to light the Yom Tov Candles such that their light is really useful (Hilchot Chag beChag Yom Tov 2:38).[viii]
_________________________[i] I use the plural “candles” because the common custom is to light two or more candles. Technically, however, one candle is enough. [ii] It is interesting to note that the Or Zarua specifically mentions that “one does not need to recite Shehecheyanu»When the candles are lit. This directive may indicate that some people were actually reciting this berachah at the same time as lighting rather than being yotzei with the recitation of this berachah during Kiddush. Such a practice is only explicitly mentioned at the time of the Acharonim and is the subject of much debate. [iii] Not all authorities necessarily agree with Rambam’s assertion. See Hilchot Chag beChag, Yom Tov ch. 2 n. 1. [iv] It should be noted that even with regard to Shabbat candles, Rishonim disagree on whether a berachah must be done (Tosafot, Shabbat 25b sv chovah). The universal practice these days is, of course, to recite a blessing by lighting Shabbat candles, but the fact that even the Shabbat candle blessing has been questioned should give us pause for thought on the idea of reciting a Shabbat candle. berachah on Yom Tov candles. [v] Candles should be lit before sunset even on the first night of Shavuot despite the fact that it is customary not to recite Kiddush until after dark (and a lot of delay Davening Maariv as well as). The contrary opinion cited in Piskei Teshuvot (494: 2) is wrong. [vi] Before the invention of electric lamps, there were reasons to allow candles to be lit shortly before dark on the second night of Yom Tov (Tosafot, Beitzah 22a sv ein) until the day before was Shabbat. By late afternoon or shortly after sunset, it was quite dark in the house. So, lighting a candle early was not intended to prepare the first day of Yom Tov for the second day (which is forbidden), but rather to do something necessary for that precise moment. [vii] It could be argued that a blessing should not be recited because many Rishonim reject the whole notion of making a berachah on Yom Tov candles, and it is further doubtful whether one can recite a blessing over Shabbat or Yom Tov candles when they do not significantly contribute to the lighting of the room (see Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 263: 8). Yet the custom is to recite a berachah. [viii] Alternatively, some suggest lighting the candles in a dark room, using their light, and then moving them to the dining room. It seems that we can also light the candles in the dining room (despite the electric lighting in this room) and then move them after the meal to light up a dark room. This last option seems preferable because it is better to light the candles in the dining room (Rema, Orach Chayim 263: 10).