In the Bible and Mishnah only oil-lamps and torches were used for lighting (see *Pottery ). The torch (lappid) is not only mentioned in the Bible (Gen. 15:17) but also in Assyrian sources. It was used to spread fire in time of battle (Judg. 15:4–5; Isa. 62:1) and as a bright light (Judg. 7:16; Dan. 10:6), but because of its excessive smoke it was not employed much. In the Mishnah, the torch is mentioned as being liable to similar impurity as the lamp (Kelim 2:8). In later times candles made of tallow mixed with palm oil or wax, or candles of paraffin, gradually took the place of oil, especially in Europe. Although there is traditional basis for the use of candles in Judaism, undoubtedly their widespread employment in the rites of the Catholic Church encouraged their use among medieval Jewry. Even though people generally used candles, oil was still regarded as the more appropriate fuel for ritual purposes, especially for the Sabbath and *Ḥanukkah lights. This was because prior to the invention of paraffin candles, candles were often made from the fat of ritually forbidden animals. Oil was considered a more appropriate fuel for Ḥanukkah lamps because the miracle occurred with oil, and it was recommended for the *ner tamid ("eternal light") in front of the synagogue ark because of its symbolic significance as a substitute for the candelabrum ( *menorah ) in the Temple. For the same reason oil was used for the light kindled at the death of a person and during the whole mourning period (see *Mourning rites) as well as on the anniversary of a person's death ( *Yahrzeit ), although these customs are unknown in the Shulḥan Arukh, and appear late. But paraffin candles gradually replaced the oil lights and still later, with the introduction of electricity, small electric bulbs gradually replaced the ner tamid.
R. Moses b. Mordecai *Basola reported in his Shivḥei Yerushalayim (cf. I. Ben-Zvi, Masot Ereẓ Yisrael, pp. 21, 72) that it was customary in the synagogues of Jerusalem on weekdays to carry a candle before the scroll of the Torah when it was removed from the ark and taken to the *bimah . It was counted a special mitzvah to hold this candle while the Torah was being read. Similarly, in other parts of the world, candles still accompany the Torah when it is taken to a special place in the synagogue, to symbolize the light of the law. For the *Havdalah ceremony at the departure of the Sabbath a braided wax candle having at least two wicks is used (because of the benediction "who createst the lights of the fire"), though in the absence of a braided candle two candles having one wick each may be held together. In the Sephardi rite, however, a simple unbraided candle is used in the Havdalah blessing. A simple candle is also used for the ceremony of searching for leaven (bedikat ḥameẓ) on the evening before Passover. Candles are also lit at the popular celebrations (hillula) on the anniversary of the death of rabbis and scholars, especially of R. Simeon b. Yoḥai and R. Meir Ba'al ha-Nes (see *Lag ba-Omer ) and in some communities also on Hoshana Rabba night during the study vigil (tikkun) in the synagogue. In the period of the Second Temple, one of the most popular festivities was the kindling of candles and torches on the eve of the first day of Tabernacles on the Water-Drawing Festival (Simḥat Beit ha-Sho'evah). It became customary, especially among Oriental Jews, to light candles on the traditional graves of famous historical leaders, rabbis, etc. (e.g., King David, Simeon b. Yoḥai).
Candles and Women
Although technically not a commandment specified in the Torah, kindling lights to usher in the Sabbath and festivals was transformed into an obligation by the rabbis. Kindling lights is a positive time-bound commandment, a category of obligations from which women were traditionally exempted in Jewish law. However, from early rabbinic times, lighting Sabbath and festival lights was considered one of three mitzvot (commandments), together with *ḥallah and *niddah , which women were obligated to perform even if men were present in the household. These three commandments are known as the ḤaNaH mitzvot, an acronym of Ḥallah, Niddah, and Hadlakat ha-Ner, which, in a play on words, also evokes Hannah, the mother of the biblical Samuel. A number of midrashic sources declare that these obligations are female punishments or atonement for the disobedience of the first female in the Garden of Eden (ARNB 9 and 42; Gen. R. 17:8; Shab. 2:6, 8b). According to the Mishnah (Shab. 2:6), women who neglect these commandments risk death in childbirth (also ARNB 42).
Jewish women have traditionally taken the observance of kindling Sabbath and festival lights seriously. In the contemporary era, where candles are generally used, women usually light two candles. Some women, who forget for even one week, add an extra candle for the rest of their lives; others add a candle on the birth of each child. Among some groups women do not begin to light their own candles until marriage while among others, such as the Lubavitcher ḥasidim, even young girls are encouraged to light one candle. Since the candles are lit before the blessing is said, women have traditionally covered their eyes while saying the benediction so that the light will only become visible after the blessing is completed. On Friday night some women make circles with their arms and hands before covering their eyes in a gesture of welcome to the Sabbath queen. Several popular vernacular tekhinnot were
written for women to recite after completing the benediction and before uncovering their eyes. If there is no woman over bat mitzvah age present, then a man must light the candles and say the benediction.
[Rela Mintz Geffen (2nd ed.)]
Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.