Prayer Essentials

For the week ending 24 October 2015 / 11 Heshvan 5776

Wine and Candlelight, With a Twist

by Rabbi Dr. Yitzchak Greenblatt
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Oliver is a poor orphan, who lives in squalid conditions, working day and night to earn his keep. He finds it particularly difficult to keep Shabbat, as the boss of his workhouse is not sympathetic to Jews, to say the least. One day, he is “saved” from his toil and strife by a certain Mr. Sowerberry, who takes him on as an apprentice and gives him room and board. He also respects Oliver’s Jewish beliefs and allows him time off to keep Shabbat. Mr. Sowerberry is even nice enough to give him a few pennies each Friday, to cover the cost of a little kosher wine, so that Oliver can make Kiddush on Shabbat. The money is only enough for a small amount of wine, but it’s enough to do the mitzvah, so Oliver is delighted.

Time passes and Oliver begins to learn more about his Judaism, studying a little each morning and night. While learning the Code of Jewish Law he comes across a halacha that reads: “Men and women alike are obligated to have a candle burning in their house on Shabbat.”

He had always thought that lighting candles for Shabbat was a mitzvah for women and not men! Oliver decides he wants to start keeping this mitzvah too. So when Friday comes and Mr. Sowerberry calls Oliver into his office to give him the customary pennies, Oliver plucks up the courage to say to him, “Please, sir, I want some more! You see, I just found out that I’m also supposed to be lighting candles for Shabbat. The minimum requirement is to light just one candle. Mr. Sowerberry, with a kindly smile, says “I’m sorry, my boy, but I cannot give you any more. As it is, my wife is not happy with the fact that I give you anything for your Sabbath observances, and I cannot risk upsetting her.” Oliver finds himself in a bit of a pickle. He has only enough money to buy wine for Kiddush, or to buy a candle. Which should he buy?

Well, Kiddush, which means “sanctifying”, fulfills a mitzvah mandated by the Torah. In fact, it’s one of the Ten Commandments: “Remember the Sabbath day, to sanctify it (Hebrew: lekadesho)”. Lighting Shabbat candles, however, is not a Torah mitzvah. Rather, it was instituted by the early Rabbis. Throughout the Jewish legal system, a command of the Torah takes precedence over a Rabbinical decree. So Oliver reasons that it must be better to buy the wine and fulfil the Torah mitzvah. But he has been learning Torah for a while now, and he knows that it’s often not quite that simple! So he goes back to the Code of Jewish Law and reads on:

“If one cannot afford to buy a candle for Shabbat and wine for sanctifying the day (Hebrew: Kiddush), a Shabbat candle takes precedence in order to create a peaceful atmosphere in the home.”

“As I suspected,” he thinks, “as with everything in Judaism, it’s not quite that simple!”

But why should this be? Even though one of the reasons for our Sages decreeing to light Shabbat candles was to create a nice ambience on Shabbat, how does this make it more important than Kiddush? Why doesn’t the Torah mitzvah of Kiddush trump the Rabbis’ instruction to light candles?

The answer is furnished by the Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan in his Mishna Berura (a staple commentary on the Code of Jewish Law). He explains that the Torah’s instruction to sanctify Shabbat (Kiddush) can be fulfilled simply by reciting Kiddush. The requirement to use a cup of wine is a “supplementary requirement” added by the Sages! In that case, the very same Rabbis who instituted Shabbat candles also instituted wine for Kiddush. Thus they are perfectly within their rights to give a reason why we should prefer one of their edicts over another. In this case they were more concerned about setting a tranquil mood for Shabbat and Oliver should spend his pennies on a candle, rather than on wine!

Our tale raises a question. Why wine? Why should it be that we make Kiddush on wine? In fact, if you think about, every time Jews sanctify anything wine represents physicality. The world’s general idea of spirituality, of holiness, is that it is necessarily something separate from the physical. Monks, nuns and other certain ascetic religions abstain from wine. The Jewish view of things is very different. Our rabbis marry and raise families. We involve ourselves in the physical world. We sanctify the physical world. We take the mundane and we infuse it with holiness. We make Kiddush on wine.

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