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Rambam Hayom Yom Tanya Psalms Chumash with Rashi
Dark Knowing Light

When the divine spark within us awakens to the divine, what is the wonder?

But that is not objective of meditation, of prayer and of acts of kindness.

It is that the beast within us should lift its eyes to the heavens, that the dark side of a human creature should let in a little light, that a human ego should do good despite itself—and that is truly wondrous. How can darkness know light? How can earth know heaven?

Only with the power of He who is beyond both darkness and light, heaven and earth.

Maamar Bati L’gani I & II 5734; Torat Chaim, Noach pg. 60.

From the wisdom of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, of righteous memory; words and condensation by Rabbi Tzvi Freeman. To order Rabbi Freeman’s book, Bringing Heaven Down to Earth, click here.

Question:

I am experiencing a major lull in my spiritual motivation. I started getting into Jewish things around a year ago, but now I just don’t have the passion for it anymore. Rosh Hashanah is coming—last year I was all inspired, this year I don’t feel any drive whatsoever to attend services. Is there something I can do to revive my enthusiasm?

Answer:

Do you remember how you learnt to ride a bike? Your first bicycle was fitted with training wheels on both sides, to keep you from tipping over. The training wheels allowed you to get the feel of riding the bike and build confidence. You felt so good, speeding along and never falling.

Then, just as you started to get comfortable, your parents removed the training wheels and told you to get on the bike and ride. So you got on, rode for half a second and then lost balance and fell flat. “How can I ride without training wheels?” you thought. But your parents insisted that you try again. So you did, and again you fell.

Your frustration built up, to the point that you were ready to give in. You may have wondered why your parents took the training wheels off in the first place. But had they not, you would never learn to ride your bike all on your own. It’s harder to ride without training wheels, but only then is it really you riding the bike, using your own skill rather than depending on outside help. You may fall a few times, but as long as you get back up and keep pedaling, eventually you get your balance and the bike rides smoothly along the road.

When someone gets in touch with their Jewishness for the first time, there is a thrill and an excitement unlike anything else in the world. This initial inspiration is a little helping hand from G‑d, spiritual training wheels that help us start our journey. But once we get the hang of it, once we have advanced along the spiritual path and are ready to go deeper, the training wheels are removed and we have to ride on our own. The inspiration disappears, the motivation fades, and we are left dangling.

Here’s the real test. When the excitement wears off, there are those who drop out of the spiritual life. They think that the fun is over, this spiritual stuff isn’t for me, and they move on. If we do that, then we miss out the chance to go to the next level: to connect to our souls through our own efforts. Precisely the moment when the inspiration fizzles out is when the real soul work begins. Rather than being propped up by divinely created inspiration, we have to look within and start riding on inspiration that we create ourselves. The spiritual path has to become ours, something we work for and earn.

We will fall again, but every fall brings a chance to take things to a new level. Keep on pedaling, inspired or not, and you will advance further and further in your soul’s journey.

Feeling uninspired? Your training wheels are off. You don’t need them anymore. Get up and ride.

Question:

My siddur tells me to start saying the prayer for rain in the Amidah on the night preceding December 5 or 6. Why does it use a secular date rather than a Jewish one?

Answer:

Good question! As a rule of thumb, Jewish holidays and customs always follow the Jewish calendar, which is linked to the phases of the moon. One exception to this rule is the special prayer requesting rain, which Jews in the Diaspora begin saying on the night preceding December 5 (or 6).

To understand why, let’s take a look at the history and significance of this small but important prayer.

Praying for Rain

Jews have been praying for rain for millennia. In the ancient land of Israel, rain was a life-and-death concern. A good rainy season meant a good harvest and ample drinking water, while a drought could be fatal to livestock and cripple the economy.

So when the Men of the Great Assembly set out to codify the prayers, they made sure to add a prayer for rain to the daily Amidah (silent prayer).

In fact, rain appears twice in the Amidah.

It is first mentioned in the second blessing, as one of a string of natural and supernatural wonders that G‑d performs. Not least among them is that “He causes the wind to blow and the rain to fall.”

Here we are praising G‑d, who brings rain, but we are not actually asking for rain. It is only later, in the blessing requesting a bountiful year, that we ask G‑d to “bestow dew and rain for blessing upon the face of the earth . . .”

In both instances, the rain-related phrase is said only during the winter (Israel’s rainy season). However, the two prayers follow slightly different schedules. We begin to say “He causes the wind to blow and the rain to fall” on Shemini Atzeret. But, as you point out, we start saying the second prayer, the actual request for rain, only at the beginning of December.

Why the differing start dates? It’s an interesting story . . .

In Israel

The Jews of ancient Israel made three pilgrimages to Jerusalem each year, for the holidays of Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot. Now, the official rainy season begins on Shemini Atzeret,

The Talmud (Taanit 1:1) explains that in truth, even this mention of rain should have theoretically started earlier, at the beginning of the festival of Sukkot. However, it was deemed inappropriate to mention rain during Sukkot, when we are obligated to eat in the sukkah.

when the Jews were about to start their journey back home after the festival of Sukkot. As much as they wanted the rain, they chose to delay their supplications in the interests of a safer and easier trip.

That is how the practice of delaying the prayer for rain began. In Israel, the prayer was begun only 15 days after Shemini Atzeret (the 7th of Cheshvan), allowing enough time for even the Jews living near the Euphrates to return home.

Ibid. 1:3.

This custom is followed by Jews living in Israel until today.

Outside of Israel, however, a more complicated calculation became necessary.

In the Diaspora

For much of our history, the primary Jewish community in the Diaspora was in Babylonia (modern-day Iraq), where the climate is much hotter than Israel’s, and the autumn rains do not begin until much later. Therefore, the sages instituted that Jews living in the Diaspora should start praying for rain only 60 days after the start of the halachic autumn, which is known as tekufat Tishrei.

Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 117:1.

(This should not be confused with the autumn equinox, which is usually September 22 or 23.) I will explain soon when exactly that is.

Nowadays very few Jews live in Babylonia, and the Jews of North America need rain at a different time than the Jews of Singapore. Nevertheless, we all start asking for rain on the day established for the Jews in Babylonia, regardless of when rains are actually needed in our respective locales.

Shulchan Aruch ibid.; Shulchan Aruch ha-Rav 117:2; Responsa of Rabbi Asher bar Yechiel (Rosh) 4:10. See also Shaarei Halachah u-Minhag, vol. 1, pp. 159–163 for an extensive list of halachic authorities who discuss this.

The Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, explains that even Jews living in the Southern Hemisphere, where the seasons are reversed, should follow the schedule established for the Jews of Babylonia, because we pray for the needs of the Jewish people as a whole, most of whom reside in the Northern Hemisphere.

See Torat Menachem 5742, vol. 4, p. 2119, and Torat Menachem 5743, vol. 1, p. 387.

Obviously, this does not preclude us from praying for rain at other times. An individual or community that needs rain at a different time may add a personal prayer into the sixteenth blessing of the Amidah, “Shomei’a Tefillah,” where we add our unique requests.

Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 117:2.

Now Some Math

We now know that the custom of Jews in the Diaspora is to start praying for rain 60 days after the onset of tekufat Tishrei. But when exactly is that?

In the third century, the Talmudic sage Shmuel calculated the length of the solar year as 365 days and 6 hours. Since the year is subdivided into four seasons, or tekufot in Hebrew, it follows that each tekufah is 91 days and 7½ hours (365.25 ÷ 4 = 91.3125).

See Talmud, Eruvin 56a.

This calculation happens to correspond with the Julian calendar, which was widely used from the year 45 BCE until the introduction of the Gregorian calendar in 1582 CE.

Based on this, tekufat Tishrei always began on September 24 on the Julian calendar,

Currently October 7 on the Gregorian calendar.

and 60 days into tekufat Tishrei was November 22.

See, for example, Beit Yosef to Orach Chaim 117, where Rabbi Yosef Caro, who lived before the introduction of the Gregorian calendar, gives November 22 as the day we start praying for rain.

Calendar Issues

It eventually became clear that the solar year is actually 11 minutes and 14 seconds shorter than previously calculated, and that the calendar was slowly but surely drifting ahead. In the year 1582, the spring (vernal) equinox—which had been on March 25 at the introduction of the Julian calendar—actually occurred on March 11. This was about 10 days earlier than March 21, which is the day that had been “fixed” as the vernal equinox in the year 325.

To remedy this, Gregory XIII made two changes:

He shifted the calendar back by removing 10 days in October, making October 5 of the year 1582 into October 15. This restored the spring equinox to March 21.

To ensure that the calendar would not shift again, Gregory implemented that every 128 years (or, more roughly, three times every 400 years), one day would be removed from the calendar. (This is because the discrepancy of 11 minutes and 14 seconds accumulates into a whole extra day every 128 years.)

The extra day normally appended to the month of February every four years (causing a leap year)

The leap year is in both calendars to compensate for the fact that a solar year is approximately 365.25 days; thus, every four years there is an extra day.

would not be added to all centaury years, except for those years which are multiples of 400. (Thus, it was not added in the years 1700, 1800 and 1900. However, it was added to the years 1600 and 2000.)

If you’re still following me, it should be clear that the old calendars (Jewish and Julian) drift away from the new (Gregorian) calendar at a rate of three days every 400 years.

It’s important to note that the Jewish sages were well aware that this calculation was not completely accurate. In fact, for most purposes the Jewish calendar follows the more accurate calculations of Rabbi Adda bar Ahavah, who gives the length of the solar year as 365 days, 5 hours, 55 minutes and 25.4 seconds. However, the sages of the Talmud chose to calculate the length of a solar year as 365.25 days for the prayer for rain and for Birchat Hachamah (the blessing of the sun), because it made the calcuations much simpler for the average person to perform.

For more on the accuracy of the calculations, and the reasons why they chose inexact ones, see But the Sun Is in the Wrong Place!

What to Do?

We know that the prayer for rain should be said 60 days after the beginning of halachic autumn. Since this date is based on the calculation of Shmuel (and the Julian calendar), and not the Gregorian calendar, we now have to translate this date into our Gregorian calendars.

Here’s our final calculation: As mentioned earlier, in the Julian calendar, the sixtieth day after the tekufah is November 22. Now, keeping in mind that the Gregorian calendar chopped off 10 days from the Julian calendar, we have to add them back. Thus, the sixtieth day would be—in the year 1582—on December 2.

Additionally, every centurial year (except for the years divisible by 400) the Gregorian calendar loses one day not dropped from the older calendar. Thus, from the year 1700 and onward, the sixtieth day of the tekufah moved one day every 100 years. In 1700 it was on December 3, in 1800 it moved to December 4, and in 1900 to December 5. However, since the year 2000 is divisible by 400, and the Gregorian calendar did not drop the leap day, the day that is considered the sixtieth day of the tekufah did not move, and remains December 5 until the year 2100, in which it will move to December 6.

The reason that we begin saying the prayer on December 6 in the year before a (civil) leap year is that although the Gregorian calendar adds a day to the month of February every four years for a leap year, the extra day has essentially really been accumulated at the start of the winter season. Therefore, every December preceding a leap year, the sixtieth day is adjusted to December 6.

Also bear in mind that since the halachic day starts on the preceding night, we start reciting the prayer for rain during the Maariv Amidah on the night preceding the dates given above.

So, after all that, what you really need to know is that until the year 2100, in a regular year we start saying the prayer for rain on the night of December 4, and in the year before a (civil) leap year, on the night of December 5.

Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 117:1.

As we begin to recite the prayers for rain this winter, let us have in mind that we are joining Jews all over the world—especially those in our Holy Land, where every drop of water is precious—united in our request for bounty and blessing for all of humanity.

Question:

In our family, we have a custom that none of us ladies do any work while the Chanukah candles are burning. Why is this?

Response:

This custom is indeed cited in the Code of Jewish Law.

O.C. 670:1.

Here are two reasons for it.

a. Unlike Shabbat candles, which are lit in order to increase the light in the house, the purpose of the Chanukah lights is simply to remind us of the Chanukah miracle. In order for the special purpose of the candles to be noticeable, we do not use them for any other purposes whatsoever.

See Talmud, Shabbat 21b and Rashi ad loc.

The fact that an additional candle, called a Shamash, is also kindled does not entirely mitigate this issue since people often lit a number of candles in order to brighten up a room (Magen Avraham 673:4).

As an added precaution, women do not do any work in the candles' presence, to avoid all appearances of using the light of the menorah. An additional concern is that if the regular light would go out, they would end up working by the light of the Chanukah candles alone.

Mishna Brurah 670:4, Ta'amay Minhagim 852.

So why just the women? Since the miraculous victory came about through the heroic actions of Judith, the women of the ages felt a special affinity to the Chanukah lights and sought to honor them in the greatest way possible.

Mateh Moshe 994, quoted by the Magen Avraham 670:1

b. Women are obligated to light the Chanukah candles, just like men are. However, in practice, most women do not light. Rather they fulfill their obligation through the menorah lit by their husbands or other family members. In order to show that they did not forget about the mitzvah or neglect it in any way, they do not work after the candles are lit.

Nitei Gavriel, Chanukah, 38 footnote 1.

Happy Chanukah and enjoy the vacation!

Question:

I think this is a beautiful tradition, and I want to learn all I can about it. However, is it actually written in Torah to light a candle, or does it say only to observe the Sabbath and keep it holy?

Response:

The most precious things in life are said silently. Those who need to understand—those who are not strangers, those who hear the words from the inside—understand. Similarly with Shabbat: when G‑d gave it to us, He did not need to spell out its most precious customs.

Take a look: whenever the Torah mentions Shabbat, it always seems to be assuming that we know what it’s talking about. The Torah admonishes us to “keep the Shabbat” and “remember the Shabbat.” We are to rest on the seventh day from the work of the other six, and so are our servants and domesticated animals. Don’t make a fire.

Exodus 35:3.

There’s a strong implication that we don’t build tabernacles on Shabbat.

Ibid.

From all this we can figure out a lot of things that we are not supposed to do—such as anything that’s involved in building a tabernacle. But regarding what we are supposed to do, not a word. It seems that the Moses crowd just knew—perhaps by intuition, perhaps by tradition.

The prophet Isaiah, however, does elaborate a little on what Shabbat entails. His audience was, after all, a little more distant from the light of Sinai—and so needed things spelled out. He says, “If you restrain your foot because of the Sabbath, from performing your affairs on My holy day, and you will call the Sabbath ‘a delight’ and G‑d’s holy day ‘honored’ . . .”

Isaiah 58:13.

So, Shabbat is a day we are to honor and delight in. But how do you honor and delight in it? Apparently, Isaiah’s audience needed no further explanation. But in Talmudic times, things got to the point that it was necessary for the rabbis to spell out every word: you honor the Shabbat with clean clothes, and delight in it with fine food and drink.

Talmud, Shabbat 113a and 118b; Mishneh Torah, Hil. Shabbat 30:1; Tur and Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 242 and 262.

Now, here’s where the Shabbat candles come in:

Mishneh Torah (ibid. 5:1) describes ner Shabbat in terms of delight. In 30:5, however, it is described in terms of honoring Shabbat. The Rebbe (Likkutei Sichot, vol. 11, p. 295) resolves this: lighting before Shabbat honors the Shabbat by preparing for it. Once Shabbat has entered, the light provides delight. I focus here on the second aspect, since (see Shulchan Aruch ha-Rav, 263:11, end) the main mitzvah of ner Shabbat is not the lighting, but the enjoyment of the light on Shabbat (and for this reason, a woman who has not made the blessing at the time of lighting can make a blessing later on Shabbat, when she benefits from the light).

Have you ever sat down to a delicious meal in the dark? Not too much fun. Who knows what that fork may end up piercing? But, worst of all, even the finest cuisine becomes a drab affair when you can’t see the colors, textures and forms of those delicious morsels. We are visual creatures, and even our capacity to derive pleasure from our food is tied to our visual experience. “A blind person,” the rabbis say, “is never satisfied from his food.”

Yoma 74b.

And so, as long as Jews were interested in “calling the Shabbat a day of delight,” they must have had a lamp lit for the nighttime meal. It had to be lit beforehand, since—as we are told explicitly

Exodus 35:3.

—we cannot create a fire on Shabbat. And since it is the woman who generally takes the responsibilities of the home, presumably she took the responsibility for the lamp.

Yet it seems that later down the line, there were Jews who felt okay skimping on the visual experience. Maybe the cost of oil was escalating. True, you can’t eat a meal without light and enjoy it. But people said, “Let’s just eat it that way anyway, and say we did.” Now, if people don’t want to enjoy, it’s hard to tell them, “You must enjoy!” But sitting in a dark home all Shabbat creates other problems. Shabbat is meant to be a day of peace and harmony. A dark house, with people tripping over every unseen obstacle

Rashi to Shabbat 25b, s.v. hadlakat.

and falling all over each other is not conducive to peace and harmony.

So, at some unspecified point in history, for the sake of shalom bayit (family harmony),

Shabbat 23b. Rambam appears to consider ner Shabbat to be principally for the sake of enjoying Shabbat. Shulchan Aruch ha-Rav, however, seems to consider shalom bayit the chief factor. See Likkutei Sichot, vol. 16, p. 374.

the spiritual leaders of the generation made a distinct requirement that every home must have a lamp lit before Shabbat in every room where people may walk and bump into things.

Mishneh Torah, ibid.; Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 263:1.

They declared that anyone who would be careful with it would be blessed with children who would be Torah scholars, as the verse states, “For a mitzvah is a lamp, and the Torah is light.”

Proverbs 6:23.

They interpreted this to mean that through the mitzvah of the lamp would come the light of Torah.

Shabbat 23b and Rashi ad loc.

Nevertheless, the principal lamp is the one that shines over the Shabbat meal.

Ohr Zarua, Hilchot Erev Shabbat 11; Rema, Orach Chaim 263:10; Shulchan Aruch ha-Rav 263:1.

The other lamps can be replaced today with electric lights, but the light by the meal should be a burning flame—unless that’s just not possible (e.g., in a hospital).

Now you can see that the Shabbat lamp, even though it is technically a rabbinic institution, has always been an integral part of the Shabbat. Our tradition is that Abraham and Sarah kept the entire Torah even though it was not yet given. They knew the Torah from their understanding of the inner mechanics of the universe. Sarah lit the Shabbat lamp, as did Rebecca, Rachel and Leah. It’s reasonable to believe that at no time in our history did a Friday night pass without that light. And with that light we will enter into the “day that is entirely Shabbat and rest for eternal life.” May that time come sooner than we can imagine.

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman