Question: Is it permitted to use electric lights as Shabbat ‘candles’?
Answer: The Mishna in Tractate Shabbat [2:2] records a debate among the Rabbis as to which oils can be used to light Shabbat candles. Rabbi Ishmael says: We may not burn tar out of respect for the Sabbath. But the Sages permit all kinds of oils; sesame oil, nut oil, radish oil, fish oil, gourd oil, as well as resin and naphta. Rabbi Tarfon, however, says: We may use only olive oil. The Halacha follows the majority opinion of the sages – that any oil may be used. In addition, the Talmud [BT Ta’anit 25a] tells a story about the daughter of R. Hanina ben Dosa, who accidentally lit vinegar instead of oil for Shabbat. In spite of the fact that vinegar is not flammable, a miracle took place and the flame burned throughout the day. This suggests that even inflammable substances can be used for the Shabbat light.
Electric lights are a relatively recent innovation. There has been much debate about their status in Jewish law. At the beginning of the 19th century, Rabbi Shimon Greenfeld [19th Century, Hungary] wrote: ‘I do not understand what electric light is, but at a first glance, it seems to me that one cannot fulfil the obligation of lighting [with it], because there is no flame … and the source of this light is a great mystery.” [Teshuvot Maharshag 2:107] However, as time passed the Rabbis became more aware of the nature of electric light. The position that electric light is to be considered ‘fire’ in the Halachic sense became established.
There is a strong correlation between the prohibition of turning lights on and off on Shabbat, and the use of electric lights for performing other Mitzvot. If electricity isn’t fire, then using electricity on Shabbat should be permitted. If electricity is ‘fire’, it should be permitted to use it to perform other fire related Mitzvot as well. It is reported that Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik [The Brisker Rav, 19th century, Lithuania] and R. Chaim Ozer Grodzinsky [20th century, Lithuania] would purposely use electric Havdalah candles in order to establish among their followers the principle that electric light is fire.
There is a long tradition of using oil or wax for the Shabbat light. Since we now rarely light candles for other purposes, lighting ‘real’ candles for Shabbat is special. For these reasons, it is preferable to use oil or wax candles for Shabbat.
However, in situations where lighting an open flame may be hazardous or subject to regulation, one may use electric lights. This is the case for patients in a hospital, or guests staying at a hotel. Where an electric light is used, the regular blessing for lighting Shabbat lights, found in most prayer books, should be recited.
Based on R. Ovadia Yossef, Yachve Da’at, 5, 24.
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