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This ceremony is an American phenomena, it was invented by caterers and is the only of many creative ceremonies to have "stuck" from the early days of American Bar Mitzvah celebrations in ceremonial halls. You will find it across the spectrum of Jewish groups (including some Orthodox) but will generally only find it in ceremonial halls and not in synagogues ...


Rav Moshe Mintz, a posek in Ner Israel, told me that you can ideally use any light that can be focused in one area (as opposed to the sunlight or the main light in a room, which lights up the entire room), as the purpose of the candle at night is to contrast with the dark in the rest of the room.


In Shmirat Shabbat K'Hilchato in 13:32 he discusses using a dimmer - and permits it, though he recommends covering/taping up the switch. In the footnote (112) he says that since light bulbs do not flicker, there's no issue with "fixing the wick". He has some sources there which I did not follow up on. It would seem that he would not allow the use of ...


Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (Meoray Eish and Minchas Shlomo 14) sides that technically as far as the laws of Muktzah are concerned it is permitted. However in a footnote he writes "All what I have written is only a discussion and not to be relied on, for all of Israel refrained all these years from moving an electric light on Shabbos and it appears as uvdin ...


Old shuls in Europe have these plaques as well, but without the lights. Is your question when (and why) lights were added, or when these plaques were first used? I recall from Medieval Jewish History classes that the concept/importance of Yahrtzeit was popularized in the aftermath of the Crusades.

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