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Last night, I was pulled in off the street to help an unfamiliar shul make a minyan for Mincha/Ma'ariv. The rabbi greeted me, and when he learned I do not speak Hebrew, he gave me a very nice blessing about my future with Hashem. Then he said, "We're going to light the candles. Please, …" and he ushered me toward a table covered with candlesticks. Then he went to start davening, and I was left to figure out what to do.

I'm a Conservative Jew, though I feel pretty comfortable in an Orthodox environment, however this was probably only my second or third time davening with a mostly Hasidic minyan. I have never heard of lighting candles on a weekday night when there is no holiday, and I didn't know whether to say a bracha, and if so, which one. I just lit the candles without a bracha, and then we went on to daven. Does anyone know more about this practice?

  • Could they have been yahrtzeit (memorial) candles? – Scimonster Oct 22 '14 at 16:26
  • I don't think so. First of all, they were big, tall candlesticks (actually, I think they were kerosene wicks). Thinking something similar, or wondering if others were going to come up and light after me, I only lit one, but while the rabbi was davening, he gestured to me to light a second one, so I did. – Jon Mitchell Oct 22 '14 at 16:29
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    ablaze, a belated welcome to Mi Yodeya, and thanks very much for sharing this question! I was mystified by your question, having no idea what it could have described, and enlightened by Yitzchak's answer. 59 minutes, and there's already at least one person who's learned a little bit more about Jewish practice thanks to your contribution. I hope you'll stick around and keep reading and participating. – Isaac Moses Oct 22 '14 at 17:13
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Many synagogues - mainly Orthodox, not specifically Hassidic, light two candles in front of the Chazzan's (cantor's) table. The candles are on during the duration of the prayers and extinguished afterwards. (Some places use electric "candles"; others use wax. I prefer the wax, though it is a bit more dangerous, smelly, and messy.) It has nothing to do with yahrtzeit or any occasion other than praying, itself.

I located the reason for this custom in this article:

The Shulchan Aruch (151:9) writes that it is customary to light candles in order to honor the shul. The Mishnah Berurah (27) explains that this corresponds to the practice in the Temple. He goes even further and rules (514:31) that although it is prohibited to light a candle at home on Yom Tov during the daytime (because the light is superfluous), it is permitted to light candles in shul. The Shelah (Tetzaveh 33) adds that candles should stay lit throughout the prayers, comparing this to the ner tamid in the Temple.

(The Shelah's comment is exactly as I had conjectured before I read the article. However, it does question if this is redundant if the shul already has a Ner Tamid. Many Hasidic shtiebels that are in a home, do not have one, so this makes more sense.

IMO, this is a nice custom, as it adds light to the shul, and, in a sense, signals everyone that prayers are about to start. (This could be one of the reasons for the custom, BTW.) It's a lot "friendlier" than someone banging on the bimah or even worse, on his Siddur. (In many places, I've found, the rabbi or gabbai yelling "Shah!", doesn't really do the job of getting the shmoozers' attentions.)

There is no blessing for the lighting, so you acted properly.

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    Cool! Thanks! This sounds more like the intended meaning of the practice I encountered, as well as a better fit for the kind and number of candles. In this case, it seems that the rabbi was inviting me to convene services for everyone. What an honor! – Jon Mitchell Oct 22 '14 at 17:42
  • The rabbi honored you to light the candles because you were a new-comer and helping complete the minyan - a very nice gesture on his part, and on yours. – user4736 Nov 28 '17 at 1:41
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Many chasidim light candles on the yahrtzeits of important figures in chasidic history. One of the more widely-practiced ones (in the US) is to light a candle on the Yahrtzeit of R' Mendel of Riminov, which is the night after Lag Ba'omer. Chasidish shuls or shuls with lots of chasidim tend to leave out candles for people to light in the shul.

I've even seen one place which has a lot of minyanim where they leave a tray out all the time on the assumption that someone will have a reason to light a candle just about every night. No bracha is made.

  • Okay, that last part sounds likely, but why light two candles, then? – Jon Mitchell Oct 22 '14 at 16:34
  • Also, why just ask me to light out of the blue instead of seeing whether I have a yahrtzeit? – Jon Mitchell Oct 22 '14 at 16:39
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    I don't know why he wanted you to light 2 but if he asked you to light, it's likely not because he suspected you had a yahrtzeit but because it's the yahrtzeit of someone important in his sect so he wanted people in general to light – Yitzchak Oct 22 '14 at 16:43
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I agree with DanF's answer above. This has nothing to do with yahrzeit candles. If someone has a yahrzeit they should light a 24 hour candle to help remind him to think about the special qualities of the person who passed away, doing Mitzvos and/or learning Torah in his/her memory, and normally it is lit at home where one spends time and will notice the candle.

Just one point: the custom was (as you quote) to show honor to the shul. Similarly we light candles before Shabbos to honor the day. This is a very practical thing. Before electric (or gas) lighting, people would often not bother (often due to poverty) to light candles when it got dark. They would just eat quickly and go to sleep.

Chazal required us to honor Shabbos with lights, so that we would not be sitting in the dark every Shabbos eve. This would make for dismal quick meals, with many opportunities for lack of Shalom Bayis (domestic tranquility). The Rabbis felt that shalom Bayit was such an important factor to Shabbat that they declared it to be a Rabbinic Mitzvah. Therefore we make a Bracha before we light them.

People carried this idea of honor to the shul and began the custom of lighting up the shul as well, during the davening. Since it is a custom, we do not recite a Bracha.

Some people use two candles. Others use 6 candles, to be similar but not exactly like the menorah in the Bait haMikdash, which had 7 branches with a light on each. Others use an electric light or 6 branch menorah to add "special light" besides the normal overhead light.

In conclusion, today, we are just adding lights (which is still a plus and we therefore should still make a Bracha on Shabbat). Originally these lights were the only ones and added greatly to the atmosphere of the home and shul.

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Often, when someone comes to a synagogue to pray who never does otherwise, and it's not a red-letter day on the calendar, it's because he's commemorating a relative's yahrzeit that day and wants to be with a minyan to say kadish. I propose that the rabbi assumed that about you. Many have the custom of lighting a candle on a relative's yahrzeit.

  • The rabbi had pulled the OP off the street to help make a minyan, so I assume the OP wasn't commemorating anyone's yahrtzeit. – unforgettableid Dec 19 '14 at 2:06
  • @unforgettableid, it seemed to me from the question that someone else had pulled him in and the rabbi had then greeted him. Perhaps the rabbi didn't know he'd been pulled in. – msh210 Dec 19 '14 at 4:15
  • Ah. I've now reread the question and I see that your interpretation is indeed a plausible one. – unforgettableid Dec 21 '14 at 4:18

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