Question: When should women light yom tov candles?
Answer: Women light Shabbos candles around 18 minutes before sunset to ensure that they don’t accidentally light on Shabbos itself. Lighting candles (from a pre-existing flame) on yom tov, however, is permissible. Thus, it would seem that women can light yom tov candles even hours after sunset (as long as they do so before the yom tov meal).
Some argue otherwise. The Gemara (Shabbat 23b, Rashi) states that R. Yosef’s wife lit Shabbos candles right before sunset. R. Yosef advised her to light much earlier based on the verse, “The pillar of clouds did not move away during the day, nor the pillar of fire at night, from before the people” (Exodus 13:22). This verse teaches us that the pillar of fire arrived before the pillar of clouds departed. Thus, R. Yosef advised his wife to light Shabbos candles while it is still day. HaGaon Rav Itzik Blazer of St. Petersburg (known as Reb Itzel Petersberger) contended that this teaching indicates that candles must always be lit in the afternoon.
Why, then, do Jewish women not light in the afternoon before yom tov? Rav Moshe Sternbuch (Mo’adim U’zemanim: Haggadah shel Pesach, Minhagei HaGra, Hadlakat Nerot) suggests that the common minhag does not accord with R. Yosef’s teaching because candles are not used for illumination in modern homes. We only light Shabbos and yom tov candles as an act of respect for the Sabbath and festival. For illumination, we have electric lights, which are on in the afternoon. These lights may be symbolic of the ancient pillar of fire that arrived during the day.
Rav Sternbuch concludes, however, that lechat’chila it may be preferable to light yom tov candles prior to sunset in accord with those who believe the Talmud requires one to do so.
If the yom tov candles represent the sole source of illumination, it would appear that lighting before sunset is actually obligatory (unless erev yom tov is on Shabbos). In addition, people who have timers on their lights should time them to turn on before sunset (or light candles before sunset).
Rabbi Cohen, a Jerusalem Prize recipient, has authored several works on Jewish law. His latest, “Jewish Prayer The Right Way: Resolving Halachic Dilemmas,” is available at Amazon .com and Judaica stores.