Shortly after we were married, my wife and I were invited out for a Friday night meal. All the guests arrived in a timely fashion, except for one couple. After waiting a while, our hosts decided to begin the meal without them. When the missing pair finally showed up, the hosts wondered what had delayed them. The couple’s response: “We couldn’t leave home before nightfall because we needed to derive benefit from our Shabbat candles.”
At first blush, the tardy guests’ explanation makes sense. Halacha indeed dictates that one make use of the Shabbat candles’ light after nightfall (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 263:9). Nowadays, many people mistakenly think Shabbat candles are just for decoration. After all, the advent of electricity has rendered them quite superfluous as a light source. But in pre-industrial times, candles illuminated houses, and Chazal mandated kindling Shabbat candles to ensure that our homes be well-lit on Friday night (Rashi, Shabbat 23b s.v. “shlom”).
We can thus understand why this couple made a point of deriving benefit from the Shabbat candles after nightfall, and why doing so immediately after having lit them would have been insufficient: When one kindles Shabbat candles a few minutes prior to sunset, it is not yet dark enough for the candles’ light to be truly necessary. It is only after nightfall that the candles can really fulfill their purpose of illuminating their surroundings.
But is coming late to a meal really the only option when one is invited out on Friday night?
In fact, several alternatives exist. One obvious solution is to light large candles that will burn until one returns home after the meal. However, not everyone has access to such candles. Furthermore, leaving burning candles at home unattended can be dangerous.
There is another course of action to consider: not lighting Shabbat candles at all! Before you are scandalized by my suggestion, allow me to explain:
According to most poskim, there is in fact no obligation to fulfill the mitzvah of “Shabbat candles” by lighting a physical candle with a flame and wick. After all, the purpose of Shabbat candles is to illuminate one’s home. Since we have electric lighting nowadays, one may fulfill this mitzvah simply by flipping on a light switch in honor of Shabbat (Hilchot Shabbat B’Shabbat chap. 4 note 28).
Therefore, when one is invited out for the Friday night meal, one can simply use electric lights as one’s Shabbat “candles” – in which case, there is obviously no concern of the “candles” going out before one returns home or of the candles constituting a fire hazard.
But if halacha allows flipping on an electric light to fulfill one’s obligation to light Shabbat “candles,” perhaps one should do so every week, not just when one is invited out on Friday night! Why is the common custom to insist, whenever possible, on lighting actual candles in honor of Shabbat?
First and foremost, the answer is that it’s traditional! We saw our ancestors light real candles, so we continue to do the same. Of course, this practice originated when electric lights did not exist. Nevertheless, Jews – especially Jewish women – maintain an intense spiritual and emotional connection to ushering in Shabbat by lighting flame-and-wick candles.
Another reason to prefer physical candles on an ordinary Friday is that a minority of poskim do not permit using electric lights to fulfill the mitzvah of Shabbat “candles” (see Hilchot Shabbat B’Shabbat op. cit. and Shmirat Shabbat K’Hilchatah ch. 43 n. 22). Other halachic authorities maintain that even if one may technically fulfill the mitzvah by turning on a light switch, one may not recite a berachah before doing so – which is reason enough to avoid this solution (Nit‘ei Gavriel Hilchot Shabbat chap. 77).
These opinions, however, do not reflect the halachic consensus, which is that anything radiant is acceptable as a Shabbat “candle” even for the purposes of reciting the blessing beforehand.
The most compelling halachic reason to use actual candles is as follows: They honor the Friday night meal (which is one of the reasons Chazal required that they be lit in the first place – see Rashi, Shabbat 25b s.v. “chovah”). Even nowadays, we consider it a sign of a particularly elegant meal for the décor to include actual flaming candles. Since real candles add to the ambience of the Friday night meal, it is still quite appropriate to light candles and not just use electric lights.
This latter reason, of course, also, however, provides the clearest rationale for why one need not light actual candles if one is not eating at home on Friday night. Since the candles won’t provide illumination or enhance the ambience of the meal, they seemingly serve no halachic purpose.
Yet, many people might be distressed at the prospect of dispensing with the traditional custom of kindling physical candles, even if only when one is invited out. One solution, therefore, is to light small candles instead, which will burn only until one leaves home. These candles will supplement the electric lights that will be on – and which one will use – later at night when one returns home from the meal. One is allowed to make a berachah on small candles (cf. The Radiance of Shabbos, ch. 2, section VI) and by lighting them (instead of flipping on an electric switch) one is arguably also more properly fulfilling the mitzvah of k’vod Shabbat – preparing for Shabbat in a special way (heard from R. Avi Heinberg, based on Be’ur HaGra, Orach Chayim 529 s.v. “she’zehu”).
A better option for those who wish to light actual candles, but which involves more effort, is to light where one is eating so the candles serve to enhance the meal’s décor alongside the hosts’ candles. But even if one chooses this option, one must still make sure to fulfill the mitzvah of Shabbat “candles” in one’s own home by means of electric lights (Rambam, Hilchot Shabbat 5:1).
In summary: Most poskim rule that one may use electric lights to fulfill the mitzvah of lighting Shabbat “candles.” Nevertheless, on a normal Friday the common custom (for good reason) is to adhere to the traditional practice of using flame-and-wick candles. When one is invited out for the Friday night meal, however, using real candles can cause one to be discourteous to one’s host or to leave an unattended flame at home, which is a fire hazard. In such a situation, therefore, there are strong grounds to follow the basic halacha and simply turn on a light switch in one’s home and recite the blessing lehadlik ner shel Shabbat. If one is uncomfortable doing so, one could additionally kindle small candles.