Why Must Women Light Sabbath Candles Long before the Sabbath Begins?

If people would take the time to look at the bulletin of an Orthodox Synagogue, they would find something very curious. The women are instructed to light candles several minutes before the men are scheduled to attend the Mincha service, and Mincha takes place about fifteen minutes before the onset of the Sabbath. Thus, remarkably, this schedule obligates women to start the Sabbath long before men do so.

The Beginning of the Sabbath

Simply stated, most Jews understand that the current practice is that the Sabbath begins at sunset on Friday evening, but the rabbis required the lighting of the Sabbath candles eighteen minutes before sunset on Friday evening and set the end of the Sabbath and the saying of the Havdalah service forty-two minutes after sunset on Saturday night. This seems straightforward, but it isn’t.

The candle-lighting, which is usually but not always done by the eldest woman of the family (men can also light the candles) obligates the candle-lighter to observe the Sabbath. Put differently, women are required by the rabbis to accept the beginning of the Sabbath when they light the Sabbath candles eighteen minutes before sunset. But what about men?

The rabbis differ as to when the Sabbath begins for a man, but they agree that it begins when the man recites a prayer in the Ma’ariv service. For example, in the Ashkenazic tradition, some say it is when the Barkhu, the call to worship, is said. Others say that it is a minute earlier, when the congregation recites Mizmor Shir Liyom Hashabbat. All agree that the Sabbath does not begin with the service preceding Ma’ariv, the Mincha service. But whenever in the Ma’ariv service the Sabbath starts, it is long after the woman lights her candles.

To look at a specific example, the Boca Raton Synagogue on July 20, 2007, listed sunset at 8:14 PM and candle-lighting time was 7:56 PM, eighteen minutes before sunset. Yet Mincha was scheduled for 8:00 PM, 15 minutes before the Shabbat began for men.

When Did the Day Begin in Biblical Times?

It is well known that Jews begin their day in the evening at sunset, not at midnight and not at daybreak, but this was not always so. Many scholars are convinced that the Israelite day started at daybreak in biblical times. It seems possible that the Judeans who were exiled to Babylon accepted the Babylonian practice of beginning the day with the prior evening.

It is known that the Judeans living in Babylon altered their calendar, clearly due to the influence of the community in which they lived. The Judeans also changed the biblical rule mentioned in Exodus 12:2 – that the month that was later called Nissan, the month containing the holiday of Passover, was the first month of the year. They named the seventh month the beginning of the year and later called the first day of the seventh month Rosh Hashanah, “New Year,” a name that this day was not given in the Bible. This was done despite the more conservative view of some talmudic rabbis who insisted that the world was created in Nissan. The Judeans also altered the names of the months, and the current “Hebrew” names of the months are actually Babylonian, even including the name of a Babylonian deity as the name of one month, Tammuz.

We know for certain that the day began in the Temple at daybreak and it is assumed that the priests in the Temple retained the ancient practice for as long as the Temple existed. When the Bible states “there was evening and there was morning, one day” in Genesis 1:5, its meaning is literal: God completed what was stated earlier during the “daylight period” and this was followed by evening, and when morning came, the day ended – “one day.”

Scholars, such as Rabbi Dr. Daniel Sperber, points out that scholars believe that the Sadducees, who lived during the later centuries of the Second Temple period, continued the ancient custom of starting the day in the morning, and Sperber and Abraham ibn Ezra mention that some Karaites, a sect that started in the ninth century and that followed many Sadducean traditions, began the Sabbath on Saturday morning.

Thus, the Sabbath in biblical times began on Saturday morning and ended on Sunday morning, just like any other day, and the day continued to begin at daybreak until the Jews changed the practice during the Babylonian exile around 550 B.C.E. due to the influence of the surrounding culture. How did the women react to the change in the time for starting the Sabbath?

The Reaction of the Women

Professor Lauterbach points out that women are generally more conservative than their spouses. Thus, when the men decided that outside of the Temple, they would start the Sabbath in the evening and end it at sundown on Saturday night, the women clung to the ancient custom and refused to work on Saturday night. This reaction continues to the present day among many women. Although they do not remember why they do so, many Orthodox women refuse to work on Saturday night. I remember my mother not working on Saturday night; when I asked her why she did no work after Shabbat, she replied that it was what her mother had taught her.

The Rabbinical Reaction to the Sadducees and to the Pharasaic Women

The Sadducean Sabbath not only differed from the Pharisaic and later rabbinic Sabbath in when it was observed, but also in how it was observed. The Sadducees continued the ancient practice of starting their Sabbath on Saturday morning. They also interpreted Exodus 35:3 literally – “You shall kindle no fire throughout your habitations upon the Sabbath day” – to mandate that they stay at home without leaving their dwellings and that the home have no fire. The rabbis understood the verse to prohibit lighting a fire on the Sabbath, but allowed the enjoyment of a fire for light and warmth. The Sadducean Sabbath was cold and dark.

To counter this practice, the rabbis instituted the lighting of candles at the onset of the Sabbath on Friday night. This rite dramatized two of their principles: that the Sabbath began on Friday evening and that it was a time when there could be light and warmth in the home. In the twelfth century C.E., the practice was expanded and women were told to recite a blessing with the lighting of the Sabbath candles to highlight its significance and give it an aura of sanctity. The rabbis gave the rite over to the women although they also allowed men to light the candles – an unusual situation since they generally dictated laws for men – so that women would thereby be stating by their behavior that they accepted the new rabbinically mandated time for the onset of the Sabbath.

Another Example of the Rabbinical Reaction

Mishnah Shabbat 2:7 states that “A person [meaning a man] must say [note the command tzarikh, “must say”] three things in his home [to his wife] on the eve of the Sabbath just before dark: ‘Have you tithed? Have you prepared the eruv? Have you kindled the [Sabbath] light?’”

Why are these three questions asked, and why are they asked of the wife? Why doesn’t the husband simply perform the task?

These three practices were innovations by the rabbis, who were concerned that the women who they feared would not accept their innovations would not observe them. Therefore, they placed a burden, a mandate, upon the husband to monitor his wife to see that she observed the innovations.

The rabbis had decreed that the tithes could not be separated on the Sabbath. Since untithed foods could not be eaten, and since the ancient practice was that the Sabbath began at daybreak, the rabbis were frightened that the women might remember that they had forgotten to tithe and do so in the evening, the time that the rabbis had named as part of the Sabbath, but which the women, who preferred the ancient rite, might not consider the traditional Sabbath. Alternatively, the women may have wanted to follow the pre-rabbinical view that allowed tithing on the Sabbath, and this was what prompted the rabbis to have husbands query their wives.

The rabbis innovated the eruv to allow people to carry outside their dwellings on the Sabbath. This innovation was contrary to the Sadducean biblical interpretation that forbids leaving the home on the Sabbath. The rabbis insisted that husbands watch their wives, who might want to follow the ancient tradition, and ensure that they performed the eruv.

The third question about the lighting of candles, as we stated earlier, also needed to be monitored, because the rabbis were concerned that the women would not light the candles at all or they might choose to light them just before Saturday morning.

Why Does the Sabbath End Forty-Two Minutes after Sunset?

As we saw, the start of the Sabbath is related to sunset. Men commence the Sabbath at sunset, but women begin it eighteen minutes before sunset so that men can monitor their behavior before going to the synagogue to assure their compliance, as discussed above. Contrary to the common thinking, the end of the Sabbath is not connected to sunset. The traditional end of the Sabbath is the onset of night. When does night begin? The tradition is that it is nighttime when the sky is sufficiently dark that a person can discern three medium-sized stars. This time happens to be roughly forty-two minutes after sunset. The forty-two minutes is simply a way to calculate when the sky would be sufficiently dark that three stars are visible on a cloudy night. Why is three chosen for the number of stars? Three, as we discussed in detail in the previous essays, is a number frequently used in Judaism to denote the completion of something, in this instance the completion of the process of day turning into night.

Why Doesn’t the Shabbat Begin and End with the Same Event?

The preceding analysis shows that the Sabbath “day” begins with sunset for a male and candle-lighting for a female, but Sunday commences for both sexes with the observation of three stars. Why is there a difference? Why is the onset of the Sabbath related to sunset and the ending to the beginning of night?

The rabbis, as previously stated, decreed that the onset of the day is the evening, but they did not decide on the onset of evening. They felt that it either began with sunset or with the appearance of three medium-sized stars. In view of the doubt and to be certain that the Sabbath was not violated, they determined that the Sabbath should commence at the earliest time and end at the latest moment.


Why are women required to light the candles early? The rabbis recognized that their wives were more conservative than they, and feared that the women would prefer to follow their mothers’ practice of not lighting the candles. Therefore, they required that the women light the candles a few minutes before their husbands left for the synagogue Mincha service, so that husbands could monitor their wives and make sure that their wives performed the rabbinical innovative improvement of the Sabbath before they left home for the evening service.