Why Do Women Light the 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. The Mincha prayer precedes the Ma’ariv service by about fifteen minutes. It turns out that the woman begins the Sabbath about eighteen minutes before the man. Why?
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 biblical Israelite day started at daybreak. 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 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 the 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.” The Hebrew is erev and boker. The first means “evening” and the second “morning” or “daybreak.” 
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 he mentions 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
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 Pharisees 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 Pharasaic/rabbinically mandated time for the onset of the Sabbath.
Another Example of the Rabbinical Reaction
This was not the only time when the rabbis took actions in order to counter the women’s conservative nature.
The Mishnah Shabbat 2:6 states that “For three sins women die in childbirth: for not being careful about the laws of menstruation, challah [the giving of the first part of the bread to the priest or burning it], and the lighting of [Sabbath] candles.”
It is obvious that the Mishnah is not predicting that women will receive a heavenly death penalty for these violations. First, we know of many women who have violated these rules and lived long prosperous lives. Second, these violations are not so wicked and harmful to warrant this extreme a punishment. Third, why should a newborn child be killed for its mother’s misdeed? Thus, the exaggerated statement was made to frighten women. Why?
The answer given in the talmudic literature is rather difficult for moderns to digest. Several talmudic sources state that the women are commanded to observe the laws of menstruation, challah, and candle-lighting as a punishment for the “original sin,” because Eve caused humans to die by eating the fruit of the forbidden tree. The concept of “original sin” is Christian, but the rabbis lived among Christians and some of them absorbed Christian ideas.
While they took note of the earlier view, Me’iri, Ritva (in his commentary on the same talmudic statement), and Sefer Abudarham say more realistically that the reason women are mentioned is simply because menstruation is a female bodily function and challah and candle-lighting are the acts usually performed by women who are in the home. They explain that the above-mentioned sources are simply overstating the threat to make sure that women observe these rules.
In all likelihood, the true reason for the harsh warning about these three items is that all three are observed today because of rabbinical mandates rather than coming directly from the Written Torah. The number of days observed in the laws of menstruation was extended by the rabbis. The law of challah, although biblical, was only biblically obligatory when the Temple existed; the rabbis extended the law to the post-biblical period. The law of the Sabbath candle-lighting, as previously stated, is entirely rabbinical.
The Sadducees did not accept these new rabbinical rules and preferred to follow the ancient Jewish biblical laws regarding these three matters. The rabbis, feeling that women are generally more conservative than men, were concerned that women would, like the Sadducees, follow the practices of their mothers and reject the new rules regarding menstruation, challah, and candle-lighting. Thus, to combat what the rabbis considered the conservative nature of their wives and to ensure that they would observe the rabbinical innovations regarding these three matters, the rabbis made statements about the importance of the observances and overstated the consequences of non-observance.
Still Another Example of the Rabbinical Reaction
The 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, like the previously mentioned three, 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 and monitor 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 I 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.
The Sabbath begins for women when they light the Sabbath candles, which is eighteen minutes before sunset. Men, on the other hand, begin the Sabbath at sunset. The traditional explanation as to why the candles are lit early is that the Sabbath begins and ends at sunset, but sunset can be defined in various ways; thus, to ensure that the Sabbath is not violated, eighteen minutes are added at the onset of the Sabbath. This is obviously not the reason why women start the Sabbath before men. Although women begin the Sabbath eighteen minutes before sunset, men begin it at sunset.
The rabbis in the Talmuds and Midrashim state that women light the Shabbat candles because they are being punished for Eve’s “original sin.” This answer is unacceptable. These rabbis took the concept of “original sin” from the Christians who lived around them. The idea is anathema to Jews since people should not be punished for the misdeed of an ancestor.
The true reason for the lighting of Shabbat candles was to show that the Sadducees were wrong in insisting that the Sabbath begins on Saturday morning and that it must be observed in the cold and dark. The lighting of candles is not a punishment; it was a way for women or men, if they chose to light the candles, to enhance the beauty of the home for the Shabbat and show that it is a day of happiness, light, and warmth.
But why were 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 because the day began in biblical times in the morning, and Shabbat began on Saturday morning. Therefore, they required that 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.
 This is a shortened version of a chapter in my book “Maimonides and the Biblical Prophets.”
 The times of eighteen and forty-two minutes is not accepted by everyone; for example, some even wait seventy-two minutes after sunset to end the Sabbath, but we will not discuss this point.
 However, a woman may stipulate that although she is lighting the candles now, she will not begin Shabbat until the time that men begin it. Most women do not do this and when they do, it is an exception to their usual practice.
 The rather strange idea of starting the day in the middle of the night was begun by the Romans.
 This is the understanding of Rashbam. On 1:5. People interested in this subject can find a detailed discussion in Rabbinic Essays by Jacob Z. Lauterbach, 437–470, and Minhagei Yisrael by Daniel Sperber, 134–141, and the sources mentioned in these essays.
 Abraham ibn Ezra mentions the Karaite Sabbath procedure.
 See note 5.
 The Jerusalem Talmud, Shabbat 2, 6; the Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 31b and 32a and Berakhot 31a; Genesis Rabbah 17:8; Tanchuma Noah; and Avot d’Rabbi Natan II , 9.
 Bet Habechira on Shabbat 31b.
 In the section Ma’ariv Shel Shabbat.