Question:  Why are only 2 candles lit for Shabbat and can more be lit?

Answer:  The minimum number of candles is two, representing the two times that the fourth commandment is cited in the Torah — “Remember/zakhor the Sabbath day” (Exodus 20:8) and “Observe/shamor the Sabbath day” (Deuteronomy 5:12).  However, there is a lovely custom in many homes to add a additional candle to the Shabbat candlesticks for every child.  Thus, in a family with two children, two additional candles would be lit, making a total of four candles.  Even when the children grow up and leave the home, this family would continue to light four candles, following the principle of ma’alim bakodesh, v’ein moree’dim bo, we may add to our holiness, but we never take away from it.

Question:  how long must the shabbos candle burn?  Two hours, one?  Is there a maximum or a minimum?  Would ten minutes count?  What are the source texts?

Answer:  The relevant source reads:  “One who lights [Shabbat candles] in a corner of the house and eats in the courtyard — if the candles are not long enough to burn until nightfall, this is a blessing in vain.” Shulhan Arukh 263:9.

The Magen Avraham comments, “This implies that if one eats in the house, even if [the Shabbat candles] do not burn until nightfall, this is permitted; however, it is a mitzvah to use candles that will burn until nightfall.”

One of the ways we experience oneg Shabbat, Shabbat joy, is by lighting Shabbat candles.  If we do not enjoy the light of the candles, we have said a berakha l’vatala, a blessing in vain.  After nightfall, when it is dark outside, the light from the candles becomes more prominent and thus more enjoyable.  Thus, it is preferable to light candles that are long enough to burn until dark.  However, as long as the candles are burning while you eat your meal, and thus you can enjoy the light while eating, they will have burned long enough.

Question:  What time does Shabbat begin and what time does it end?

Answer:  Shabbat begins at sunset, but traditionally candles are lit 18 minutes before sunset in order to avoid accidentally lighting them after sunset.  It ends at dark on Saturday night, usually calculated at 40 minutes after sunset.

Question:  A few years ago, I attended a Shabbos dinner in an Orthodox family’s home.  When they were reciting the blessing over the bread, they salted the hallah and then passed the pieces of hallah to each guest.  Please tell me what the significance of salting the hallah is because I seem to have forgotten.

Answer:  A house, and particularly a table, is our substitution for the Temple altar upon which sacrifices were made.  Today, everything we eat on the table represents our thankfulness to God for the bounty of this world.  Particularly, however, bread has always been the staple of our diet.  This is why the bracha “hamotzi” can cover all foods eaten during the whole meal, while if one does not eat bread, one must say a bracha over each separate kind of food.  To symbolize the importance of bread, there were 12 breads placed in the Temple at all times.  In addition, all sacrifices in the Temple were salted – and this is why we sprinkle some salt on our bread before eating it, to remind us of Temple practice, and that our table has taken its place.

Question:  What is the origin of Shabbat being a Queen?

Answer:  It is very difficult to give a precise origin of the idea that Shabbat is a queen.  The Talmud contains very old (1st century) references to the conception of Shabbat as a bride.  Leviticus Rabbah (4th/5th century) contains an interesting passage that pairs up the days (Monday/Tuesday, Wednesday/Thursday, etc.), leaving Shabbat alone — and then says that God is the mate of Shabbat.  From here it is only a short leap to the idea that since God is the King, Shabbat must be the Queen.  Finally, in some 8th/9th century mystical midrashim we find an explicit “coronation” of Shabbat as God’s bride and Queen.

Question:  Why is Hallah broken, not cut?

Answer:  Hallah may be either broken or cut with a knife.  People generally follow their own family tradition, but there is no great significance to either custom.

Question:  I understand that JTS agreed that driving to Shul on Shabbos is permitted as long as it is only to Shul and back.  Can you please tell me how it is possible to drive on Shabbos without violating the prohibitions regarding carrying.  For example, what do you do with your license, registration, so you won’t violate the laws of Shabbos by carrying those, as those are essential legally to carry with you while driving?

Answer:  The teshuvah to which you refer was a decision of the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS) of the Rabbinical Assembly.  As an organization, it is an entirely separate entity from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

In 1950, the CJLS, by a majority decision, decided that “when attendance at services would be unreasonably difficult otherwise, driving to synagogue for services is not regarded as being a violation of Shabbat.”  By a minority decision that same year, the traditional stance that driving on Shabbat is a violation of halacha was upheld.

In 1961, this position was clarified:  “Permision to travel on Shabbat is limited to the need of reaching the synagogue for attendance at worship.  It does not included travel for other ends.  It does not include travel for purely social purposes, nor does it include travel to a synagogue away from one’s community in order to attend a bar/bat mitzah ceremony or reception.”

It is, in fact, impossible to drive to synagogue without violated the prohibition of carrying on Shabbat, just as it is impossible to drive without violating the prohibition of creating a fire on Shabbat.  Those who support the teshuvot permitting driving are of the opinion that the mitzvah of tefillah b’tzibur, prayer in a community, on Shabbat is more important that the strictures of Shabbat observance.

If it is your intention to drive to synagogue on Shabbat, I would urge you to carry as little as possible with you (perhaps leave your license, “emergency money,” and any other emergency supplies in the car), use the car only to and from the closest synagogue, and only for services.  Please realize, however, that I am not telling you that halacha permits you to drive on Shabbat.  I firmly believe that driving is a violation of Shabbat.  I am suggesting that you keep the amount of your driving to a bare minimum.

This decision of the CJLS continues to generate great controversy among Conservative rabbis.  I, in fact, think that it was the single most unfortunate decision ever to come out of the CJLS.  It has been widely misunderstood, misquoted, and misused to justify violations of Shabbat that go far beyond the built in limitations on driving

Question: Help!  We are conservative Jews.  My husband announced today that after two years he doesn’t feel we need to observe the laws of Shabbat — i.e. we should be allowed to use electricity!  He claims that he grew up conservative and knew of no other conservative Jews that didn’t use electricity on Shabbat!  Uses the fact that we live in the country and there are no city street lights to illuminate our home as the excuse.  I’m terribly distraught over this recent revelation.  I’m under the impression that conservative and orthodox follow this rule.  Please tell me if I am wrong.  I’m trying to raise our children to follow the laws of Judaism the best I can, however, he has put a kink in our weekly observance.  He now says all he needs to do is attend the Friday and Saturday services that are offered here locally.  That’s it!  Do the majority of conservative Jews use or not use electricity?

Answer:  After carefully reading your note several times, I get the impression that up to this point your practice has been to turn off all electrical devices before Shabbat, and spend Shabbat without relying on the use of any electricity at all.  There are no observant Jews in this country, Conservative or otherwise, who follow this practice.  Some do in Israel, because it is likely that the electricity on Shabbat is being generated by the work of Jews.  However, in this country it is clear that the electricity is being generated by non-Jews, primarily for the use of non-Jews, and there is no halakhic reason why Jews could not also benefit from it on Shabbat.

There are different practices regarding turning lights on and off on Shabbat.  Of the Conservative Jews who consider themselves shomer Shabbat, some do not use electricity and some do.  I do not, and most Orthodox Jews also would not.  Observant Jews who do not turn electrical appliances such as lights or an oven on and off will generally set them on timers, or leave them on all of Shabbat.

There are many laws of Shabbat other than the prohibition against generating fire, which is the reason that many observant Jews do not turn lights on and off.  For example, there are prohibitions against cooking, writing, and doing business transactions.  There are also positive mitzvot such as having three meals, saying kiddush, and going to a synagogue.  I don’t understand why you seem to be saying that if you begin using electricity on Shabbat, that this cancels out all other meaningful mitzvot of Shabbat in your home.  Perhaps you should have a discussion with the Rabbi of your local synagogue.

Question:  My question is regarding Shabbat. We live in Manhattan and have been invited for a Shabbat lunch and services in Westchester, which requires a 30 minute ride on a commuter train. If the only purpose of our visit is for Shabbat, and the train tickets can be purchased in advance, and no electric usage is involved on our parts, since the train leaves from our station regardless of who is on it- would this be acceptable?

Answer: Your question is somewhat complicated.  Off the top of my head, I can think of three halakhic issues involved — carrying, traveling a significant distance on Shabbat (possibly outside of the tehum Shabbat, the accepted boundary of the city in which one lives), marit ayin (the appearance of violating Shabbat). If you accept the Manhattan eruv, then carrying the train ticket (and anything else you need to take with you) is not an issue on that end; however, it may be an issue on the Westchester end.

It is possible that the tehum Shabbat would extend up to Westchester and beyond, because there is no actual break in the metropolitan area.  Tehum Shabbat normally ends at the outskirts of a city — In the NYC area, the city never really ends . . . .  However, my sense is that the tehum of Manhattan does not extend beyond the boundaries of the island itself, so it would be a violation of Shabbat to go off the island, even if you were walking.  This is, however, an issue that I will need to investigate further.

The issue of marit ayin is a real one, and for me that would be sufficient reason not to ride a train on Shabbat.  It would not feel like Shabbat, because people looking at me would assume that I was on the train for the purpose of travel for work or pleasure, not for the purpose of celebrating and observing Shabbat.

You are correct, however, that the act of riding the train itself, assuming that the tickets were bought in advance, would not violate Shabbat.  One basic Shabbat principle is that if a Jew is prohibited from doing something, then he/she may not ask a non-Jew to do that action.  Therefore, one may not ask a non-Jewish friend to drive one on Shabbat.  However, the interesting thing about a train is that nobody working on the train is doing anything specifically for you.  The train does not stop for you, open or close the doors for you, or in any way acknowledge your presence on the train with any action that would be prohibited on Shabbat.  Therefore, from that point of view you may ride the train.  One of my professors at the Seminary made this argument regarding subways, although he would not ride a subway on Shabbat because of the issue of marit ayin.

Question:  When my husband and I met, neither of us were observant.  We are now well on the way to being shomer shabbas, and living a more meaningful Jewish life.  Doing so has brought great peace, joy and meaning to our lives and our young daughter’s life.

The problem is that no one in my family supports these changes.  We are careful to be respectful of how my relatives feel, but they seem to go out of their way to cause problems.  My sister and brother-in-law  refused to attend our wedding because my brother-in-law would not wear a kippah. This past Shabbat our gentile neighbor  he showed up at our door with his cell phone, telling us that my mother had an emergency.  (Our phones were turned off.) It was not an emergency, it was a matter of convenience.  Her car was being repaired and she wanted to wait at our house for a couple of hours.  My husband picked her up and brought her to our house, where she talked about her car, shopping, running errands and other topics that were not in keeping with the day.  When she finally noticed my discomfort, I explained that we don’t talk about everyday matters on Shabbat.  She didn’t know what to say to us after that.  We let her use our phone to see if her car was ready, and I drove her back to the gas station to pick it up.  When Shabbat was over, I asked her not to put us in such a difficult situation again.

These events really cast a pall on our Shabbat.  We have tried inviting her for Shabbat dinners, but she is so uncomfortable with the brachas and the z’mirot that she remains silent throughout the evening.  My sister and brother-in-law came once and made insulting comments about religion throughout the evening.

My question is: is it okay to (nicely) refuse to help out when these situations arise?  Is it okay to refuse to discuss inappropriate topics during a yom tov celebration?  Is okay to tell relatives that their language is out-of-bounds in a Jewish home? Our observance causes our relatives a lot of confusion and anger, but they are not interested in learning more. We want to be respectful and caring, but we also want to protect our own family and the choices we have made about our lives.

Answer:  I have spent a great deal of time considering your letter.  There are many issues to consider in your situation, and AskaRabbi is not the best forum to handle them.  They are simply too complicated for the limitations of email, and would best be handled by making an appointment to discuss them with your own rabbi.

A few comments, however:

1)  From your description, your sister and brother-in-law sound totally unreasonable.  To boycott a wedding in order to avoid wearing a head covering (after all, he could have made his “anti-religious” statement by wearing a baseball cap!) is seriously ridiculous.  I suggest that you are not going to be able to modify your behavior to satisfy them; right now, the ball is in their court to do teshuvah and approach you to renew the relationship.  Be cordial, and continue to invite them to your Shabbat dinners and other family functions, but do not go out of your way to accommodate your religious behavior to their sensitivities.  It is absolutely appropriate to request that they not insult your religious choices in your own home.

2)  I appreciate the desire to speak only about Shabbasdik topics on Shabbat, but talking about shopping, movies, cars, errands, etc., in and of itself is not a violation of Shabbat.  I suggest tolerating this kind of chatter in the interests of [extended] shalom bayit.

3)  Rather than turning off your phones, let the answering machine pick up, with the volume turn up enough that you can hear the message.  Answer the call or return the message only if it is a true emergency.  Tell your family that this is your policy, and that you would rather they not call unless it is urgent.  The fact that they could reach you in your own home if necessary may calm them down somewhat, and should stop the calls to the neighbors.

If you do get another emergency call like the car problem, I suggest telling your mother (or whomever) to call a taxi, and that you will pay for it.  This gets you out of actually driving, while still providing for her needs.  In this way, you need not refuse to help out — you just help in a Shabbat appropriate way.

Your family will eventually come to terms with your decision.  They may never be happy with it, but they should come to realize that this is who you are, and underneath everything you are still family.

Question: On a Saturday afternoon, I was attending a lecture by a visiting Israeli rabbi that was in a meeting room at a Conservative shul (I am Reform).  I started to take notes, and the rabbi of the shul whispered to me, “We don’t write on Shabbat.”  Later I was told by members of the shul that this is their rabbi’s custom and not necessarily that of the congregation.  I was very upset, because there was nothing about this in the publicity and registration information for the lecture, I had driven a long way to attend since this speaker is a brilliant teacher, and I wanted to have notes to remind myself of what he said and the sources he quoted.  I stopped writing, to be polite (it was impossible to discuss this because the lecture was in progress) but was I obligated to do so?  Was it appropriate for that rabbi to subject me to his personal preference?  And what if I had pulled out my tape recorder?

Answer:  The person who told you that it was only the rabbi’s custom not to permit writing on Shabbat was mistaken.  It is in fact an integral part of traditional Shabbat observance.  Among the acts that halakha (Jewish law) prohibits on Shabbat are creative acts which transform the world around us, such as lighting fires, cooking, sewing, writing, building, and working in a garden.  A Conservative synagogue, even if it is the case that not every member is Shabbat observant, belongs to a movement which believes that Shabbat observance is a mitzvah mandated by God through the Torah.  Therefore, it was certainly appropriate for the rabbi of the synagogue to ask you not to take notes during the lecture.

In most Conservative synagogues, using a tape recorder is considered to fall into the same halakhic category as writing — making a permanent record — and would not have been permitted.

Question: I have a question for you regarding bathing and other personal hygiene care on Shabbat.  Is it ever acceptable to bathe/shower on Shabbat and if so are there any limitations?  What about oral hygiene?

Answer:  There are no restrictions on oral hygene on Shabbat (although be aware that there is a custom mentioned in “Shemirat Shabbat K’hilkheto” by Rabbi Shlomo Auerbach of not brushing teeth, apparently because of a concern that you might sqeeze water out of the toothbrush — see below).  Their are also no restriction on bathing on Shabbat per se; however, there are some halakhic issues to be considered.

First, be aware that when you bathe or shower using hot water, you are directly causing the water heater to be drained of hot water and refilled with cold water, which will result in the heating unit to turn on to heat up more water.  This is a direct violation of the prohibition against cooking.

Second, there is a problem with squeezing water out of a sponge or washcloth.  It is considered a form of threshing, in which something is squeezed or crushed in order to remove an unwanted portion of it.  Just as grain is threshed in order to remove the husk, a sponge or washcloth might be squeezed in order to remove the water.  Therefore, when bathing with a washcloth, be very careful not to squeeze the washcloth.

Question:  I am Ritual Chairman at a small Conservative Synagogue in Connecticut and we are having problems getting a Minyan for Saturday Shabbat services.  Can you please give me some ideas as to how to get our members to come? 

Answer:  I wish I could give you some sage advice that would solve all of your problems.  Unfortunately, your situation is not unique.  Every small synagogue experiences problems with getting a minyan.  If there was a good solution, every synagogue would immediately adopt it, and the problem would disappear.

With that caveat, here are some ideas:

The more people who participate, the greater number of people who will show up.  Arrange for Torah readers, doveners, someone to give a d’var Torah, gabbais, ushers, etc., all in advance.  If they all show up – presto, instant minyan.  Try to send people to the IMUN program of United Synagogue – it is designed to teach lay leaders how to participate more actively in services.

Serve food.  Have a pot luck Shabbat lunch each week, if your synagogue kashrut policies allow it.  Otherwise, try to get volunteers to prepare a simple meal of tuna, gefilte fish, humus, etc.  Food is a great draw.

Offer classes in how to participate in services (but not neccessarily as leaders).  Teach the melodies, so that all can enjoy joining in.

Start a Junior Congregation Program – the parents will usually show up in the main service during the youth service.

Question:  In Kerry Olitzky’s book, The How To Handbook for Jewish Living, in the section “How to Make Havdalah,” the blessing over the Havdalah candle is said while “family members hold out their hands with palms up, cup their hands, and look at the reflection of the flame on their fingernails.” I don’t understand what this means or what the law says that tells us to do this. Could you please explain?

Answer:  There are two reasons to look at your hands during the blessing over light.  First, every blessing we say over something in the natural world should have some act associated with it – otherwise, it might become a beracha l’vatala, a blessing said in vain.  This would violate the commandment against taking God’s name in vain.  Therefore, when we say the blessing over light, we look at our palms and fingers to use the light.

The second reason for the custom is related to a Midrash about Adam and Eve.  They were created naked, but were covered with a hard substance akin to fingernails.  When they ate the fruit of the Tree of knowledge and became naked, this extra skin fell off.  This happened late on Friday afternoon of the sixth day.  God provided a protective light for them on that first Shabbat, but when the sun set on Saturday night, Adam became afraid that the serpent would attack him in the dark.  God taught him how to make fire, and he blessed the fire with the blessing of borei m’orei ha-esh.  When we reenact this creation of light every Saturday night at Havdalah, we look at the light reflecting off our fingernails to remind us of the original perfection of Adam and Eve in the Garden.  This, along with the singing of Eliyahu Hanavi, form a Messianic core to the Havdalah ceremony.  As the sweetness of Shabbat leaves us for another week, we hope and pray for a world in which the peace and restfulness  of Shabbat will always be present.  This is one vision of a Messianic world.

Question:  Why do you print two candlelighting times for Shabbat in the Spring, Summer, and Fall?

Answer: The answer to your question is related to a Talmudic disagreement between Rabbi Yehudah and the Sages regarding the latest time that one may pray minha, the afternoon service, and the earliest time that one may pray Ma’ariv, the evening service.

To summarize:  Rabbi Yehudah holds that one may doven minha from 6 1/2 hours (seasonal hours, one hour = 1/12 of the time from sunrise to sunset) following sunrise.  However, the preferred time begins at 9 1/2 hours following sunrise, and is known as Minha ketanah.   The latest time for minha is 1/2 the time between minha ketanah and sunset, or 10 3/4 hours following sunrise, a time known as plag minha.  He then holds that ma’ariv may be dovened immediately after plag minha, throughout the night until the sky begins brightening.  Therefore, according to Rabbi Yehudah, ma’ariv may be recited 1 1/4 seasonal hours before sunset.  This would also be the earliest time for candlelighting and kiddush, if you follow Rabbi Yehudah.

The Sages hold that minha may be recited up until sunset, and ma’ariv may be recited only after sunset.

The Shulhan Arukh rules that either option is permitted, as long as one is consistent.  In other words, one cannot follow the Sages to doven minha after the plag, and Rabbi Yehudah to doven ma’ariv before sundown.

However, the Arukh Hashulhan refers to an existing practice of dovening minha and ma’ariv together before sundown, because of the difficulty of getting a minyan together a second time.

Now, to answer your question:  From April to September, when sundown is far past the time that many families generally eat dinner, in addition to the regular candlelighting time (18 minutes before sunset), we also publish the earliest halakhic time, according to Rabbi Yehudah’s position.

[Sources:  Mishnah Berakhot 4:1, Berakhot 27a, Shulhan Arukh Orakh Hayyim 233 Arukh Hashulhan, ad. loc.]

Question:  I am going to travel soon and want to spend Shabbat at a Masorti shul in Germany. The shul is several miles away from my hotel and it won’t be possible to walk to and from shul. Also, there aren’t any other shuls nearby, accept for an Orthodox one which may or may not offer services. Given the circumstances, would it be permissible to use the subway to get to shul? What does Halakha suggest to solve this problem?

Answer:  You are asking an interesting question.  Had you asked about driving to the shul, my answer would have been much simpler because  I do not believe that halakha permits driving on Shabbat.  If I could not walk to the shul because of distance, I would either contact the shul and inquire about home hospitality (or perhaps there is a small hotel or bed-and-breakfast nearby that you have not found), or I would walk to the Orthodox synagogue.

In theory, because a subway stops a every station regardless of who is getting on or off and therefore you are not asking a non-Jew to start or stop the train specifically for you, a subway could be permitted.  Carrying money and buying/selling is not permitted on Shabbat, but if you were able to buy the token (or swipe card, ignoring for the moment the issue of using electricity) in advance, since a token/card is not really money it is at least possible to argue that using the token/card to pay for the subway on Shabbat is permitted.  However, you still would have to carry the token/card to the subway.  Unless there was an eiruv*, this would be a violation of one of the 39 melakhot, prohibited labors on Shabbat.  In addition, swiping a fare card, if that’s what the subway uses, would involve the use of electricity, which I believe is a form of fire, but which many Conservative rabbis permit on Shabbat.  Finally, there is also the issue of marit ayin, or appearances.  Riding the subway doesn’t look like a very Shabbos-dik thing to do.  Even if you have make sure that you are not violating any of the primary melakhot, other people watching you might infer that any form of travel or commerce is permitted on Shabbat.

I would be more likely to contact the shul and inquire about home hospitality or a closer hotel, or walk to the Orthodox synagogue.  However, if there is an eiruv and you can buy the token in advance, riding the subway would be defensible on Shabbat.  Note that I would not give the same answer for someone living in or visiting New York, where there are many more synagogues and a far wider range of hotels to stay in nearby.

*Eiruv – a boundary around a neighborhood which permits carrying items on Shabbat, an action which is normally now allowed.

Question:  We’ve been using a timer to brew coffee on Shabbat morning which we set before shabbes. Is that permissible according to halacha?  I was listening to an online Torah lesson the other day which confused me quite a bit. Do we violate halacha because it sets off a completely new coffee making process (as opposed to just keeping it warm over night)?

Answer:  The issue is whether brewing constitutes cooking.  If it does, then coffee may not be brewed on Shabbat just as it would not be permitted to take a raw piece of meat, put it in the oven just before shabbat, and eat it on Shabbat when it is fully cooked. The halakha as I understand it is that food [e.g., cholent] has to be minimally edible prior to the onset of Shabbat in order to be eaten on Shabbat.  You could argue that in the case of coffee the grounds are never eaten, and the water, which was edible both before and after it becomes coffee, is just being mechanically heated by a process set in motion before Shabbat, and passed through the grounds.

If you are not convinced that this is completely kosher, as it were, then you might want to investigate a different coffee making process, like making a cold-press coffee extract prior to Shabbat, making coffee by adding hot water from an urn on shabbat.