Can Halacha Be Paskened by a Rebbetzin?

Right now, we’re in the midst of the Tishrei festival season.  What if I were to tell you that one of the primary yom tov practices was determined by a woman?

We’re all familiar with the order in which we light Shabbat candles: you light the candles, cover your face, and say the blessing.

Strictly speaking, however, blessings should be made prior to the mitzvah.  We say blessings before eating, before blowing the shofar, and before hearing the megillah.  So why is it reversed for the Shabbat candles?

In this instance, we can’t light after the bracha, because once we say the blessing we have accepted the shabbbat and can no longer light a fire. So first we do the action then we make the blessing.

How about Yom Tov? We’re allowed to transfer a flame on the festival.  For example, you can cook on the festival, as long you transfer from a pre-existing flame.  So on Yom Tov, should you light first or say the bracha first?

The Magen Avraham (C17 Poland) holds that we maintain the same order as Shabbat, so that it doesn’t confuse people.  According to Rabbi Yehoshua Falk Katz, the Sm”A (C16 Poland), however, we reverse the order.  We say the blessing and then light, like any other mitzvah. How does he know this?  He quotes his wife, the holy Rabbanit Bella, who taught him this law!

This is fascinating for two reasons.  Firstly, you see here the great respect that our rabbonim have for their rebbetzens.  Contrary to popular belief, our greatest poskim discuss halachic matters with their wives, and in this case even ruled in accordance with their directive.

Secondly, from a spiritual perspective, why, on Shabbat, would we first light and then make the blessing, while on Yom Tov, we make the bracha and then light?  There’s an important difference between the formula for the bracha over Kiddush on Shabbat versus Yom Tov.  On Shabbat, we say, “Baruch ata Hashem mekadesh haShabbat,” while on Yom Tov, we say, “Baruch ata Hashem mekadesh Yisrael v’haZmanim.”

What do we commemorate on Shabbat?  G-d rested.

What do we celebrate on Yom Tov?  Pesach: We left Egypt.  Shavuot: We received the Torah.  Sukkot: We dwelled in huts.  And Rosh Hashanah, humankind was created (1st Tishrei is the sixth day of creation, when Adam and Eve arrived).

On Shabbat, the light comes first, and then we bless.  On Yom Tov, we make the blessing and then create the light.

Now, when Yom tov falls on Shabbat – not to mention Yom Kippur, which is considered a Shabbat and Yom Tov combined (Shabbat Shabbaton) – what does one do?

Shabbat and Yom Kippur supersede the Yom Tov.  First we light, and then we make the bracha.  Yom Kippur is the Day of Atonement when G-d forgave us for the sin of the Golden Calf.  Yom Kippur is essentially G-d’s domain.  It’s about forgiveness for our sins.  But we don’t need to do anything.  On the contrary, we abstain from certain activities, such as eating, wearing leather shoes, and washing.  Yom Kippur itself effects the atonement.

Why was this particular law decided by Rabbanit Bella?  The Jewish woman plays an essential role when lighting the candles. Women are the akeret habayit, the foundation of the home.  Ladies, your job is to create the spiritual light in your home and to ensure that the house is filled with G-d’s presence.

You are a partner with the Almighty.  Sometimes the light comes first and then you usher in the blessing.  And other times, the blessing comes first, followed by the light.  Either way, we have to ensure that the blessings and light shine on Shabbat and Yom tov.

As we light the Yom Kippur candles, remember to light first and then say the blessing.  In fact, many women delay the blessing until they arrive at shul for Kol Nidrei, extending the light from the home to the whole congregation.

May you introduce and spread blessing and light throughout your home and community and be a source of spiritual wisdom to all!

About the Author
Rabbanit Batya Friedman is the senior rebbetzin of Hamsptead Garden Suburb Synagogue in London, UK. She was born and raised in Brooklyn, NY. She received her Bachelor of Science in Mathematics from Brooklyn College and her MBA from the University of Alberta. She previously served the community in Edmonton, AB Canada.
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