Less than a day before the deadline for finalizing the text of my newly released book, By Light of Hidden Candles, my editor identified a small issue that sent me into a frenzy of last-minute research.
My editor pointed out that this order of the ceremony is not, in fact, universal; it is Ashkenazi custom. Sephardi custom is to make the blessing, and then light the candles.
The book’s main Jewish character is of Sephardic-Moroccan heritage, and on two occasions, the narrative records her lighting candles for Shabbat. I originally described her doing so in the manner I was used to and had ignorantly assumed was universal: light the candles, wave your hands over them three times in a “beckoning” gesture, cover your eyes, and make the blessing.
I felt a sinking feeling in my stomach. I could see them already: the hordes brandishing their pitchforks and raging at how a pasty white Ashkenazi Jew had “whitewashed” Sephardi customs.
Before I go on, let’s back this up a bit: why does the order of this ceremony matter?
There are certain commandments that require a blessing immediately before performing them. But in the case of Shabbat candles, there’s an issue: making the blessing is sort of a declaration that I am accepting Shabbat. That means it’s Shabbat for me when I finish the blessing—and if I haven’t lit the candles yet, I can’t light them on Shabbat, right?!
So Ashkenazi custom has the following solution: we light the candles first, cover our eyes, make the blessing, and then open our eyes and look at the candles, as if they just appeared! Magic!
Sephardi custom, however, is to say the blessing before lighting the candles, with the understanding that the blessing is not a declaration of “accepting” Shabbat—but rather, their intention is to “accept” Shabbat only after the candles are lit, or only when it enters at sunset.
Well… at least, that’s the custom in theory.
You see, I have several Sephardi/North African/Middle Eastern friends, and I’ve had the pleasure of spending Shabbat with them before. I didn’t remember noticing anything unusual about their candle-lighting customs. Therefore, I decided to try and find out what people actually do. I took to Facebook to conduct an unofficial survey among my Sephardi friends.
That’s how I discovered that the matter is actually a lot more complicated than I had suspected!
My friend Malka said her Yemenite mother-in-law makes the blessing first and then lights the candles, but doesn’t blow out the match. (Meaning, perhaps, that the act of lighting candles constitutes the “accepting” of Shabbat for her.)
My friend Shareen, who has Tunisian and Persian grandmothers, said they both lit first and made the blessing while “covering” the candles with their hands.
My friend Nora, who follows the custom of her Moroccan mother-in-law, said she lights first, covers her eyes, and makes the blessing. She mentioned, however, that she has a friend of Algerian origin who makes the blessing first and then lights the candles.
My friend Yemima, whose mother was an Italian descendant of Jewish refugees from the Spanish expulsion, said her mother lit first and then made the blessing, but never covered her eyes.
My friend Reut said her Libyan grandmother lit first, covered her eyes, and made the blessing.
My friend Shahar said her Libyan grandmother made the blessing first, then lit the candles, didn’t blow out the match, and then covered her eyes to pray; whereas her Moroccan grandmother did the same, but without covering her eyes.
At this point I was feeling pretty confused and felt it was time to call in the real authorities. Thankfully, I knew who to call: a number of years ago, I got in touch with Yaakov Bentolila, a retired professor from Ben-Gurion University who is Israel’s leading expert on Haketía (the Judeo-Spanish of North Africa) and the Jewish community of Morocco under the Spanish Protectorate. He happens to have been born in the same city and the same year as my fictional grandmother character! He was an amazing resource and was very happy to tell me about his childhood in Tétouan.
So I wrote him an e-mail, and the following morning he called me. He described his mother’s Shabbat candle (only one!) in great detail, and said he was sure she didn’t cover her eyes, but couldn’t remember if she made the blessing before or after lighting. He recommended I contact Mois Benarroch, an Israeli author who was also born in Tétouan and who has written and published many books set in his hometown.
Mind you, this is all while we were hoping to have the manuscript finalized that day!
I found Mois Benarroch on Facebook and asked him the question. To my enormous relief, he answered within a few hours. He remembered the women making the blessing while lighting the candles and then covering their eyes!
My editor helpfully compiled a set of candle-lighting instructions based on my research:
- Light match.
- Close eyes.
- Attempt to light candles with eyes closed.
- If house doesn’t burn down, bensch Gomel [make the blessing thanking God for saving one from mortal danger].
Well, I think he officially found the wrong way to light Shabbat candles!
The bottom line is this: Judaism welcomes and celebrates diversity. Each tribe, each ethnic group, each culture, each family has its own unique customs; but we are all united by the Torah and the sanctity of Shabbat.
In writing By Light of Hidden Candles, I hoped to bring to light—so to speak—a relatively unknown minority within a minority: Haketía-speaking Moroccan Jews; but I discovered that it’s impossible to compress the nuances, colors, and flavors of a whole culture into just one or two characters. I can’t hope to do it justice, but I can hope that the book will help expose a little of the cultural diversity within Judaism.