“Tzi-tzit tzitzit tzitzit, where are you today?
I need you for a bracha, I need you right away!”
This was a common refrain for my three-year-old daughter Dahlia in the morning as she goes through my closet while I get dressed. She sings the song every morning in her class when each child chooses whether to take a pair of tzitzit, ritual fringes, from the box. In our house she will often playfully put on my tzitzit, but the one morning I spent in her nursery school class, none of the girls chose to.
And that’s just fine. None of the women she knows wear tzitzit, and I wouldn’t be surprised or disappointed if she didn’t either. But with her fourth birthday coming up, my wife and I thought about what tangible rituals might be relevant and meaningful for a little girl.
Enter Atara Lindenbaum, Rabbi Roni Handler, and their JOFA UnConference session on reinventing rituals for early childhood. Atara shared that her daughter began lighting Shabbat candles when she was three, and I thought that was a beautiful idea. In a conversation with Atara after the session, she recommended that we not only engage Dahlia with the ritual, but also make it a bit more of a meaningful ceremony—invite the rabbi or do something special in synagogue. I loved that idea, and with Dahlia’s fourth birthday coming up, we ran with it.
Since we had no template for a ritual like this, I posted a note on Facebook to solicit ideas for how to make this moment special. You can read the full back and forth here, but it spawned debates over how many candles she should light, whether to do the first lighting at home or in synagogue, and whether having the rabbi attend reinforces the perception that a male rabbinic presence is required to legitimate Jewish ritual experience. We received recommendations for what candlesticks to use, blessings to make, and texts to incorporate. It was a great discourse.
What we settled on was a very small ceremony at home with our immediate family and our community’s rabbi. We bought Dahlia a beautiful set of travel ceramic candlesticks, and my sister sent a box of colorful candles. With only a few minutes before Shabbat, I spoke to Dahlia a bit about what it means to be growing up and connected it to Moses’ growing up in the Torah portion, the rabbi said a few words about how Dahlia is now part of a tradition of lighting candles that goes back thousands of years, and then she lit the candles and said the blessing together with my wife Adina. After the rabbi left for synagogue, Adina and I blessed Dahlia, and then we sat down to read some emailed notes from grandparents, aunts, and uncles.
I had imagined that this would be a memorable (and perhaps formative) experience for Dahlia. I thought it would be serene and we would all be present in the moment. But she’s four years old, and within seconds she was much more concerned about her brother taking a balloon than the significance of her candles. And that’s alright. Because I know that again this Friday afternoon, the next, and—please God—many hundreds to follow, she will stand next to my wife, light her candles and say her blessing.
The quintessential image of home, holiness, and Jewish motherhood is that of a woman blessing the Shabbat candles, performing a ritual we assume has existed since time immemorial. But this assumption is wrong. In fact, it was only nine hundred years ago that, after much debate, lighting the Shabbat lamp came to be defined as a mitzvah—one with its own unique blessing, one that Jewish women took upon themselves.
Because there is no such commandment in the Torah, most rabbis before 1000 CE maintained that lighting the Shabbat lamp was not a mitzvah; it was merely a task women did because they were home and men were in synagogue on Friday afternoon. It was important only because, unless she lit the lamp before sunset, her family would be forced to sit in the dark. And while the Talmud (Tractate Shabbat) meticulously details what kinds of oil and wicks are best to keep the Shabbat lamp from going out, there is no mention of any special ritual for lighting it.
The great French scholar Rashi (1040-1105) took an opposing view. In his commentary on Tractate Shabbat (page 23b) he stated, “By observing the mitzvot of kindling a lamp on Shabbat and Hanukkah, one brings the light of Torah into the world.” Yet even if a community accepted that lighting the Shabbat lamp was a mitzvah, should a blessing accompany it? And if so, which one? There is no such blessing mentioned in the Talmud and halakha forbids any non-Talmudic blessings. Because of this, medieval Sephardic women lit their Shabbat lamps in silence.
However during the eleventh century, Ashkenazic women had greater religious status and autonomy than those in Sefarad, so much so that they began to fulfill those mitzvot that only men were obligated to perform, such as blowing shofar, and wearing tefillin and tzitzit. According to Machzor Vitry, a compendium of laws and customs collected by Rashi’s students, women took these commandments upon themselves and recited the blessings as well, in the same way that women today have taken on traditionally male mitzvot, instituted new rituals like Bat Mitzvah, and become rabbis and cantors.
Rashi clearly held that kindling the Shabbat lamp was a mitzvah, one that women, as well as men, were obligated to perform. Thus it seems logical that, if women made a blessing when they performed mitzvot from which they were exempt, surely they must recite a blessing if they perform a mitzvah for which they are obligated. Indeed, Rashi’s grandson, Rabbeinu Tam, declared that lighting the Shabbat lamp required a blessing.
But creating a new blessing is prohibited, so what prayer should be said? The solution was to take the blessing for lighting the Hanukkah menorah, which was in the Talmud, and substitute “Shabbat” for “Hanukkah.” As astonishing as it may seem, the Hanukkah blessing is the original one, a thousand years older than the Shabbat blessing, its derivative.
We know of this new blessing because we have a responsum by Rashi’s granddaughter, Hannah, describing the ritual her mother performed. She explained that in Rashi’s house, the woman first lit the Shabbat lamp and then recited the benediction, whose words are the same ones we say today. Rabbeinu Tam’s decision and his sister Hannah’s responsum were so authoritative that within a hundred years, even women in Sefarad were saying this blessing when they kindled Shabbat lights. Maimonides complained about it but admitted that he couldn’t prevent women from doing so.
Today, when women (and men) light Shabbat candles, they never imagine that the ritual doesn’t come from Sinai, that the blessing was once a source of controversy. And who knows? Maybe nine hundred years in the future Jews will assume that girls have always had a Bat Mitzvah, that women have always studied Talmud, and that there have always been female rabbis.