On today’s daf, the rabbis debate what types of oils may be used for Shabbat lamps.
Rabbi Yishmael says that one may not light with tar in deference to Shabbat.
And the Rabbis permit lighting with all oils: with sesame oil, with nut oil, with turnip oil, with fish oil, with gourd oil, with tar, and even with naphtha.
Rabbi Tarfon says: One may light only with olive oil.
Rabbi Tarfon holds the most stringent position, arguing that one can only light candles for Shabbat with olive oil, the finest and purest of all oils, out of deference to the sacred day of rest. Rabbi Yishmael permits most oils, with the exception of the oil produced by tar, because this is a particularly stinky oil. According to Rabbi Yishmael, it’s not that we need only the best of the best, but out of respect for Shabbat, we shouldn’t light with the worst of the worst. The rabbis, however, give us permission to light Shabbat candles using any and all oils, including tar oil, as long as the oil effectively kindles Shabbat lights and burns properly.
This debate boils down to a question of beauty versus efficacy, hiddur mitzvah (the commandment to perform a mitzvah in the most beautiful way possible) versus doing what is feasible and within our means. Rabbi Tarfon, a wealthy 2nd-century rabbi, may have had the means to insist on using only the best and finest of oils for his weekly candles, and by doing so he greatly honored Shabbat. However, other rabbis — many of them poor themselves — recognized that while olive oil may have been the ideal, not everyone could afford it. In order to make the performance of this mitzvah accessible to all people, they ruled one may light using any oil — even smelly oils like fish and tar. The sages knew that if they followed Rabbi Tarfon, people might spend all their savings just trying to light Shabbat candles or, perhaps worse, they wouldn’t be able to light them at all.
There’s enormous value in putting extra energy, love, and sometimes money into performing a mitzvah in the most beautiful way possible, but the rabbis recognize that there’s a deeper value that takes precedence: making Judaism accessible to people of all means. There’s no shame in using grape juice instead of wine, tea lights instead of fancy tapers, or tar oil instead of olive oil. What makes our mitzvot beautiful is the manner in which we perform them, the love and energy with which we light the wick, and not the expense we incur.