Rabbi I Have a Problem

Can we use the candles bought in a church for Friday night

An Orthodox and a Reform rabbi discuss issues in contemporary Jewish life


QUESTION:  We were visiting a beautiful church on holiday abroad when I suddenly remembered I hadn’t brought any candles for Shabbat that evening, so I bought two of the votive ones on sale there and used them back in the flat we were renting. My husband said it was sacrilegious. Was he right?

Rabbi Dr Naftali Brawer:  The Shulchan Aruch rules that, if a gentile donated candles to the church and lit them and that subsequently they were extinguished by the church beadle, and either given or sold to a Jew, such candles may not be used to illuminate a synagogue (Orach Chayim 154:11).

In his commentary on the Shulchan Aruch, the Mishnah Berurah expands the prohibition for the use of such candles to any type of mitzvah such as Shabbat and Chanukah lights.

However, the Mishnah Berurah makes an important distinction: if the votive candles have not yet been lit by a gentile, and they were subsequently sold to a Jew, the Jew may use them for the purpose of a mitzvah. 

So it all depends on whether the candles you purchased were previously used or new. If they were once used in non-Jewish worship, it is inappropriate to use them for Shabbat candles. If they were never previously lit, you may use them for any mitzvah including Shabbat lights.

Shabbat candle-lighting while travelling can pose a number of challenges. One such challenge is what to do in a hotel or accommodation where lighting candles in one’s room is expressly forbidden? 

The purpose of Shabbat candles is to illuminate one’s dwelling, so as to increase shalom bayit, peace and harmony in the home. While it is traditional to fulfil this mitzvah with oil lamps or wax candles, can electric lights serve a similar purpose?

Some halachists are of the view that, unlike oil or wax, which is present before kindling the flame, an electrical current does not yet exist prior to flipping the switch. Since there is no electrical “fuel” present at the time of kindling, such a method may not be used for Shabbat candles.

However a battery-powered device, such as a torch, would be suitable because the power (fuel) is already present in the battery. In fact, it is said that the great 20th-century halachist Rav Moshe Feinstein once fulfilled the mitzvah of Shabbat candles in a hotel using a battery-powered torch. Other halachists, notably Rav Ovadia Yosef, rule that a regular electrical light is suitable for fulfilling the mitzvah of Shabbat illumination. 

When fulfilling the mitzvah using either a battery-powered torch or a regular light switch, make sure to turn it off first, so that you can then switch it on in honour of Shabbat, followed by the appropriate blessing.

Naftali Brawer is chief executive of Spiritual Capital Foundation

Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain: If ever there was a question that highlights the challenges that face the everyday interaction of Jews with modernity, this is it.

First, there is the question of entering a church. In some rabbinic circles, this is regarded as outrageous and contrary to Jewish practice. However, whereas this may have been appropriate in the past, none of the reasons are valid today.

The assertion that churches were a source of antisemitism certainly applied to the Middle Ages, but is no longer the case and many are engaged in interfaith dialogue. 

The fear that one might be ensnared in missionary activity and converted is also long out of date. Jews may be targeted by a handful of obscure messianic movements, but most mainstream churches recognise Judaism as a valid path to God that should be respected.

The idea that going into a church means endorsing idolatry is equally ridiculous. They may have icons and terminology that are not our way of worship, but Christians are ethical monotheists, not pagans. 

It is also daft to imply that Jews who admire beautiful paintings and inspiring architecture will therefore abandon their Jewish heritage. We do not think Christians who visit our synagogues are reneging on their faith, so why should we fear the reverse is the case? 

By extension, there is no reason why meetings of the Council of Christians and Jews have to take place at neutral venues, but cannot be held reciprocally in local churches and synagogues.

A second issue is that of holiday travel abroad, taken for granted nowadays but a very recent phenomenon. It is important to pack Jewishly as well as generally, remembering not only sun-tan lotion but Shabbat candles. A siddur, havdalah candle, and the address of local shuls should also go into the suitcase.

The third issue is those candles. The object is to acknowledge the arrival of Shabbat and although we may be used to a standard look, the type of candle used — tall, short, thin, fat —is irrelevant. Any candles can be used for Shabbat and bought in a Jewish shop or elsewhere.

The only caveat would be if they had a Christian symbol on them, or had already been dedicated to a particular saint; but if they were simply on sale in a church and were undesignated, then 0 out of 10 for preparation, but 10 out of 10 for ingenuity.

Jonathan Romain is rabbi at Maidenhead (Reform) Synagogue 

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