Does a Women’s Friday-Night Prayer Belong As Part of Menorah Lighting?

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Yaakov Jaffe 


Communal Menorah Lighting
One of the largest weeknight minyanim in the state of Massachusetts each year is the Maimonides School’s Hanukkah minhah/maariv minyan. Following the view of our school’s founder, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik zl, Hanukkah candles are lit specifically in between the consecutive prayers of minhah and maariv, because this timing is central to the obligation of lighting in synagogue.[1] While some other communities might be of the view that lighting in synagogue is mere practice for the true mitzvah of lighting at home, or just a reenactment of the lighting in the Temple, it is our practice to consider it an absolute communal obligation. And for this reason, we light between minhah and maariv as part of one larger prayer unit.

As a result, each year, both the middle and upper schools gather for minhah, light the menorah and sing traditional Hanukkah songs until the time for maariv, and then daven maariv before dispersing home or to last-period classes. We sing “Ha-Nerot Hallalu”[2] and “Ma’oz Tzur”[3] as most communities do, celebrating the candles of Hanukkah and G-d’s salvation of the Jewish people over the course of many exiles. Last year, my students added a song which at first glance seems disconnected with Hanukkah and the menorah. This song, beginning with the words “Ve-Zakeni le-Gadel,” was originally written as a Friday-night prayer for women: “And give me merit to raise children and grandchildren,[4] wise and discerning, loving Hashem, G-d-fearing, people of truth…” But what inspired my students to start the new custom of singing this song on Hanukkah? What is the connection between this prayer and the holiday?

A Women’s Prayer for Friday Night
Many siddurim print special prayers to be recited before or after the performance of certain mitzvot which serve to focus the individual’s attention on the mitzvah and use the opportunity of the mitzvah to consider more general goals and aspirations.[5] Beautifully written and deeply resonant, these prayers are recited widely by many Jews today. These prayers were not without their detractors―some of these prayers have faced criticism because they constitute petitions to be recited on Shabbat and holidays, and others have faced criticism because of their cosmology of angels or names of G-d. Still others are not recited widely because they reflect a theology of mitzvah observance that some might disagree with, but the legacy of these prayers still live on.

One of the more famous of these post-mitzvah supplications, endorsed explicitly by the Mishnah Berurah (263:2),[6] is the prayer recited by many women each Friday night after lighting Shabbat candles. Though it has more recently been set to music for general use, the prayer in its origins is linked to Shabbat candles and was originally a prayer recited by women:[7]

And give me merit to raise children and grandchildren, “wise and discerning” (Devarim 1:13), loving Hashem, “G-d-fearing and people of truth” (Shemot 18:21),[8] holy descendants,[9] attached to Hashem, and brightening the world with Torah and good deeds and all labors of service of the Creator. Please, listen to my prayer (tihinati) at this time, in the merit of Sarah, Rivkah, Rachel, and Leah, our matriarchs, and light our candle so that it not be extinguished forever, and “light Your face and we shall be saved” (Tehillim 80:4, 8). Amen.

Though today often sung out of its original context, the repeated use of light in the prayer connects it directly to candle lighting, and the invocations of the matriarchs at the end of the request clarifies that the words were part of a women’s prayer, recited upon the lighting of the candles each Friday night. Though many of the petitions performed during mitzvah observances were written relatively recently, the idea of this prayer is particularly old, with an early version of this prayer going back at least to Rabbeinu Bahyay in the thirteenth century, who says in his commentary to Shemot 19:3 that women should pray at the time of performing the mitzvah of candle lighting for children who are “bright with Torah.”

From Shabbat Candles to Hanukkah Candles
But this is a prayer for Shabbat, so why did my students sing it on Hanukkah? The song and prayer is based on a gemara in the second chapter of Shabbat 23b. The chapter as a whole deals with the laws of Shabbat candles, but the preceding page spoke of lighting the Hanukkah candles. The final legal teaching in the Gemara involves both types of candles, and the Gemara concludes the section with an aggadic passage of ambivalent reference before returning to the Talmudic analysis of the original mishnah and the Shabbat candles. The Aggadah begins with the teaching:

Rav Huna said: One who regularly performs the mitzvah of candle lighting―will have children who are Torah scholars; one who is careful about mezuzah―merits a nice dwelling place; one who is careful about tzitzit―merits a nice tallit; one who is careful to recite kiddush―merits barrels of wine.[10]

Which mitzvah of candles is being spoken of here? Tur interprets the Gemara to be speaking specifically about Shabbat candles, as is evident based on his placement of the Talmud’s statement in his halakhic work (Tur, Orah Hayyim 263). This reading is reasonable given the context―this chapter addresses Shabbat candles, and even the section about Hanukkah makes reference to Shabbat candles throughout the section. Also, the Aggadah about the mitzvah of candle lighting continues into a story about the time for lighting chosen by the wife of Rav Yosef, which appears to be discussing the Shabbat candles.[11]

Still, most commentaries believe the Gemara is referring specifically to Hanukkah candles (Rabbeinu Hananel, Meiri, Behag, Rosh 2:14, Ein Yaakov, Maharitz Hayot, Sefat Emet) or at the very least to Shabbat and Hanukkah candles equally (Rashi, one version of Rif, Rabbeinu Perahiah). Conceptually, there is no reason to think that the blessing of children should be more linked to Shabbat than Hanukkah, and textually the Talmud could be read as referring to either mitzvah. There is room for the Rishonim to debate what mitzvah is discussed, specifically because the Talmud remains so unclear.

It stands to reason that if Jews have prayed for centuries for the literal fulfillment of this Talmudic statement when lighting Shabbat candles, then they should also do so during Hanukkah lighting. Indeed, some Jews did have the practice of doing so as part of a prayer recited after menorah lighting that is generally omitted today. With this backdrop, it is quite appropriate to follow the singing of “Ha-Nerot Hallalu” and “Ma’oz Tzur” with a round of “Ve-Zakeni le-Gadel,” as this song relates as much to Hanukkah as to any other occasion for lighting candles.

What Is the Friday-Night Prayer Really For?
How does lighting candles impact the life outcomes of a person’s children? Does an adult’s performance of a mitzvah mystically lead to a specific outcome for their already-born children? The idea that mitzvah observance will lead to material or even spiritual achievement can be theologically troubling. With an observation that would appeal to most modern readers, Meiri writes:

One should always be careful to keep all mitzvot, for one does not know the reward of mitzvot (Pirkei Avot 2:1); still one’s heart should rely on the fact that Hashem does not deprive any creature from its reward, and that it is his attribute to repay measure for measure. As a way to provide awakening they said (derekh he-arah[12] amru)….

Meiri uses this phrase more than 100 times in his Talmud commentary Beit Ha-Behirah, generally meaning that Talmudic statements such as these are not meant to be taken literally but as hortatory texts, seeking to exhort the reader to do something. The Talmud wishes for Jews to be careful in this mitzvah and depicts a reward for the performance of the mitzvah, but it never intended that this specific reward would flow specifically from this mitzvah.

There is a naturalistic reading of this Talmudic statement that some modern readers may also prefer―if the parents show care and concern for mitzvah observance, then the children will recognize that Judaism is a major value within the family and will as a result grow to become Torah scholars. Within the naturalistic reading of the Talmud, the Friday-night prayer and its new application to Hanukkah remain meaningful and resonant. Yet, to Meiri, the prayer still implies that one’s children’s Torah scholarship is something tied to parents’ prayers and not toward the family’s and the children’s actions, and he might recommend not saying the prayers in question.

Implications and Applications
My family follows Meiri’s model on this topic, and neither my wife nor I recite these prayers―not when we both light Hanukkah candles nor when either of us light Shabbat candles. To be sure, we hope and aspire for all of those goals for our children and dedicate ourselves to those goals, but we don’t tie those aspirations to any single or two mitzvot. We pray about our hopes and dreams as part of the regular daily davening, and we don’t pray for those dreams as an adjunct to mitzvah observance.

Few would argue against the fact that mothers and fathers are both vital to children becoming wise and discerning, G-d-fearing, etc. Leaving aside legal questions of whether they are each technically equally included in the obligation of hinukh and questions of whether education from the different parents always expresses itself in the same way,[13] virtually every observant, Jewish, two-parent family includes fathers and mothers who are both part of the process of Torah child-rearing.

In a family where father and mother strive for their children to grow to “brighten the world with Torah and good deeds,” it would seem strange for only one of the two parents to put these aspirations into a passively recited prayer, after observance of a mitzvah. If both parents work toward it, why would only one parent pray for it? Families who sing “Ve-Zakeni le-Gadel” on Friday night should add it as a third song following their menorah lighting as well, given that the Talmudic origins of the prayer probably refers to Hanukkah lighting.[14]

Leaving aside the slight irony of singing the song in a yeshiva of schoolchildren who have no sons or daughters of their own about whom to pray, there is much to be said about making this song a part of the Hanukkah repertoire. It functions as a mission statement for all of Jewish education and what we wish for our sons and daughters to become after a lifetime of Shabbatot and Hanukkahs, experiences that mold them into that which they will become in the future. If it is part of the Friday-night service, why not also make it a part of the Hanukkah service as well? The peaceful light of Shabbat and the light of historical memory on Hanukkah are both important parts of our Jewish tradition, and they are both fitting occasions to daven about what we hope our children will become.

[1] According to Rabbi Soloveitchik, the candles cannot be lit after a stand-alone minhah or before a stand-alone maariv; this is because lighting as a prayer community is its own independent obligation, and this obligation necessitates the candles to be lit specifically between minhah and maariv. The menorah must be lit after minhah has been davened communally, as the public prayer of minhah creates the status of community that now becomes jointly obligated to light candles together. The congregation must also stay immediately thereafter for maariv to ensure that the status of the prayer community remains for at least some of the time when the candles remain lit. See Nefesh Ha-Rav pp. 222-224 for further discussion.

[2] This prayer already appears in Masekhet Sofrim 20:7 and was endorsed for recitation by the Maharam of Rothenburg. See Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg, Teshuvot Pesakim U-Minhagim, ed. Isaac Zev Kahanah, vol. 1 (Jerusalem: Mossad Ha-Rav Kook, 1957), 319 (entry 608). It is far more ancient, thus, than the other prayers discussed in this essay.

[3]Ma’oz Tzur” is also older than the Friday-night prayer. According to Avraham Frankel―“The Song on the Rescue of Worms and the Time of the Composition of ‘Ma’oz Tzur,’” [in Hebrew] Ha-Ma’ayan 208 (2014): 16―it was written in the late twelfth century.

[4] The phrases “banim” and “b’nei banim” in Hebrew can be translated as “children and grandchildren” or “sons and grandsons.” Throughout this presentation, I have offered the first translation.

[5] Some examples of these prayers are the prayers on holidays recited before Torah reading, the meditations before donning tallit and tefillin, the short prayers before shaking the lulav and the counting of the omer, and the lengthy prayer before beginning to sit in the sukkah. The new Rabbinical Council of America Siddur (New York: The Toby Press, 2018) does not include the prayers added before tallit and tefillin, but it includes most of the other ones. For further discussion of the special genre of tehinot recited upon the occasion of Friday-night candle lighting, see the printed prayers and commentaries on pages 350-357 of the new Rabbinical Council of America Siddur. Rabbi Soloveitchik omitted many of these prayers, refraining from reciting the petitions when the Torah was taken out on holidays, the prayers before the omer, and the prayer before tallit and tefillin.

[6] See Piskei Teshuvot loc. cit. which questions the recitation of this supplication after Shabbat has begun, given that normally special supplications are not recited on Shabbat.

[7] Though men are obligated in Shabbat candle lighting just as women are, the text of this prayer and the invocation of the four matriarchs makes it clear that the prayer was intended to be recited by women lighting candles and not men. Historically, women would light candles on behalf of their families. See Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayyim 263:1-3.

[8] According to Rashi, the four different character traits mentioned in the two biblical verses relate to the same event: Yitro’s advice to appoint judges to assist Moshe in the desert.

[9] This phrase appears in Tanakh in Yeshayahu 6:12, although the composer of the prayer almost definitely had a different understanding of the phrase than what appears in Yeshayahu, which describes a time of death and destruction. It also appears in Ezra 9:2 noting the surprise that the “zera kodesh” had intermarried in Ezra’s days.

[10] The language in the Talmud is exactly parallel for the last three mitzvot whose performance appears to merit material achievements tangential to the mitzvah, while the language is slightly different regarding the children of the one who lights candles. This may encourage us to argue that the mitzvah of candle lighting naturally leads to a blessing of children, while the other mitzvot indirectly or mystically lead to the material benefits listed. See below in the next section of this discussion.

[11] This is also the view that Maharsha appears to prefer.

[12] From the root “rar,” to awaken, such as in the verb “le-hit’oreir.”

[13] See Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, “A Tribute to the Rebbitzen of Talne,” Tradition 17, no. 2 (1978).

[14] If only the husband lights the menorah, he should probably adjust the list of matriarchs to patriarchs when reciting the prayer. As to whether husband and wife should both light the menorah, the simple reading of Rambam as is understood by Arukh Ha-Shulhan (Orah Hayyim 671:9) is that married women should have their own menorah. Mishnah Berurah (671:9 and 675:9) rules that a married woman should not light her own menorah. Yet, Mishnah Berurah’s ruling is surprising as he based his ruling on the idea of “ishto ke-gufo,” which the Talmud and commentaries apply to laws of testimony (Sanhedrin 28b; see also Ran, Nedarim 8b) and laws of modesty (Berakhot 24a)―but not to the laws of mitzvah obligations.

Yaakov Jaffe serves as the rabbi of the Maimonides Kehillah, founded by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik in 1963, and as the Dean of Judaic Studies at the Maimonides School. He received his ordination and doctorate from Yeshiva University, where he holds graduate degrees in Bible, Jewish History, and Jewish Education. He is the author of Isaiah and his Contemporaries, a commentary on Yeshayahu and the other Biblical books of that time, now available from Kodesh Press.