Thursday, January 29, 2015

Practice vs. Pedantry

This past week I was at my in-laws for Shabbos. At lunch, they read from a Shabbos halacha book. It is divided into sections to be read at Shabbos meals, and is meant to be finished over the course of one year. Apparently this is something they started doing lately. Anyway, this particular section was about lighting candles Friday night, specifically about what to do if someone is staying at a hotel where everyone lights in the dining room. Since the purpose of lighting candles is to give light, can only  the first person to get to the dining room light with a bracha, or can each person light their own candles and make a bracha?

In the abstract, I suppose this is a valid legalistic question, but it completely misses the point of why people do things like light candles Friday night. People light candles because that's what you do to start Shabbos, because it makes them feel good to perform the ritual and continue the tradition, because without lighting candles Friday night it doesn't feel like Shabbos. In the absence of the book's legalistic discussion, I don't think the question would occur to most people. Lighting candles Friday night is just what you do. From the point of view of how and why people actually perform rituals like candle-lighting, a discussion about whether the light is really necessary is nonsensical. (The fact is that electric lights make lighting candles for light pointless, and yet no one has suggested abolishing the custom, making the whole discussion nonsensical even from a legalistic standpoint, but that's beside the point.)

It reminded me of the famous essay, "Rupture and Reconstruction," about the change in Orthodox transmission of rites and ritual from a memetic one learned naturally in the home and community to a textual one learned through study and consulting authoritative books. In a society with a memetic tradition, the question of whether or not everyone lights with a bracha wouldn't come up, because of course everyone does. Lighting candles Friday night and making a bracha is what one does as Shabbos begins. In a society with a textually-transmitted tradition (or more accurately, where the tradition is learned both memetically and from texts, but where the text is the authority) people must be always consulting the texts so they can be sure they are performing rituals properly, and things that would once have been academic questions of interest only to scholars now intrude into practice.

On the one hand, I'm in favor of people doing things primarily for rational rather than emotional reasons or because that's just how it's done. On the other hand, this legalistic hair splitting ruins some of the useful things that religion does, like grounding people in traditions and rituals that give a sense of significance to the daily rhythm of their lives. It takes something that comes easily and imbues the mundane with a touch of the  transcendent and turns it into a circumscribed chore. It ruins the religious experience and completely misunderstands how and why people perform rituals.


  1. If people did things for rational rather than emotional reasons, all the ridiculous ritual of Orthodox Judaism would not be taking place and there would be far less compulsive behavior in the world.


    do you have a facebook acct i can follow you on?

    1. I have a FB account, but not for "G*3.". My problem is that I picked a lousy user name years ago, and Facebook needs something that sounds like a real name. I could make up a new one, but then I have to figure out a way to let people know it's me.

  3. In my house we're makpid to turn on the overhead light just after we light candles, but before saying the bracha. Needless to say, neither my mom nor my late MIL lit candles this way.