So, after ostensibly “freezing” the text of By Light of Hidden Candles (my upcoming novel) for formatting, my editor found a bunch of other issues and we did another feverish round of editing on a short deadline. Now the text is frozen for real (RIGHT, DON?!)–at least, barring any issues our beta-readers and early reviewers find in the galley.
On the day before we froze the text, I became aware of a potential issue that I hadn’t even thought of before. As one might surmise from the title of the book, Shabbat candles make several important appearances. I described, in great detail, my modern Jewish character lighting Shabbat candles–twice–in the manner I am familiar with; and then it came to my attention that Sephardi tradition is different from Ashkenazi tradition.
(And here, for a change, was an issue with the book that it would be completely pointless to ask you about! 😛 )
…Let me back up a bit and explain how this candlelighting thing is done.
There are certain commandments that require a blessing immediately before performing them. But in the case of Shabbat candles, there’s an issue: making the blessing is sort of a declaration that I am accepting Shabbat. That means it’s Shabbat for me when I finish the blessing–and if I haven’t lit the candles yet, I can’t light them on Shabbat, right?!
So Ashkenazi custom has the following solution: we light the candles first, cover our eyes, make the blessing, and then open our eyes and look at the candles, as if they just appeared! Magic! 😛
Sephardi custom, however, is to say the blessing before lighting the candles with the understanding that the blessing is not a declaration of “accepting” Shabbat; but rather, their intention is to “accept” Shabbat only after the candles are lit, or only when it enters at sunset.
Well… at least, that’s the custom in theory.
You see, I have several Sephardi/North African/Middle Eastern friends, with whom I have spent Shabbat; and I didn’t remember noticing anything unusual about their candlelighting customs. So I decided to try and find out what people actually do. I took to Facebook and took an unofficial survey among my Sephardi friends.
That’s how I discovered that the matter is actually a lot more complicated than I had suspected.
My friend Malka said her Yemenite mother-in-law makes the blessing first and then lights the candles, but doesn’t blow out the match.
My friend Shareen, who has Tunisian and Persian grandmothers, said they both lit first and made the blessing while “covering” the candles with their hands.
My friend Nora, who follows the custom of her Moroccan mother-in-law, said she lights first, covers her eyes, and makes the blessing. She mentioned, however, that she has a friend of Algerian origin who makes the blessing first and then lights the candles.
My friend Yemima, whose mother was an Italian descendant of Jewish refugees from the Spanish expulsion, said her mother lit first and then made the blessing, but never covered her eyes.
My friend Reut said her Libyan grandmother lit first, covered her eyes, and made the blessing.
My friend Shahar said her Libyan grandmother made the blessing first, then lit the candles, didn’t blow out the match, and then covered their eyes to pray; whereas her Moroccan grandmother did the same, but without covering her eyes.
My friend Yonit–who is Ashkenazi–pointed out that it doesn’t really help to ask individuals if you’re trying to determine what the custom of a particular ethnic group is. I explained that I’m not doing a scientific study here; I’m just trying to find out what people do. “I want what my character does to be at least somewhat connected to reality, so people don’t come after me with pitchforks yelling, ‘You Ashkenazi, what are you doing writing about Sephardi characters?!'”
At this point I was feeling pretty confused and felt it was time to call in the real authorities. Thankfully, I knew who to call: a number of years ago, I got in touch with Yaacov Ben-Tolila, a retired professor from Ben-Gurion University who is Israel’s leading expert on Haketía (the Judeo-Spanish of North Africa) and the Jewish community of Morocco under the Spanish Protectorate. He happens to have been born in the same city and the same year as my fictional grandmother character! He was an amazing resource and was very happy to tell me about his childhood in Tétouan.
So I wrote him an e-mail, and the following morning he called me. He described his mother’s Shabbat candle (only one!) in great detail, and said he was sure she didn’t cover her eyes, but couldn’t remember if she made the blessing before or after lighting. He recommended I contact Mois Benarroch, an Israeli author who was also born in Tétouan and who has written and published many books set in his hometown. (He blogs in Spanish and Hebrew with excerpts of his work; check out the Spanish one here!)
Mind you, this is all while we were hoping to have the manuscript finalized that day!
So I found Mois Benarroch on Facebook and asked him the question. To my enormous relief, he answered within a few hours. He remembered the women making the blessing while lighting the candles and then covering their eyes!
“The results of my survey,” I wrote on the original Facebook thread, “are as follows: everyone does something different! And no matter what I write, some group somewhere will find a reason to come after me with pitchforks. Conclusion: practice self-defense against pitchforks!”
And now you must be wondering, after all this confusing research, what I decided to have my character do!
I took out all reference to covering eyes, and simply listed her actions: “I struck a match, lit the candles, and made the blessing…” leaving it ambiguous whether she makes the blessing while lighting the candles or after.
“But you know what I’m going to get out of this?” I said to Eitan as I got ready to pick up R2 from preschool after finally resolving this issue on the manuscript. “A great blog post!”