The topic we will attempt to discuss in this piece has been dealt with broadly in modern responsa literature. In the limited space of this article we will try to understand the central points and conclusions of this issue. It is interesting to note that in early literature the attitude on the issue of using electric lights to light Shabbat candles was very positive. The primary consideration was that since the purpose of lighting candles was to have light in the house, electric lights served this purpose. As a matter of fact, Rabbi Elya Klutzkin in his Devar Halacha wrote that it was preferable to use electric lights since the light received from an electric bulb is far more than that of a regular candle. In later literature, some reservations were raised, most of which were rejected by the respondents or by fellow Torah scholars.
The concerns raised by halachists are: A. Is there a need to do an act of lighting candles and if so does flicking a light switch constitute such an act? B. Does lighting candles require fire and if so does an electric light constitute a flame? C. If electric lights do constitute a flame do they meet the required conditions for Shabbat candles? D. How could the halacha of lighting special candles for Shabbat be fulfilled with electric lights?
Rav Eliezer Waldinberg in his Tzitz Eliezer dealt in length with the question of what constitutes an act of lighting electric candles. Rav Waldinberg notes that this question is dependent on an issue disputed by the Rishonim, whether the requirement is to have a light lit in ones home or is it to light the light for Shabbat. If there is no requirement to light where there are candles lit, then electric lights pose no problem. Rav Waldinberg goes on to show that this is the more accepted opinion amongst the Rishonim .If the requirement is the action then flicking a switch may not be a sufficient action. Those who would object to the use of electricity, claim that turning the switch only allows for the electric current to flow, which in turn lights the bulb. In halachic terms this indirect action is known as “Grama” and may not constitute an act of lighting. The Tzitz Eliezer responds that even Rabienu Tam, who requires an action, does not intend to say that one needs to light the flame, but rather, that an action which enables there to be light for Shabbat is required.
The second point raised is whether a flame is necessary, and if so, does an electric light bulb fulfil the requirement. Most authorities do not reject the need for a flame, since the original decree was to make a bracha on a flame. Rav Ovadya Yosef, in his Yechave Daat, shows that most poskim are of the opinion that electric lights constitute a flame. So much so, that he brings a list of authorities, such as Rav Chayim of Brisk and Rav Chayim Ozer Gruzinski, who said the bracha of “Boreh meoreih haesh” in the Havdalah service on electric lights, in order to stress that electric bulbs constitute a flame. The author of Hachashmal Le’or Ha’halacha (Electricity in Halacha) points out that this would not apply to neon and florescent lights that do not give off heat.
On the question of meeting the requirements for Shabbat candles two separate issues are raised. The first is, since a Shabbat candle is required to have the ability to burn long enough to be used during the Shabbat meal, there needs to be a sufficient source of energy to maintain the flame during this time. The electric bulb does not have such a source of energy, rather the electric current is produced continuously. Harav Uziel in his Mishpetey Uziel responds that the requirement is not that the candle have enough burning material but that the light should have the potential to remain lit during the required period of time. Since the electric bulb is connected to a generator that produces a constant electric current it can be considered a proper candle. The second issue raised by Rav Waldinberg is whether the electric light bulb is not an “avukah” (flame made of several wicks such as is used for Havdalah). Rav Felder in his Yesodey Yeshurun responds that the problem of avukah is when the flame is made of several separate wicks or candles that don’t give a clear consistent light. As the light of an electric bulb gives a clear and consistent light, the problem of avukah would not apply.
As can be seen, most halachik authorities are of the opinion that electric lights can be used as Shabbat candles. Yet, most would suggest that the bracha be made on regular candles to note that special candles are being lit for Shabbat. Only when candles are nor available should the bracha be made on electric lights. It would be suggested that in situations that require the use of electric candles one should light a special light that is not used during the week.