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Peninei Halakha > Shabbat > 04 - Lighting Shabbat Candles

04 – Lighting Shabbat Candles

01. The Mitzva of Lighting Shabbat Candles[1]

There is a rabbinic mitzva to light a candle to honor Shabbat. There are three reasons for this: 1) to honor Shabbat, as a banquet without light is of no significance; 2) for oneg Shabbat, because one who cannot see his food does not enjoy it; 3) to bring shalom bayit (peace in the home), because one who cannot see his furniture and belongings trips over them and gets angry and irritable. It is so important to have light at the Shabbat table that the Sages stated that one who does not have enough money to buy a candle should go door to door begging for charity in order to buy it (SA 263:2).

One who has only a bit of money should first buy bread so he does not fast on Shabbat. After that, if he still has money left, he should buy a candle, and only then, if he can, should he buy wine for kiddush. This is because one may make kiddush over bread if necessary, and the light allows him to honor and enjoy Shabbat. It is more important to light a candle to honor Shabbat than to beautify kiddush with wine (Shabbat 23b; SA 263:1-2).

The Shabbat candles give profound expression to the essence of Shabbat. One mired in darkness cannot find what he is looking for; he stumbles over his furniture; his whole home seems chaotic to him. But the moment he lights the Shabbat candles, peace comes to his home. He understands that his furniture is there to serve him, and his belongings are all where they belong. Thus he is able to enjoy Shabbat at his festive meal. Similarly, when we look at the world superficially, it seems full of strife and war, hopelessly divided and conflicted. Each side thinks that only when it succeeds in getting rid of the opposition will it be able to rest, and thus the conflicts endlessly continue. But if one thinks a little more deeply and examines divine providence, the darkness disappears and the divine light is revealed. He realizes that the opposing sides actually complement one another, and there is a hand directing and leading the world toward perfection. Out of all the troubles and afflictions, redemption and comfort will emerge (see above, 1:15).

The Shabbat candles, which bring peace to the home by adding light, thus allude to the repair of the world that comes about by increasing the light of Torah and faith. This is the goal of Shabbat – to add the light of faith and Torah to the world. It seems that this is the reason for the great love that all Jews have for the mitzva of Shabbat candles: It alludes to the overarching goal of the Jewish people – to make peace by adding light.

With this in mind, one can understand the Sages’ statement that one who is meticulous about lighting Shabbat candles will be privileged to have children who are Torah scholars (Shabbat 23b). For by occupying oneself with the light of Shabbat, one merits having a child who adds the light of Torah to the world. Accordingly, after lighting the Shabbat candles, many women customarily pray that their sons become Torah scholars.

The Sages state in God’s name: “The glory of Shabbat is its candles. If one observes [the mitzva of] Shabbat candles, I will show you the candles of Zion…. It will not be necessary for you to use the light of the sun to see; rather I will provide illumination for you with My glory…. In the future, the nations will walk by your light…. Why do you deserve all of this? Because of the candles you light for Shabbat” (Yalkut Shimoni, Beha’alotekha).

[1]. [Editor’s note: The term ner originally referred to an oil lamp. Nowadays, it has become common to speak of “Shabbat candles.” We have adopted this term because of the generic usage, but unless otherwise noted these laws apply to any source of illumination that is acceptable for use as nerot Shabbat.]

02. Where to Light and Who Must Light

It is a mitzva to have light in every room that will be used Friday night, so that people will not trip. However, the primary mitzva is to light the candles where the meal will be eaten, since by eating the meal by their light, they increase the honor and pleasure of Shabbat. Therefore, the berakha is recited over these candles (Rema 263:10; MB ad loc. 2). If the other rooms have light thanks to electric lights in the home or streetlights shining in, there is no need to light candles there as well.

The candles must remain lit until the end of the Friday night meal. Ideally one should make sure that light remains until people go to sleep (SSK 43:17). Today, when one can easily leave on electric lights, ideally one should make sure that there is light in the house all night, so that one who wakes up during the night does not trip.

The mitzva to light candles applies to all Jews, men and women, single and married, since everyone is obligated to honor and enjoy Shabbat. However, within the family the wife takes precedence for this mitzva, because she is the ba’alat ha-bayit (mistress of the household) and responsible for running it. Therefore she has the privilege of fulfilling this mitzva, which is designed to ensure peace in the home. She exempts all other members of her household with her lighting. But if the wife is running late and it is getting close to shki’a, it is better that her husband or one of the children light the candles so that she does not risk desecrating Shabbat by lighting the candles herself (SA 263:2; MB 262:11).

The precedence of women over men with regard to candle lighting indicates that shalom bayit is primarily dependent on women, and the light of Torah and faith permeates the home due to the wife. Through her special inner awareness she knows how to illuminate the path of faith for her husband and children, and she directs them toward diligent Torah study. This accords with the words of the Sages: “The promise [of future reward] for women is greater than that of men,” because they send their children to study Torah in school, encourage their husbands to study long hours in the beit midrash, and wait for them to come home (Berakhot 17a). Nevertheless, when the wife is unable to light the candles, the husband should do so, for when necessary he too can bring peace to the home and introduce an atmosphere of faith and Torah to it.

One whose wife is away for any reason while he remains at home must light the candles with a berakha. Even if he has an adult daughter, the mitzva to light the candles devolves upon him, because he is the head of household. If he wishes, though, he may ask his daughter to light for him and the rest of the household (SSK ch. 43 n. 46).

Some have the custom that all the girls in the household who are old enough to understand the mitzva light candles with a berakha along with their mother. This is custom of Chabad. However, most poskim maintain that only the mother of the family should light, and that is the custom of all other Jewish communities. It is proper for every woman to follow her family custom.[2]

[2]. Prima facie, it would seem preferable that within the Chabad custom each girl should light in a different room (as explained below in section 6, and in Harĥavot 4:2, 3-4). Indeed, this is stated in AHS 263:7. However, the actual custom of Lubavitcher ĥasidim is that everyone lights in the dining room. The Lubavitcher Rebbe encouraged this custom strongly, so that every girl, even if she grows distant from Torah and mitzvot, would always have memories of lighting Shabbat candles. In practice, in most households only the mother lights candles with a berakha. Some even maintain that this practice might constitute a berakha in vain (berakha le-vatala), since once the mother makes the berakha she exempts all household members and certainly obviates the need for anyone else to light in the dining room (SA 263:10 and Yeĥaveh Da’at 2:32).

03. What May One Light With, and How Many Candles

The second chapter of Tractate Shabbat has an extensive discussion about what materials may be used for lighting Shabbat candles. The general principle is that the wick needs to be soft and absorbent so that it will draw the oil nicely, and the oil must be of a type that is drawn nicely into the wick. If these conditions are not met, the flame will jump around the wick and the light will dim. There is concern that one seeing such light will try to fix it, thus transgressing the prohibition of lighting a fire on Shabbat.

The Sages said that of all of the acceptable oils, olive oil is the best because it is easily drawn into the wick and its light is clear and pure (SA 264:6). Today most women light paraffin or “wax” candles, whose light is stronger and more stable.

The extensive discussion about what materials may be used to light candles alludes to the way to achieve shalom bayit. Just as the wick has to be made of a soft and absorbent material and the oil must be light and easily drawn, so too a couple needs to unite humbly. Just as when we light the wick, fire and light are produced jointly by the wick and fuel, so too a couple, through the fire of faith and light of Torah, can become one, developing and illuminating together. Without a spiritual destination love withers, just as everything physical atrophies. But when there is a shared spiritual goal that lights the fire of their lives, their love becomes stronger and stronger.

The law requires that only one candle be lit, thus providing light in the home. However the custom is to light two candles, one corresponding to Zakhor and the other to Shamor. Some women customarily light one candle for each member of the household; others light seven candles, corresponding to the seven days of the week; still others light ten, corresponding to the Ten Commandments. All these customs apply when a woman is in her own home, but if she is a visitor in someone else’s home, the custom is that she lights just two candles (SSK 43:3).

In the past, when homes were normally candlelit, adding more candles beautified Shabbat by increasing light in the home. Now that electric light is common, adding candles does not increase beauty, and it is sufficient to light just the two candles corresponding to Zakhor and Shamor.

If a woman forgets to light candles one week, it is customary for her to add an extra candle every week as a penalty (Rema 263:1). However, this only applies if there was no light at all as a result of her omission. If there was electric light, even though she did not light it to honor Shabbat, since in fact they did not miss out on oneg Shabbat, she is not obligated to add a candle every week for the rest of her life (See Darkhei Moshe, ad loc.; BHL s.v. “she-shakheĥa”; Yalkut Yosef 263, n. 42).

04. The Berakha Recited upon Lighting

There are two customs as to when the berakha over the candles is recited. Some say it prior to lighting, as the rule for all mitzvot is to recite the berakha before performing the mitzva. Thus, they first say “Barukh ata Hashem Elokeinu Melekh ha-olam, asher kideshanu be-mitzvotav ve-tzivanu lehadlik ner shel Shabbat” (“Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, Who sanctified us with His mitzvot and commanded us to light Shabbat candles”) and then light. This is the ruling of Shulĥan Arukh and the custom of some Sephardic women (SA 263:5; Yabi’a Omer 2:16).

Others recite the berakha after lighting because according to several poskim women accept Shabbat by invoking it in the berakha, and therefore one who recites the berakha before lighting will not subsequently be allowed to light (Behag). To be sure, according to most poskim as long as a woman has in mind that she is not accepting Shabbat when reciting the berakha she may light the candles afterward. Nevertheless, women did not want to light the candles after reciting the berakha and invoking Shabbat. For this reason, the widespread custom in most communities is that women first light the candles and afterward recite the berakha, thereby accepting Shabbat. Many Aĥaronim affirmed and reinforced this custom. Nevertheless, in order to follow the general rule of reciting a berakha before doing a mitzva, women customarily cover their eyes while reciting the berakha and only then open their eyes and enjoy the light of the candles. This is the custom of all Ashkenazim (Rema 263:5) and some Sephardim (Maĥzik Berakha [Ĥida] 263:4, Ben Ish Ĥai, Year Two, No’aĥ 8). This was also the custom in Morocco, Iraq, and elsewhere. In practice, every woman should follow the custom of her mother’s family.

When a single man or a widower lights candles, he should make the berakha before lighting. This is because the custom of men is to accept Shabbat verbally after the Minĥa prayers, not at the time of candle lighting (SSK 43:30).

05. Fulfilling the Obligation via Electric Lights

If necessary, one may fulfill the mitzva by switching on an incandescent light bulb. A bulb is similar to a candle as the glowing metal filament is the equivalent of a wick and the electricity is the equivalent of the oil or paraffin. However, some maintain that one does not fulfill the obligation with an incandescent bulb, because in a candle the fuel is adjacent to the wick, which is not the case with an electric bulb. Nevertheless, the vast majority of poskim maintain that one may fulfill one’s obligation by lighting an incandescent bulb, since there is a halakhic consensus that electric light is considered fire and igniting an electric light on Shabbat violates the Torah prohibition against lighting a fire on Shabbat. Nevertheless, it is preferable to use a candle for the mitzva so that one fulfills the requirement according to all opinions. Additionally, by lighting a candle it is more apparent that this is a special lighting in honor of Shabbat.

It is preferable le-khatĥila to turn off electric lights before lighting the candles and to turn them back on in honor of Shabbat when lighting the candles. In this way, the mitzva is beautified greatly, through the candles and the electric lights. Moreover, if electric lights are on when she lights the candles, it is not apparent that she is lighting candles to fulfill a mitzva, since there was light already. Therefore, it is good to turn off the electric lights several minutes before candle lighting, and when she comes to light the candles, she should first turn on the electric lights and then immediately light the Shabbat candles. When reciting the berakha, she should have the electrical lights in mind as well. All this is ideal, but technically even if the electric lights are on, she may light the candles with a berakha. We are not concerned that this is a berakha in vain, because lighting the additional candles to fulfill the mitzva provides additional light in honor of Shabbat (see the next section for the laws pertaining to one staying in a hotel).[3]

[3]. In case of need, most poskim maintain that one may recite a berakha on lighting an electric light (Beit Yitzĥak YD 1:120 and 2:31; Har Tzvi OĤ §143; Yeĥaveh Da’at 5:24; SSK 43:4, 5; see also She’arim Ha-metzuyanim Ba-halakha 75:7 and Yabi’a Omer 2:17). Some are stringent because they are concerned about power outages, but in fact it is more common for a candle to go out than for the electricity to fail. Or Le-Tziyon 2:18:12 states that one should not recite a berakha on a bulb, whether incandescent or fluorescent, because the electricity is not adjacent to the bulb in the same way that oil is to a wick; however, if the bulb is battery-operated, one may recite the berakha. Most poskim are not concerned about this. However, when it comes to a fluorescent or neon bulb, following the rationale of Beit Yitzĥak would mean that one does not recite a berakha since it has no wick-like filament. Nevertheless, according to R. Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, one may recite the berakha on a fluorescent light just like on an incandescent light (Shvut Yitzĥak, Laws of Shabbat Candles ch. 3). In practice, because of the uncertainty, one should not recite a berakha over a fluorescent bulb but may do so over an incandescent light, as I wrote in section 6 regarding lighting in a hotel. Regarding what I wrote that it is good to light the electric lights together with the candles to honor Shabbat, this is also the position of SSK 43:34 and n. 171 and Menuĥat Ahava 1:4:6. However, many people are not careful to do so, and Yalkut Yosef 263:8 states that one need not be careful about this.

06. What Procedure Should Be Followed When Two Families Dine Together

When a family hosts another family for Shabbat, some maintain that only the hostess should light candles with a berakha, whereas the guest should light without a berakha since it is not clear whether there is a need for her to light. This is the opinion of Shulĥan Arukh and the custom in some Sephardic communities. However, the opinion of Rema and most poskim is that the guest may indeed recite a berakha when she lights her candles, because each extra candle contributes additional light. This is the custom of Ashkenazim and some Sephardim, such as those from Morocco.

In practice, nowadays this issue need not arise, because every home has several rooms, and it is common to give guests their own room. Everyone agrees that if a guest lights there, she may recite the berakha. Similarly, when the kitchen and dining room are separate rooms, the guest may light with a berakha in the kitchen while the hostess lights in the dining room. To be sure, the primary place to light candles is where the meals will be eaten, but there is a mitzva to have some light in other rooms as well. Therefore, when two families spend Shabbat together, it is recommended that the hostess light in the principal place, namely at or near the table, and the guests light in additional places like the kitchen or bedrooms (See MB 263:38, and section 2 above).

Similarly, if the hosts arranged a separate apartment for their guests, it is best for the guest to light candles with a berakha in the guest apartment. In order to be able to enjoy the light of these candles, she should make sure to light candles that will last until they return from their Shabbat meal. If she lights regular candles, she should make sure to stay near them until it begins to get dark. Alternatively, a family member can go look at the candles before the meal. For if nobody looks at the candles on Shabbat itself, they do not fulfill their purpose of honoring Shabbat, and consequently her lighting and her berakha were in vain.

In a hotel where everyone dines together, it is best that one woman light with a berakha in the dining room while the rest of the women light in their bedrooms (SSK 45:9). However, most hotels forbid lighting candles in bedrooms because it is a fire hazard, and so they set up a table in the hotel dining room with candles for all the women to light. Following the custom of Ashkenazim and some Sephardim, all the women may light with a berakha. However, according to the custom of many Sephardic Jews, only the first woman to light should do so with a berakha, and the rest should light without reciting a berakha.

There is another possible solution. One woman may light in the dining room while the rest fulfill the mitzva with a berakha by lighting an incandescent bulb in their bedroom; as we learned in the previous section, the vast majority of poskim maintain that one may fulfill the mitzva using an electric light. Even for those who follow the Rema, it is preferable to light an electric light in one’s room than to light in a way that some maintain should not be accompanied by a berakha. Furthermore, lighting an electric light in the room serves more of a purpose than lighting many candles in the dining room.

However, if the lights in the room are all fluorescent, one may not make a berakha upon lighting them since they do not have a filament similar to the wick of a candle (see above n.3). In such a case, it is proper that everyone light in the dining room. According to most Sephardim, the first woman should light with a berakha and the rest without one. Those who wish to go above and beyond should bring a lamp with an incandescent bulb and plug it into a timer (“Shabbos clock”). Thus, they may light with a berakha even in the hotel room.[4]

[4]. Some Sephardic poskim rule that if several women are lighting in the same place, each one may recite the berakha. This is recorded by Yafeh La-lev 263:10; Gedulot Elisha §18; Kaf Ha-ĥayim §56. Shemesh U-magen 2:38 notes that this is the Moroccan custom. On the other hand, some Ashkenazic poskim maintain that le-khatĥila one should take into account the opinion of SA (Olat Shabbat; Shlah; SAH). Therefore, even those who follow Ashkenazic customs should preferably light by turning on incandescent bulbs in their room. One should be careful to arrange for the light to be turned off by a timer later on, because if it does not, they may have trouble sleeping and will not enjoy Shabbat.

AHS 263:6 states that if a few women are lighting simultaneously, even the stringent opinion would allow them all to make a berakha. Therefore, in his opinion, it is preferable that all the women light in the hotel together so that they all may recite the berakha according to all opinions. Another option is that one woman recites the berakha aloud and the others respond “Amen.”

07. The Status of Married or Single People Spending Shabbat Away from Home

The mitzva of lighting candles has two components. The first is connected to the place – there should be light in the place where one is eating, to make Shabbat enjoyable. Similarly, there must be light in other places that are in use Friday night. The second component is connected to the person – there is a mitzva for the person to light candles to honor Shabbat. Accordingly, even if there was a candle already lit on the table before Shabbat, it must be blown out and relit with a berakha in honor of Shabbat. When a mother lights candles, she fulfills this requirement for the whole family.

As long as one of these components is present, one lights and recites the berakha. When neither component is present, one does not light Shabbat candles.

Therefore, a married or single man spending Shabbat with another family need not light Shabbat candles. As far as having light at the meal, the hostess will be lighting there. From the personal perspective, the person is secondary to the members of the household, and fulfills his obligation with his hostess’s lighting just as the rest of the household does.

If one is eating with his hosts but sleeping elsewhere, it is more complicated. If he is single and lights candles each week in his apartment because of his personal obligation, then he should light candles with a berakha where he is sleeping. But if he lives with his parents, or if he is married and his wife is lighting elsewhere, he is not obligated to light candles. This is because according to some opinions, the candles his mother or wife lights at home can fulfill his personal obligation. Even if that is not the case, it is possible that the lighting of his hostess exempts him. In terms of the obligation to have light in the place where he is staying, presumably there are electric lights there. Nevertheless, it is a good idea for him to give his hosts a small amount of money (a shekel or a dollar) in order to participate actively in their candle lighting.

If one is eating alone in a room on Friday night, even if he is married or a single who lives with his parents, there is a mitzva for him to light candles with a berakha, because there should be light in the place where he is eating. Similarly, soldiers – whether married or single – should make sure that someone lights candles with a berakha in the dining room of the army base. They should also try to make sure that there will be some light in the rooms where they are sleeping.

Custom dictates that women who are away for Shabbat have in mind not to fulfill their obligation with the lighting of their hostess, even though technically they may do so. They then light the candles themselves to fulfill the mitzva. As we learned in the previous section, there is a debate about where they may light and recite the berakha[5]

[5]. As I wrote above, the mitzva to light candles has two components. The first is related to place – there must be light in the place where one is eating and where one is sleeping, to enable the enjoyment of Shabbat. The second is a personal obligation to honor Shabbat with the lighting of candles (Rema 263:4). As long as one of the components is present, one must light with a berakha. There are three rules regarding one who is not at home:

  1. If one is relying on his hosts for meals and does not have his own room, if he wishes he may light Shabbat candles. He may intend not to fulfill his obligation with his hostess’s lighting, and then he will be obligated to light because of his personal obligation (as we learned in section 6, according to most poskim one may light with a berakha next to someone else’s candles, though some maintain that one may recite the berakha only when lighting in a different room). The custom is that women, who light candles every week, do not fulfill their obligations through the hostess, while men, who do not regularly light candles each week, fulfill their obligations through her.
  2. An older and independent single, widower, or divorcé who lights each week in his home, has the option as a guest to rely on the hostess’s lighting. Even though the hosts have provided him with his own room, SAH 263:9 states that as long as the hosts also have use of the room, the room is considered secondary to the home, and the guest is considered to be reliant on their hospitality. If the room is set aside for his use only and he eats with the hosts, and even more so if he is sleeping in a different apartment and just eating with them, it is trickier. It would seem that he should light in his room with a berakha, because of both the requirement to light at the place – he should light there so he does not trip – and the personal requirement. On the other hand, one might argue that if there is a little light in the room, either from the bathroom light or from street lights, then as far as the place is concerned he is not obligated. And from the perspective of his personal obligation, it is possible that he fulfills it via the lighting of the hostess at the table where they will eat. It would seem that one who wishes to be lenient has an opinion to rely on, but it is preferable that he light in his room with a berakha, or at least give his hosts a small contribution so that he can be considered a partner in their lighting.
  3. The status of a married person is different. When we spoke of singles, we stated that if one does not want to fulfill his obligation through his hostess’s lighting, he need not do so. However, there is disagreement among the poskim in the case of a husband who wishes to light candles at home but whose wife is already lighting. Some maintain that he may light with a berakha in a different room (Eshel Avraham [Buczacz]; Pri Megadim, Eshel Avraham 263:6). However, most poskim maintain that he may not light with a berakha (SAH; Ĥesed La-alafim 263:7; BHL 263:6, s.v. “baĥurim”). If the husband is away from home, then according to most poskim he should light with a berakha. This is the opinion of Mordechai; SA 263:6; Pri Megadim; SAH 263:9; Ĥayei Adam; BHL 263:6, s.v. “baĥurim”; and many others. Others maintain that since his wife is lighting with a berakha, even if he must light on account of being in a different location, he should not make a berakha. This is the position of Derekh Ha-ĥayim, and would seem to be the position of Leket Yosher as well. Some poskim maintain that if one’s wife is in the same city, he may not recite a berakha; but if she is in a different city, he does recite a berakha (Tzitz Eliezer 14:23 citing Tashbetz Katan, Orĥot Ĥayim; Shulĥan Atzei Shitim). The bottom line would seem to be that if he is eating and sleeping in a room of his own, even if he is in the same city as his wife, he lights with a berakha according to the opinion of the vast majority of poskim. But when it is not clear that he is obligated, such as when he is eating Friday night with a family, then even if he has a separate apartment in which to sleep, he does not need to light as long as there is light from the bathroom or street lights to make sure he does not bump into things. That takes care of the place component of the need to light. In terms of his personal obligation, some say that his wife’s lighting exempts him, and it is also possible that his hostess’s lighting exempts him. He should ask the hostess to have in mind to fulfill his obligation as well, and it is even better if he makes a small monetary contribution for this purpose. If he wishes to light with a berakha, he may do so. It would seem that children living with their parents and spending Shabbat away from home have the same status as a married man. See Peninei Halakha: Zemanim 13:11 regarding Ĥanuka candles.

08. Those Who Live in Dormitories and Those Who Are Ill

Boys learning in yeshiva, who live in a dormitory most of the time, are considered independent as far as candle lighting is concerned, and have a personal obligation to light candles to honor Shabbat. This is the case even if they are still financially dependent on their parents who take care of all their needs. Since the students eat together in a dining room, they have the status of one large family, that is, one of them must light candles in the dining room on everyone’s behalf. Additionally, they should make sure that there is a little light in their dorm rooms when they go to sleep. It may be enough for this purpose to rely on the hall lights or a street light. And even though they may light candles in each room with a berakha if they wish, it is unnecessary since they fulfill their obligation with the lighting in the dining room. This is the widespread custom in yeshivot.

In contrast, in a women’s dormitory, there are often many girls who want the opportunity to fulfill the mitzva of lighting candles with a berakha. Accordingly, in addition to the candles that one of them lights in the dining room, they may each light in their own room with a berakha. But in many places, there are concerns about fire and candles may not be lit in the rooms, in which case everyone fulfills her obligation with the candles lit by one of them in the dining room (it is good if the other girls also light electric bulbs in their rooms to fulfill the mitzva; see section 5).[6]

People in the hospital fulfill their candle lighting obligation with the candles lit in the dining room. A married woman in the hospital who is accustomed to light candles every Shabbat may light with a berakha in her room. If there is a hospital rule against lighting in the rooms because it would be a fire hazard, she may light in the dining room, and if necessary even in the hallway (in terms of the berakha, see section 6 above).

[6]. This is the position of SSK 45:5, 11. However, Yalkut Yosef 263:15-16 states that they should light in each room. In any case, the primary purpose of the candle lighting is to provide light for the meal, and thus the primary place for lighting is the dining room. Since the students are like one big family, one person may light for everyone.

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