Ki Tavo: Blinded by the Night

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18 Sep 2008

Here’s an unfortunate but fascinating halachic question: Does a blind woman (or man when relevant) light Shabbos candles with a bracha (blessing)?

In other words, does the act of lighting constitute a mitzvah for the blind? Apparently, the question should hinge upon identifying the essential element of the Shabbos licht (light). Do we light to honor the Shabbos (by creating an ambience) or do we light to enhance our Shabbos joy, by basking in the extra/special Shabbos illumination? If the notion is honor, then one need not personally benefit to fulfill the mitzvah. However, if the key idea is oneg (joy), then the mitzvah, (and hence the ability to make a bracha) would necessitate personal enjoyment. The bottom line halacha seems to necessitate both honor and joy in order for one to recite a bracha (1). It would then follow that a blind person should not make a blessing.

Got that?

Surprisingly, this analysis, while cogent, is (ultimately) wrong. In fact, most poskim believe that a blind person does make a bracha on Shabbos candles (2). Why?

Tucked away in the middle of the terrible tochacha (rebuke/curses) of our parsha, is a verse whose imagery, poignancy and ambiguity has captured me for many years (3):

You will grope at midday the way a blind man gropes in the darkness,… and no one will save you;

A careful read reveals a redundancy. Being “in the dark” or “blind” are independently sufficient metaphors. Both convey the notion of overwhelming confusion. One who is blind is perpetually in the dark. Does it make a difference to the blind if it is day or night? Go to the blind museum in Tel Aviv and experience blindness for an hour and you will recognize the absurdity of the question. Therefore the verse could have captured its motif by either stating you will feel like you are groping in the dark or you will feel like a blind person. So what gives?

To Netziv, the blind part is extra. The verse’s essential point is that during the day you will be confused like someone in the dead of night. Once upon a time, (before our cities and lives) became sleepless and light-flooded, night was dark; actually, pitch black. Thus, night always represented fright and portended emunah (faith) – for the present darkness required the ability to look beyond. (4)

The added metaphor of blindness says Netziv is to wipe out memory. In the dark, one may not see but can surely imagine, grope, detect and recall the contours of familiar objects. The congenitally blind however, have no image recall or object memory. The Torah is predicting that the terrible tochacha will bring about a state of utter forgetfulness; tragically the Jew may lose all prior conceptions of his inherent greatness, left without even recollection of his glorious past. Whereas darkness is an externally foisted reality, the verse focuses upon the inherent state of blindness that compounds the Jewish tragedy. Tragically, many Jews suffer today from this type of blindness/amnesia. We would do well to remind them of their royalty that lies within.

There is another approach. It is to be found in a moving Talmudic passage (5):

R. Yossi said: All my life I was pained by this verse (6): “You will grope at midday the way a blind man gropes in the darkness”; Now what difference [I asked] does it make to a blind man whether it is dark or light? [Nor did I find the answer] until the following incident occurred. I was once walking on a pitch black night when I saw a blind man walking in the road with a torch in his hand. I said to him, My son, why do you carry this torch? He replied: As long as I have this torch in my hand, people see me and save me from the holes and the thorns and briars.

Listen to the depth of this approach: One who is blind can not see. One who is blind in the dark cannot be seen and thus cannot be helped. The torch he carries serves to help others help him. On this basis, Magen Avraham (7) rules that a blind woman makes a bracha on Shabbos candles – for her light will ultimately redound (via others) to her benefit.

[In contrast to the Netziv,] The Talmud is teaching that the night is modifying the blindness. In other words, even worse than being blind, is being blind and lonely.

The Torah is thus predicting that in Jewish history there will come a time that one may (physically) be in the daylight and yet one will feel blind, enveloped by the dark of night. Even as the whole world sees your prosperity, in reality, you will feel so blind – confused, directionless and without purpose. Worse than that, you will be utterly lonely – for nobody will understand your pain.

Sans prophets, these words pierce the heart. The preponderance of pain in our contemporary world boggles the mind. In every nook and cranny of our broad Jewish community the relentless search for simcha and the desperate pursuit of happiness bespeaks nagging pain that seems so inexplicable in light of all that we have. From Cradle to Grave, a recent exhibit in the British Museum, relates that the average Brit will consume 14,000 drugs in their lifetime. I can’t assume Americans are that much happier. We are the anesthetic generation, seeking to escape the pain. Ironically and perhaps understandably, never has a generation been so self aware and so lonely at the same time.

Let us end on an upper (note, not drug).

Chana and her husband, the righteous Elkanah ascend to the mishkan (Sanctuary). She is tormented by her lack of children, but her husband is incredibly supportive. After yet another childless and frustrating year, Elkanah tries to comfort her, innocently remarking that their relationship is worth ten children. Precisely then, Chana breaks down and offers a crie de Coeur that pierces the heavens. Tears and words that till this very day serve as the paradigm of prayer. A short time later, she bears Shmuel the great prophet.

Rav Soloveitchik suggested that precisely when Elkanah tries to comfort her does Chana realize that even her husband could not possibly comprehend the depth of her anguish, the loneliness of barrenness and the pain of an unfulfilled mother.

That triggered ultimate prayer, for then Chana turned to the One who understands all pain. At that moment, the remedy was not far behind. In the incredible words of King David [8]:

Hashleich al Hashem yehavecha v’hu yechalkelaecha. Cast thy burden upon Hashem and He will sustain you.

May the cries and hearts of the lonely individuals and His lonely Nation be answered by Him speedily in our days!

Good Shabbos from Los Angeles, Asher Brander

1. Thus, one who has a candle already lit (for some other purposes) must extinguish it and relight it for the sake of Shabbos – for joy alone is not enough; rather the candle must be lit for the honor of Shabbos. Cf. Shulchan Aruch 263:4, Ramo, Mishna Brurah, Biur Halacha
2. Cf. Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim, 263:3. Mishna Brura paskens (rules) that if her sighted husband is present, he should light and make bracha. MB also paskens that if others have already lit in the same room, then she would not make a blessing. However , the essential p’sak of Magen Avraham 263:9 is that blind people make brachos on lighting candles.
3. Devarim, 28:29
4. Hence, the famous line in psalm 94 of l’hagid baboker chasdecha v’emunasecha baleilos (to relate Your kindness in the dawn and Your faith in the nights)
5. Megillah 28
6. It is fascinating to note that this is rare Talmudic terminology at work here. In 2711 double sided pages, the opening phrase (All my life – ) appears but 3 times. One other famous time is R. Akiva dying a martyr’s death. See Tractate Yoma 19b for the last one.
7. Shulchan Aruch OC, 263:9; cf. Machatzis Hashekel, ibid; Shemiras Shabbos K’hilchasa (Vol. 2) 43:10:53. Fascinatingly, the latter rules in the name of Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach that one who is blind and will surely not be visited by any guests should not make a bracha.
8. Tehillim, 55:23

Rabbi Asher Brander is the Rabbi of the Westwood Kehilla, Founder/Dean of LINK (Los Angeles Intercommunity Kollel) and is a Rebbe at Yeshiva University High Schools of Los Angeles

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.