The Mishnah in Masechet Shabbat teaches us that one may only light Shabbat candles with oil and wicks which burn nicely; it is therefore a particularly great Mitzvah to light with olive oil which burns beautifully. If one does not have olive oil, one may use other oils which burn nicely; if one has no oil at all, one may use wax.
The Poskim disagree whether or not one may use electric lights to fulfill the Mitzvah of lighting Shabbat candles. Some are of the opinion that since these electric lights contain actual fire, one may certainly use them to fulfill one’s obligation. Nevertheless, according to other Poskim, one should not rely on this with regards to the lighting of the Shabbat candles. This is especially true with regards to light fixtures which are in place during the rest of the week as well, for it is indiscernible that these lights have been turned on in honor of Shabbat. Additionally, there is even less room for electric lights to be used in Israel where, unfortunately, the electricity is produced by Jews on Shabbat in which case there are Poskim who rule that one may not benefit from this electricity and one may certainly not recite a blessing upon turning on such a light.
Halachically speaking, Maran Harav Ovadia Yosef zt”l rules that when one is able to obtain oil or wax, it is certainly preferable to fulfill one’s obligation of lighting Shabbat and Yom Tov candles with this since in this way it is noticeable that the candles have been lit in honor of Shabbat. It is proper to turn off the electric lights in the house before lighting Shabbat candles and to have in mind when reciting the blessing before lighting to exempt the electric lights around the house that one will turn on after lighting Shabbat candles (this is especially true nowadays when the primary lighting in the house comes from the electric lights and not the Shabbat candles).
Nevertheless, if one has no way to obtain oil or wax candles (or if one is in a situation where he absolutely cannot light with these candles, such as if one is spending Shabbat in a hotel and the management does not allow one to light fires in one’s room) one may light with and recite a blessing on electric lights and one will sufficiently fulfill one’s obligation of lighting Shabbat candles.
As a side note, we were once asked by a great Torah scholar who occasionally spends Shabbat in hotels whether or not he would be permitted to turn on the light of the bathroom in his room and recite the blessing of “Le’Hadlik Ner Shel Shabbat” before doing so.
We then posed this question to Maran Rabbeinu Ovadia Yosef zt”l who replied that clearly, one does not fulfill one’s obligation to light Shabbat candles by turning on the bathroom light (for our Sages forbade lighting Shabbat candles with the waste of tar because it gives off a bad odor; certainly by lighting in the bathroom, one does not fulfill one’s obligation).
We must nevertheless point out that this applies only to the lighting of Shabbat candles; however, with regards to reciting the “Boreh Me’orei Ha’esh” blessing in Havdala on Motza’ei Shabbat, one may do so only on an actual, open flame (the reason for which we shall, G-d-willing, explain another time).
In the next Halacha we shall explain another detail related to this law.