Chicago’s Curious Shabbos Minhag Mystery // Everyone agrees that Chicago brings in Shabbos a couple of minutes early. I set out to find out why.

By Dr. Yvette Alt Miller

Everyone needs a hobby during the pandemic—something to keep us busy, take our minds off the day-to-day restrictions and difficulties in our routines—and a goal that we can work toward. Some of my friends have been reading more than before; one friend took up painting. For months now, I’ve been investigating a baffling Chicago minhag, with mixed success.

Until recently I wasn’t even aware of my city’s unique custom. Even though I grew up in the Chicago suburbs, my family wasn’t particularly observant; we lit Shabbos candles on Friday evening, but we were never very fussy about the time. I became frum as an adult, and by the time I moved back to Chicago with my husband 17 years ago, I was definitely scrupulous about lighting Shabbos candles at the correct time. I even kept a magnet issued by a local Jewish organization on my fridge, listing all the candle-lighting times for the year. If that magnet wasn’t handy, my shul’s newsletter or my kids’ schools always included candle-lighting times in their weekly updates.

So it was with some surprise that I sat outside one sunny Shabbos during the early months of the coronavirus pandemic (masked and socially distanced, of course) talking to a friend. Our conversation turned to lighting Shabbos candles, and my friend mentioned casually, “Of course, here in Chicago we always light 20 minutes before shkiah, not 18.”

“What are you talking about?” I asked her in confusion.

I’ve lived and traveled all over the world. With the exception of Jerusalem, where the minhag is to light Shabbos candles 40 minutes before shkiah, everywhere else I’d been—dozens of cities and towns—all kept a seemingly uniform 18-minute margin for bentching licht before shkiah. How was it that I had not known about my own city’s approach?

All these years, when I’d been lighting candles according to the lists put out by various Chicago Jewish organizations, I asked my friend, had I been following this minhag and lighting 20 minutes before shkiah, not 18? And was this a true minhag—one that I now had to follow after living here for so many years?

My friend was clear about my first question. All the Chicago candle-lighting listings did indeed reflect our city’s unique 20-minute custom. As for whether this constituted a true minhag or not, she was unsure. “I certainly always follow it, though,” she concluded.

I was aware that some rabbanim have advocated for bentching licht 20 minutes before sunset. I knew, for instance, that Rav Moshe Feinstein recommended lighting 20 minutes before shkiah, but as far as I knew, I’d never lived in a community that held this opinion. In the past few months I’ve learned that there are many compelling halachic reasons to keep the 20-minute guideline.

“The interesting question is why anyone holds by 18 minutes,” Rav Chaim Twerski, rav of Bais Chaim Dovid in Lincolnwood, head of the semichah program at Skokie Yeshiva, and a scion of the Chernobyl chasidic family, would soon say to me.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. At first I thought that finding out the reason for this custom, and whether or not it is a true minhag, would simply be a matter of making a phone call or sending an email. How wrong I was.


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