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                               Halachot of Chanukah

                                                    Rabbi Dovid Horwitz

Mitzvah of Chanukah Lights

1. The twenty-fifth day of Kislev marks the beginning of the eight days of Chanukah. This festival was decreed to commemorate the miracles that took place in the times of the second temple. The Greeks had defiled the Beit Hamikdash and all of its contents, including the crucibles of oil that were designated as fuel for the golden menorah. When the Jews fought against the Greeks for the sake of G-d and the Torah and were victorious, they entered the Beit Hamikdash and found only one day’s supply of oil that had not been tainted by the Greeks. They lit the menorah, thinking that it would burn for only one day, but miraculously it stayed lit for eight days until they were able to produce a new supply of pure oil. The Rabbis established this holiday as a day of lighting candles to commemorate this miracle and to sing songs of Hallel and thanksgiving to G-d.

2. The Gemara describes the mitzvah of lighting Chanukah candles as “ner ish u’beito”, a candle for the Jew and his home. The Poskim understand this to mean that the mitzvah of lighting candles is incumbent upon the home. In other words, a person who has a home is obligated to light candles in his home. Because of this principle, the Halachah requires only one candle per house to be lit regardless of how many people may be living there. Unlike most mitzvot that are directly incumbent upon the individual to perform and therefore must be performed by the individual, the mitzvah of Chanukah is bound to the house and therefore, one candle lit by the head of the family is sufficient.

3. In practice, most communities do not light only one light per household. There is an unprecedented concept regarding Chanukah called “Mehadrin” and “Mehadrin min Ha’mehadrin” that states that there three levels on which to perform the mitzvah of Chanukah lighting. The Halachah allows a person to fulfill the mitzvah in a beautiful manner and an even more beautiful manner. The accepted custom is to light according to the more beautiful manner by allowing each family member to light his own menorah, with a brachah, lighting as many candles as corresponds to the particular night of Chanukah. Therefore each person would light seven candles on the seventh night and eight candles on the eighth night.

4. If there are a number of menorahs being lit in the home, each one should be positioned in its own place. Care should be taken not to place them all close together, so that onlookers can discern how many lights are in each menorah.

Chanukah customs

1. Although the Sages declared a mitzvah to eat drink and be merry on Purim, they did not do so for Chanukah. The evil decrees enacted against the Jews of Persia were physical ones and therefore we celebrate our salvation through physical cheerfulness. The evil decrees of the Greeks were spiritual ones, devised to bring about our spiritual destruction. Therefore we celebrate our spiritual salvation with the loftier pleasures of Hallel and kindling lights.

2. Nevertheless, because there is an air of festivity also due to the fact that the Mizbeach was dedicated during this time, there is a custom to engage in festive meals during Chanukah.

3. Many have the custom of eating milk products during Chanukah to commemorate the destruction of the Greek general, whose downfall was caused through eating milk products given to him by Yehudit.

4. Because the miracle of the menorah involved oil, we have a custom to eat oily foods such as potato latkes and jelly doughnuts known as sufganiyot.

5. There is a relatively recent custom for the parents to give Chanukah presents to their kids on Chanukah. This custom has sadly developed to counterbalance the festive aura of gift giving that is prevalent throughout the gentile world due to their holiday, which usually falls in close proximity to Chanukah.

6. Giving gifts to one’s children in order to add to their festivity is something that should not be exclusive to Chanukah. Gift giving is proper before any of the Jewish holidays. Giving gifts only at Chanukah merely mimics the ways of the gentiles and has no authentic Jewish source.

Who is obligated to light

1. Men, women and children from age six are obligated to light the Chanukah lights. Even though this is a positive mitzvah bound by time, which a woman is normally exempt from, the Rabbis obligated her as well since the salvation of the Jews over the Greeks came about through the help of the Jewish heroine Yehudit.

2. Although the obligation to light Chanukah candles applies to women as well, a married woman does not light her own candles since she is considered to be one with her husband. Although this concept of marital oneness does not absolve a married woman of most mitzvot, it does apply to Chanukah since the obligation is one that rests primarily on the home, and in this regard they are as one family unit. Custom notwithstanding, if a woman is determined to light her own menorah she may do so even with a bracha provided that she makes a conscious decision not to be absolved though her husband’s lighting.

3. Many have the custom for only the men and boys of the house to light, but not the girls, even though they are unmarried and the above rationale does not apply to them. A girl, however, who wants to light, should not be discouraged from doing so.

Where to light

1. The menorah should be lit in a place where more people will see the candles since an essential component to the mitzvah is publicizing the miracle to the public.

2. Therefore the preferred place of lighting is at the opening of one’s property into the public domain. If a person lives in a house whose entryway is directly adjacent to the street, the menorah should be lit in the entryway thereby allowing passersby to gaze upon the lights.

3. If one lives in an apartment on an upper floor that is within ten meters from the street, the menorah should be lit in a window that faces the street so that passersby can look up and see the menorah in his window.

4. If one lives in an apartment located on an upper floor that is higher than ten meters from street level, the menorah should be lit inside the house. Since passersby do not usually see objects that are higher than ten meters, placing the menorah in the window offers little publicity to the public. In such instances, it is better to place the menorah inside the house in order to publicize the candles to the members of the house. It is preferable to place the menorah adjacent to the front door at a height lower than one meter, opposite the mezuzah, rather than placing it on a table in the middle of the house.

5. The Halachah clearly stresses that the first order of preference is to place the menorah outside in the opening to the public thoroughfare. Even if a person lives in a house with a large window that faces the street, it is still preferable to light outside. Only if lighting outside is not an option, either because there is no optimal spot to place it, or out of fear of animosity from the gentiles or that the menorah will be stolen, should one light inside.

6. In Europe and other parts of the world the predominant custom is to light inside, either in the window or by the door.
7. In Eretz Yisrael, a person should be encouraged to light the menorah outside since the above considerations are not applicable. Those, however, who light inside their homes even in Eretz Yisrael fulfill their obligation, albeit not in the preferred manner.

When to light

1. There are two opinions as to when to light. Some say to light at sunset and others say from the time when three stars appear which is approximately twenty-five minutes after sunset.

2. The Chanukah lights must burn until one half hour after nightfall. This is based on the Gemara that says that the lights must burn until the last person leaves the marketplace, which in those times was considered to be one half hour after nightfall.

3. Therefore, one who lights at sunset must put enough fuel into the lamp to ensure that it burns for approximately one hour.

4. Some are of the opinion that in today’s age since people are out walking in the streets until much later in the night, the candles would have to burn much later. Since the purpose of lighting is to publicize the miracle to the people in the public domain, it makes sense to require the candles to remain lit as long as there are people walking by.

5. Although one is not halachically required to keep his lights burning more than the half hour requirement, it is praiseworthy to do so.

6. For those who light inside the house, the time for lighting extends as far into the night as there are people awake in the house. Although it is preferable to light at the earliest possible time, either sunset or nightfall, one who cannot do so can light when he comes home as long as there are members of the house who are still awake.

7. Since night falls early this time of year, many people will not return home from work to light at the proper time. The Halachah clearly states that if the husband will not be home to light at the onset of nightfall, yet his wife is at home, it is better for her to light with a brachah in his behalf at the proper time. In such a circumstance, he would not recite the brachah or light when he returns home since he already fulfilled his obligation through her.

8. Although this is clearly the preferred Halachic course of action, most wives wait for their husbands to come home so that he can light the Chanukah lights himself.

9. A possible rationale is that since lighting inside the house offers publicity of the miracle only to the members of the home and they are going to be as awake and active at 8:00 pm as they are at 5:00 pm, there is no reason to light at 5:00 pm more than there is to light at 8:00 pm. Therefore it is better for him to light for himself.

10. However, if he lights outside of the house to publicize the miracles to the passersby as the Sages enacted, then lighting at the onset of nightfall becomes much more important since there are more people present in the streets at this time. It would then be preferable for his wife to light outside at the proper time rather than delay doing so until he comes home.

May the Chanukah lights inspire us to bring the light of Torah into the world!