Beit Midrash

  • Chanukka
To dedicate this lesson

The Torah study is dedicatedin the memory of

R. Avraham ben-tziyon ben shabtai

The Laws of Chanukah - Part I

A Festive Meal? How Many Lights Should Be Lit? Refraining from Labors While Candles Burn Chanukah Candles and Oils Placing the Chanukiah


Rabbi Eliezer Melamed

1. A Festive Meal?
2. How Many Lights Should Be Lit?
3. Refraining from Labors While Candles Burn
4. Chanukah Candles and Oils
5. Placing the Chanukiah

When discussing the festival of Chanukah, it is very important to relate to the unique character of the holiday. The halachah that will perhaps help us best accomplish this is the law that deals with the issue of meals on Chanukah - i.e. is there an obligation to serve a festive Chanukah meal or not?

The Rishonim were divided on this issue. According to the Maharam of Rotenburg, there is no mitzvah to serve a special Chanukah meal since the holiday was not established as one of feasting and drinking - but rather one of Thanksgiving and Praise alone. This is also how the Shulchan Aruch rules. In contrast, both Rambam (Maimonedes) and Maharshal maintain that there is a positive rabbinic obligation to serve festive meals on Chanukah.

According to all opinions, there is clearly not the obligation on Chanukah to eat and drink in the same manner as we are mandated to do on Purim. The question, though, is why? Levush explains that Purim involved a decree by Haman to completely physically obliterate the Jewish people; as such, it is fitting to celebrate the physical survival of our nation by engaging in the physical pleasures of eating and drinking. Chanukah, however, is a celebration of the victory of the Jewish spirit over the pressure exerted by Hellenistic culture (the Greeks issued decrees against the performance of numerous Torah commandments). Therefore, the main focus of Chanukah is spiritual, to give thanks and praise Hashem, Who helped us preserve our religious identity.

In practice, the later rabbis ("Acharonim") ruled according the view of the Rema (Rabbi Moshe Isserles), who ruled that there is a mitzvah to serve festive meals on Chanukah, on condition that they are held in a "spiritual" framework, i.e. a meal filled with words of Torah, songs and praises to God...

Two separate customs - Ashkenazic and Sephardic - exist regarding the lighting of Chanukah lights - or, more precisely, the number of "Chanukiot" (candelabras) that should be set up in each home. It's interesting that in this instance, the general pattern of Jewish custom is not followed; in this instance, the Ashkenazic communities follow the view of one of the most prominent Sephardic rabbis, the Rambam, whereas the Sephardim follow the approach of the school of the Tosafot and the Ashkenazic scholars.

There is another point worthy of mention - and that is, that there are three ways to fulfill the mitzvah: The performance of the basic mitzvah, "Mehadrin" ( the practice of those who beautify the mitzvah), and "Mehadrin min Hamehadrin." (an even higher-level beautification of the mitzvah.)

To fulfill the basic mitzvah, it is sufficient to light one candle per home on behalf of all members of the family; even on the eighth and final day of Chanukah, this practice is acceptable. But if one wishes to beautify the mitzvah, each person in the home should light one candle on each night.

To perform the mitzvah in the most ideal way ("Mehadrin min Hamehadrin") one must add one additional candle for each successive day of Chanukah, to express the graduated intensification of the miracle. This is to recognize that yet another day of the holiday has passed, to commemorate the fact that a small vial of oil continued to burn uninterrupted, and did so for eight days!

Differing customs developed regarding this practice: One custom maintained that each member of the family should light a separate Chanukiah, and add candles for each night; the other practice had only one person, the master of the house, light a Chanukiah with an additional candle on each night.

Sephardic custom determines that only the master of the house lights the Chanukiah, adding a candle each night, while Ashkenazic communities have each family member light a Chanukiah; in the latter custom, family members are careful to distance their menorahs from one another, so that each candelabra is distinctly visible, such that the number of days that have passed since the beginning of the festival can be clearly visible to the observer. In Ashkenazic custom, grown women are not accustomed to light their own candles, but a woman is permitted to if she so wishes; she can even recite a blessing when she lights. Young girls are accustomed to light with a blessing.

Women have a unique custom of refraining from performing melacha - acts of creative labor - while the Chanukah candles are burning. In light of this custom, it has been asked whether or not women are therefore allowed or prohibited from preparing the traditional jelly donuts and potato pancakes immediately after candle-lighting.

(We should clarify that the question relates only to the first half hour after the candles are lit, because, after that time, there is no legal requirement for the candles to remain lit - and it is even permissible at that point to extinguish them. Therefore, it is obvious that a woman may do acts of melacha after the first half hour. The question, however, remains about the permissibility of cooking immediately after the candles are lit.)

Two reasons have been offered as to the basis of the custom that women refrain from acts of melacha after candle-lighting: One is to prevent them from using the light of the candles for their work. (The Chanukah candles may only be observed, but not used for reading, work, etc.) The second reason offered is that since the miracle of Chanukah was initiated by a woman named Yehudit - whose courage led her to behead a commander of the enemy forces - women have a higher-level obligation to celebrate the holiday; for women, then, the holiday is elevated to the level of a classic, Torah-commanded festival, during which melacha is prohibited.

If the first reason cited is the main one for the prohibition of melacha, then any labors that require the light of a candle would be prohibited for the first half hour after the candles are lit; if the second reason is the definitive one, the laws of Chanukah would not be more serious than those of Chol Hamo'ed (the intermediate days of Sukkot and Pesach) during which it is permissible to cook, but is forbidden to do laundry or sew. Former Chief Shephardic Rabbi Moredechai Eliyahu rules according to the second reason; in his view, therefore, it is permissible for women to bake and cook while the candles are burning.

However, families accustomed not to do melacha during this time period should continue to follow their present custom, since they have apparently taken upon themselves the custom according to the first reason. One who does not know of an existing family custom may cook right after candle-lighting, and refrain from melachot forbidden on Chol Hamo'ed such as laundry, sewing, etc.

All oils and wicks are basically kosher for use on Chanukah, unlike the rules governing Shabbat candles. Regarding the latter, the Mishna asks, "With which wicks and oils can we light and with which can we not?" The reason for the distinction is that the light of the Shabbat candles is meant to be used; if the candles do not light well, there is a concern that one will come to adjust the candles so that the candles burn better; this would constitute a desecration of Shabbat. Thus the sages forbade using, for Shabbat, wicks and oils that do not burn well. Such is not the case with Chanukah candles, the light of which may not be used, but only observed. Therefore, all that is needed is a candle that will stay lit for a minimum of a half hour.

Nevertheless, the Rema writes that it is preferable to use olive oil for Chanukah, since the miracle of Chanukah occurred with olive oil; using olive oil, therefore, is a more accurate commemoration of the miracle. Many still use regular wax candles since their light is generally brighter and since such candles are often easier to work with.

A new issue has been raised in modern times - Is it possible to fulfill the mitzvah of lighting the Chanukiah with electric light bulbs? The general consensus among the later rabbis is that electric lights cannot be used. Various reasons were given for forbidding their use - one of the central ones is that Chanukah lights must be similar to those in the Beit Hamikdash (Temple), and an electric light is not similar to the lights in the Temple Menorah.

The place that the sages established for performing the mitzvah is the left hand side of the entrance to one's home, on the outside of the house; the goal is that all passersby see the lights and remember the miracle. This special location applies to a home whose door faces a public thoroughfare. If a person, however, lives on the second storey of an apartment block, though, it is preferable for him to light in the window facing the street.

The Chanukiah must be placed at a height of three to ten handbreaths - between 24 and 80 centimeters off the ground. Why? If the candles are placed any higher, people may think that the candles were lit to light the entry-way to the house. If one places the candles too low, it may seem as if he has placed the candles there only temporarily, and plans to soon move them. Placing them between 24 and 80 centimeters off the ground, however, makes it clear to all who view the Chanukiah that the candles were lit for the purpose of the mitzvah and to publicize the miracle.

This is all the preferred way to perform the mitzvah, but if one unwittingly placed the candles either lower than 24 or higher than 80 centimeters, he has still fulfilled the mitzvah.

There are some instances in which it is preferable to place the Chanukiah higher than 80 centimeters; for instance, if a person does not have the proper glass case that would allow him to place his Chanukiah outside, a situation in which, if he places it less than 80 centimeters from the ground inside the house, only family members inside the home will see the candles. If he places them on the window ledge, however, the miracle will be publicized to all passersby. In this case, it is advisable to place the candles on the window ledge so that both family members and passersby may see them.

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