Beit Midrash

  • Chanukka
To dedicate this lesson

The Torah study is dedicated in the memory of

R. Avraham ben-tziyon ben shabtai

The Laws of Chanukah - Part II

Lighting Times; The Shamash; Lighting in Public Places Timing; Chanukah and Torah Learning.


Rabbi Eliezer Melamed


The candles must be lit towards evening, at a time when their light will be physically visible, and at a time when people are returning home from work. The Rishonim disagree, however, about what time - exactly - they must be lit. According to Rabbenu Nissim and Rashbah, the candles should be lit at sunset, since, at that time, most people are still on the streets. This, despite the fact that darkness has not completely set in by then, and the light of the candles is less distinct. Nevertheless, more people will see the lights at that hour. Many Ashkenazic Jews follow this custom.

According to the opinion of the Rosh and Shulchan Aruch, however, the candles should be lit about a quarter hour later, when the stars come out. Only at that time - complete darkness - are the candles clearly recognizable to passersby. Sephardic and some Ashkenazic Jews (who pray out of "Sephard" prayer books) follow this custom.

The above times are preferable, but after the fact, not mandatory. This means that it is permissible to light the candles all night long - until sunrise - if one did not light them earlier. Such is the case nowadays, since sleeping customs have changed, and many people are still up quite late at night; numerous people now go to bed only around midnight. Therefore, these days, if it is really necessary one may delay lighting the candles - on condition that people remain awake to see them.

As long as people are still out on the streets or family members are still up, the candles can be lit with a blessing. At a later time, however - when people are not out on the streets and family members are sleeping - one may light, but without reciting a blessing; only in a case of real need may one delay lighting. In this case, he should light without a blessing.

It's important to note that the candles must be long enough - or there must be oil enough in the cups - to burn for at least a half hour. Thus - if one uses very thin candles - or if less insufficient oil is placed in the Chanukiah's cups, the mitzvah has not been fulfilled.

Consider the following case: A person did in fact insert enough oil to last a half hour, and placed the Chanukiah in a spot not exposed to the wind. Despite this, the lights were quickly extinguished by the wind. The ruling: Even though the candles did not remain lit for a half hour, he has fulfilled his mitzvah. This is because the basic mitzvah is performed at the moment of lighting. In the above situation, there is thus no need to re-light the candles. One who wishes to be stringent may, though, re-light them in order to publicize the miracle. One should not say a new blessing upon re-lighting the candles.

In addition to the increasing number of candles lit each night, an additional candle, called the "Shamash," is lit each night. The reason for this is that we may not benefit from the light of the Chanukah candles; we may only observe them to remember the miracle. One must not therefore, for example, read a book by the light of the candles. Someone who makes use of the candles' light is belittling the mitzvah. Thus, a "Shamash" must be lit, so that any activity that takes place near the candles may be considered as if it is not being done "by the light of" the Chanukah candles.

Even in a case where the candles are lit in a well-lit room, a Shamash should still be lit, to stress the difference between the candles whose light we are forbidden to use and those that we are permitted to use. In order not to err regarding the number of candles, however, we distance the Shamash from the other candles somewhat or alternatively place the Shamash at a higher level than the rest of the candles.

Candles need not only be lit in private homes; it has also become customary to light them in public places in order to publicize the miracle of the victory of the Jewish spirit over Hellenistic culture - the victory of the eternal light of Torah over the "dark" Greek culture.

It is therefore customary to light Chanukah candles in synagogues. This is even classified as a mitzvah, and the blessings must be recited when lighting in the Beit Knesset; on the first night, the Shehecheyanu blessing is also recited. One who has lit on behalf of the synagogue has not fulfilled his personal obligation to light at home, and he still therefore must light Chanukah candles at home with a blessing.

It is customary to light the candles in the synagogue between Mincha and Ma’ariv prayers. The Acharonim (later authorities) are divided on the issue of whether it is permissible to light in the synagogue even when there is no quorum of ten men on hand at the time. According to the Mishna Berurah, even if there are not ten men present, the candles should be lit with a blessing; after all, he reasons, a quorum will eventually arrive for the Ma'ariv prayer, and those people will see the candles. The other position maintains that the candles should in fact be lit even if there is no quorum, but without a blessing. Clearly, the condition of having ten men present only applies when lighting in synagogue, and not when lighting at home.

It is also fitting to light Chanukah candles in any place where a large group of people are gathered - at a Bar Mitzvah, or wedding, for instance. Nevertheless, it is unclear whether the blessings should be recited in this case or not. Some say that since more than ten people are viewing the candles, the gathering is considered similar to the case of a synagogue, and blessings should be recited; others argue that the blessings were only established for lighting at home or at a synagogue. At any rate, it seems proper that if wedding guests, for instance, pray Ma'ariv prior to the meal, blessings may be recited. Some scholars have suggested that the matter can be solved by having a young child light the candles with a blessing, such that the blessings' recitation can be considered part of the child's Jewish education.

It is no coincidence that the festival of Chanukah takes place at a time of year when the nights are the longest. The darkness of the long night is accentuated by the fact that since Chanukah falls out during the week prior to the new moon, no moon lights up the during Chanukah.

And yet, it is at this time, the darkest time of the year, that the Jewish people go outside, candles in hand. This practice perhaps, more eloquently than any other, symbolizes the power of Jewish belief, that even at the "darkest" times - times when giant foreign empires brutally ruled the world, the Jewish people did not give up the light of Torah and eternal Jewish values, and chose to continue to learn and to teach. A little bit of our "light" can chase away much of their "darkness."

Chanukah is the holiday of the Oral Torah, since it is the first rabbinic holiday, and since it also symbolizes the importance of intensifying one’s dedication to the learning of the Oral Torah. During First Temple times, prophecy was still prevalent and most learning surrounded the written Torah. After the destruction of the First Temple, however, prophecy came to an end, and the era of the Oral Torah began. Study of the Oral Torah is the clearest expression of the loftiness of the Jewish people, whom, through the study of the Oral Torah, become partners in the revelation of the Torah's light, its wisdom.

It may be that the written Torah's light is brighter, similar to the midday sun - while the light of the Oral Torah is comparable to the light of the moon and stars. Yet, the Oral Torah has the power to penetrate and enlighten the innermost parts of the Jewish soul. During the Second Temple period, the sages laid the foundation for the learning of the Oral Torah, its laws, regulations and customs. Through the unique light provided by the Oral Torah, we were able to overcome many of the trials and tribulations of the exile.

This idea is apparently the deeper reason for the Chanukah having merited such a prominent place in Jewish custom. Even those Jews who otherwise find themselves distant from the performance of many Torah mitzvot are careful to the light the Chanukiah.

As we have already mentioned, the mitzvah of lighting the Chanukiah can be minimally fulfilled by lighting one candle each night; the "mehadrin" custom is that each family member lights one candle each night; the "mehadrin min hamehadrin" custom is that a candle is added each night, to the point where eight candles are burning on the final night of the festival. Isn't it amazing that regarding the one mitzvah that just about all Jews are careful to observe, they do it in the most ideal manner?

We should also note that the number "eight" in Jewish belief, refers to the "supernatural" - matters that transcend nature. The physical world was created in seven days, and there are seven days in each week. Eight therefore symbolizes that which is one step beyond the physical. Brit milah (ritual circumcision) is a mitzvah aimed at elevating physical existence to a higher plane.

Torah, too, aims at elevating nature to a Divine level symbolized by the number eight. This is why the Torah was given on Shavuot, which follows the counting of seven weeks, seven seven day cycles, from the festival of Pesach. Similarly, Jewish custom asserts that the yearly synagogue Torah reading be completed on Shmini Atzeret/Simchat Torah, which is the eighth day from the start of the festival of Sukkot. So, too, the fact that Chanukah is eight days long expresses the loftiness of the Oral Torah - the inheritance of the Jewish people - the nation that is "above" nature.
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