Beit Midrash

  • Shabbat and Holidays
  • Laws of Hanukkah
To dedicate this lesson

The Torah study is dedicated in the memory of

Ezra Ben Maatuk

Lighting the Chanukah Candles

It is the act of lighting the Chanukah lamp that constitutes the precept. Therefore, even if the head of the household is sick and cannot get out of bed, we may not bring them to him to light by his bedside and then set them down in their proper place.


Rabbi Eliezer Melamed

Kislev 5768
1. The Commandment to Kindle

2. Without Benefit

3. The Lamp and the Shamash

4. Arrangement and Kindling of the Lights

5. Before Lighting

The Commandment to Kindle

It is the act of lighting the Chanukah lamp that constitutes the precept, and this is evident from the wording of the blessing instituted by the sages, "Blessed are You, O Lord . . . Who has sanctified us through His precepts and commanded us to kindle the Chanukah lamp." Therefore, if a person lights candles that can burn for half an hour, and somebody else comes along and accidentally extinguishes them before half an hour has elapsed, the candles need not be rekindled. This is because the commandment was fulfilled at the time of the initial kindling.

Even if a person lights inferior candles that might not last for half an hour, he has fulfilled the commandment, for such candles generally do remain lit for half an hour. Nonetheless, later Torah authorities rule that if the candles go out before half an hour has elapsed, it is best to be stringent and rekindle them so that they burn for the half hour instituted by the sages (Shulchan Arukh 673:2; Mishnah Berurah).

If a person kindles Chanukah candles in a place where they will not be able to burn for half and hour - for example, a place where the wind is blowing - and they indeed go out before half an hour has elapsed, the commandment has not been fulfilled. This is because they were not capable of burning for half and hour even when they were kindled. According to most authorities, one must rekindle the candles and recite the blessing again. In practice, though, the candles should be lit without a blessing, because the rule is that wherever there is uncertainty regarding a blessing, we follow the lenient path.

As said, it is the act of lighting the Chanukah lamp that constitutes the precept. Therefore, if a candle happened to be burning before nightfall, even in an acceptable location, the commandment is not fulfilled through it when night falls. This is because it was not lit for the purpose of fulfilling the commandment. Even if one lifts up the candle and places it down again with the intention of fulfilling the commandment, the commandment is not fulfilled. In such a case, the candles must be extinguished and rekindled for the sake of fulfilling the commandment, yet there is no need to lift up the candle and set it down again for the sake of fulfilling the commandment (Shabbat 23a; Shulchan Arukh 675:1).

The candles must be lit in their proper position, and even if the head of the household is sick and cannot get out of bed, we may not bring them to him to light by his bedside and then set them down in their proper place. Rather, the head of the household recites the blessing and somebody else lights the candles for him in their proper place (Ben Ish Chai, VaYeshev 6). If one placed the candles on the windowsill but forgot to move them close to the window before lighting, it is permissible to move them a bit after kindling them in order to make them more visible to passersby outside.

Without Benefit

It is forbidden to use the light of the Chanukah lamp, whether for mundane purposes, like counting money, or for sacred purposes, like studying Torah. This is because these candles are designated for the fulfillment of the Chanukah commandment. Just as it was forbidden to derive benefit from the candles of the Menorah in the Holy Temple, so is it forbidden for us to derive benefit from the Chanukah lamp instituted by the sages in memory of the miracle of the Menorah. Another reason is that the candles are meant to publicize the miracle, and if we use their light, it will appear as if they have been kindled in order to provide us with light (Shulchan Arukh 673:1).

It is forbidden to use what remains from the oil or the candles that were kindled for the Chanukah lamp, for they were set apart for the precept the moment they were lit. The best thing to do with them is to use them on the coming nights. However, if they are not fit for further use, or if they remain from the eighth night, they should be burned (Shulchan Arukh 677:4; Mishnah Berurah 18). It is also possible to pour the remaining oil down the drain of the sink and place the remaining wicks in the garbage. The candles that remain in their box and the oil that remains its bottle are permissible for any use.

If, while lighting the candles, the shamash (lit. attendant; extra candle used for lighting the Chanukah candles) goes out, one may not relight the shamash from one of the Chanukah candles. The shamash is mundane, and it is forbidden to light a mundane candle from one dedicated to the precept. However, if a person runs out of matches and the only option is to relight the shamash from one of the Chanukah candles, it is permitted.

According to the letter of the law, the candles need not burn for more than half an hour, and if they continue to burn longer than this, it is permissible to derive benefit from them. However, the custom is to be stringent and not to derive benefit from the candles even after half an hour. This is because they continue to publicize the miracle, and if a person uses them he will appear to be debasing the precept. In addition, since the lamp was set up for the sake of the precept, and there was no intention to derive benefit from its lights after half an hour, some authorities hold that the candles become dedicated entirely to the precept and it is forbidden to use their light for mundane purposes at any time.

The Lamp and the Shamash

It is a good idea to honor this precept by kindling the Chanukah lights in an attractive lamp, each person according to his means. Some even buy a lamp of silver or gold. One who possesses no lamp can stick wax candles to a straight board and light them. It is also possible to put oil and wicks in small cups and light them. Repellent vessels, like sooty clay lamps, should not be used for the Chanukah lights (Shulchan Arukh 673:3; Mishnah Berurah 28; Kaf HaChaim 60-62).

There should be sufficient space between the lights so that each flame be clearly discernable and the miracle thus be publicized. Furthermore, if the candles are too close to one another, one runs the risk that the flames will merge and resemble a torch, in which case the commandment will not have been fulfilled. With candles, there is also a danger that if there is not enough space between them, they might melt one another and burn for less than half an hour (Shulchan Arukh 671:4, and the commentators ad loc.).

Strictly speaking, even if one does not arrange the candles at the same height and in a straight line, so long as they are separate from one another and a person who stands near them can count them and discern that they reflect the miracle of Chanukah, the commandment has been fulfilled. Even if one places the candles in a circle, the commandment has been fulfilled, because each candle stands independently. However, it is best to arrange the lights in a straight line, so that whoever sees them will discern their number and know that it reflects the miracle of Chanukah (Rema 671:4; Beur Halacha ad loc., s.v. "vemutar").

In order to avoid violating the prohibition against using the light of the Chanukah candles, the custom is to light an extra candle (called the "shamash"), so that if somebody needs light near the lamp, the light of the shamash will be used. In a room that has electric lighting, there is, strictly speaking, no need for a shamash; however, the prevailing custom is to use a shamash all the same in order to underscore the difference between the consecrated candles, the light of which it is forbidden to use, and the shamash, the light of which we are permitted to use.

Yet, in order that we not err regarding the number of candles, we place the shamash at a different height, or at some distance from the other candles. In this manner, it is clear to all which are the candles and which is the shamash. It is customary to place the shamash higher than the other candles so that if we need light, it will be evident that we are using its light, not the light of the candles (Shulchan Arukh 673:1; Mishnah Berurah 20).

Arrangement and Kindling of the Lights

One question that arises when kindling the Chanukah lamp is where to place the candle on the first night. Another question is where to place the second candle on the second night, and which candle to light first. Though it is true that whichever path one follows, the commandment will have been fulfilled in the choicest manner ("mehadrin min hamehadrin"), the best custom is to place the candle on the right end of the lamp on the first night, because the right should be preferred to the left in all matters. On the second night, we add another candle to the left of the first candle, and after reciting the blessing we light the new candle first and then the candle to its right. There are two reasons for this:

1) It is preferable to start with the additional candle, because it gives expression to the miracle's magnitude.

2) When turning, it is always best to turn to the right. Therefore, we add an additional candle to the left each day, light it first, and then turn to the right to light the rest of the candles. And one should stand to the left of the Chanukah lamp while reciting the blessing in order to light the closest candle. In this manner one does not appear to be skipping over the other candles in order to light the first one (Sulchan Arukh 676:5; Mishnah Berurah 11).

Before Lighting

It is forbidden to begin eating a meal during the half hour before candle lighting time, i.e., nightfall ("tzet hakochavim"). It is even forbidden to begin a light meal, lest one get caught up in eating and forget to light the Chanukah candles. It is likewise forbidden to drink alcoholic beverages during this period of time. But it is permissible to eat fruits and vegetables. It is even permissible to eat bread or cake, up to a quantity of fifty-six grams ("k'beitza"). It is also forbidden, during this same half hour, to embark upon some task that is liable to continue for a long time, or to go to sleep.

However, if one asks a friend to remind him to light the Chanukah candles at the proper time, one is permitted to eat, work, or sleep during the half hour before candle lighting. Even if one began any of these activities prior to the half hour before nightfall, one must stop in order to light the Chanukah candles at the time instituted by the sages (Mishnah Berurah 672:10; Shaarei Tziyun ad loc.; Peninei Halacha, Tefillah 25:9).

If a person is at work and cannot go home to light candles at nightfall, he may continue working until he is finished, but he must be careful not to eat until he fulfills the commandment of candle lighting (and see Peninei Halacha, Zemanim 13:6, 9).

It is also forbidden to study Torah when the time arrives for lighting the Chanukah candles. However, if this calls for canceling a regular class that will be difficult to reschedule, it is better to hold the class as usual. And at the end of the study session, people should remind each other to light the Chanukah candles (and see Peninei Halacha, Zemanim 13:12).
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