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Parashat Mikketz 5758, Shabbat Hanukkah 1997

On Kindling the Hanukkah Menorah

Prof. Yosef Tavori

Talmud Department

The rule set forth in Shabbat 21b, that "the commandment is to place it [i.e., the Hanukkah lights][1] outdoors, at the entrance to one's home," sheds light on the nature of this ritual. Indeed, it may have been viewed as measure for measure, insofar as the Greeks generally stood their statues at the entrance (I Maccabees 1.55); thus it was fitting for our victory to be marked by situating our Hannukah menorahs at the entrances of our homes. The practical outcome was that the public domain was illumined, and lighting the Hanukkah menorah was not a family rite practiced inside the home. In this respect, celebration of Hanukkah resembled the celebration of Bet Ha-Shoeva and other holidays, when the entire city was lit up, the brightly lit streets contributing to a festive atmosphere.

Rav Huna's remarks also aim at illuminating the public domain. This first-generation Babylonian amora ruled that a yard which has two entrances must have a light at each entrance (ibid., 23a). The Tosafists deduced from this that the baraita which speaks of the "entrance to one's home" meant a place abutting the public domain; i.e., if the house had a yard, the lights had to be lit at the entrance to the yard next to the public domain, and not at the door of the house. The same principle of lighting public areas is indicated by the ruling establishing the time for lighting "from sunset until the marketplace becomes deserted" (ibid., 21a; Soferim 20.2, Higger ed., p. 341). Along the same line, whoever lives in an attic, with no door opening on the public domain, must light in the window facing on the public domain (Babylonian Talmud, ibid.)

From a passage in the Mishnah that discusses damages caused by fire, we learn that lighting outdoors was actually practiced. According to the Mishnah, if the load being carried by a camel catches fire from a lamp a shopkeeper has placed outdoors, the shopkeeper must pay damages. However, R. Judah says that the shopkeeper is exempt from paying if the lamp was a Hanukkah light, because then everyone sets lights outdoors, and the owner of the camel is obliged to take proper precaution (Bava Kama 6.6). The Tosefta explains the rationale for exempting the shopkeeper, because "he lit them with permission" (Bava Kama 6.28, Zuckermandel ed., p. 357). The Sages, as well, admit that the shopkeeper lit with permission, but they assume that this does not exempt him from liability.

From this Mishnah, Rava concludes that the commandment is to place the light less than ten tefahim (80-100cm., approx. 2-3 ft.) above ground level, for if one were allowed to place it higher, the owner of the camel could argue that the shopkeeper should have placed his lamp higher so that it would not endanger the camel's pack. According to an anonymous passage in the Talmud, Rava's reasoning does not constitute conclusive proof: It is possible that there was no strict limitation on the height for placing the Hannukah menorah, but the Sages did not insist it be placed higher up because they feared this might involve some difficulty and dissuade some people from observing the commandment altogether. Nevertheless, Rava's limitation is generally accepted by later posekim, even though it was not proved conclusively.

Times of danger changed the general approach towards lighting Hanukkah menorahs. The baraita on where to place the Hanukkah lights notes that "in a time of danger it suffices to place it on one's table" (Shabbat 21b). There is some confusion in determining what historically constituted such a "time of danger." The phrase occurs several times in tannaitic literature with reference to edicts against observing the Jewish commandments, generally meaning the era of Hadrianic persecution. It should be noted, however, that the baraita on placing the Hanukkah lamp is Babylonian, and does not appear at all in tannaitic sources.

In Tractate Soferim of the Land of Israel, which dates later, the ruling on the placement of the lamp is as follows: "One is commanded to place it at the entrance, close by the public domain, so that the mezuzah is on the right and the Hanukkah lamp on the left" (20.3, p. 342). Since, in contrast to the parallel Babylonian text, there is no explicit indication of "outdoors" here, one cannot say whether Tractate Soferim referred to a lamp that stood outside or, in the spirit of later rulings, to a lamp placed inside the house, near the entrance. Be that as it may, the fact that Tractate Soferim does not mention placing the menorah on the table helps establish that the origin of this custom, and of the danger associated with it, comes from Babylonia.

Thus, it is possible that the Tosafists were correct in associating the time of danger mentioned with the rise of Babylonian fire-worshippers, known by the peculiar name of "friends;" the danger became apparent when they were closely affiliated with the Babylonian rulers and their edicts against the Jews. Because they worshipped fire, these "friends" used to remove lamps from Jewish homes (Babylonian Gittin 16b-17a); Rav even allowed Hanukkah menorahs to be moved on the Sabbath to safeguard them from these fire-worshippers (Shab. 45a). Thus, the permission granted to place the Hanukkah menorah on the table might have to do with the Babylonian "friends," although we cannot say for certain.

In the wake of moving the Hanukkah menorah indoors, certain changes ensued already among the Babylonian amoraim with regard to the duty to kindle Hanukkah lights and what it signified. Lighting the public area was no longer the point. The duty came to devolve on the individual, not on the house. Even those without a house, such as guests or travelers, were obliged to light. Rav Sheshet found a convenient way of performing his duty. He attests that when he was a student he gave a small sum to his landlord so that he would have a part in his lighting. After he married, he viewed himself as exempt from sharing in the landlord's lamp since it sufficed for his wife to light the lamp in his own home (Shabbat 23a). Thus the obligation to light is individual, but a person can fulfill his obligation by participating in another one's lighting.

The posekim returned to R. Huna's remarks in this regard -- that whoever has a yard with two entrances must light at both of them, "lest he be suspected". The suspicion is that if he were to light a Hanukkah menorah at one entrance alone, someone seeing the other entrance and not knowing there were two entrances, might suspect the owner of not lighting a Hanukkah menorah. Similarly, said the posekim, if a guest has an entrance of his own, it is not enough to participate but he must light in his entrance so that he not be suspected of having neglected to kindle Hanukkah lights (Shulkhan Arukh, Orakh Hayyim 676.5). With Rema, the halakhah swings back again. He ruled that in our time, when everyone lights indoors, the absence of a Hanukkah lamp in the entrance need not arouse suspicion. Therefore, even if a guest has his own entrance, his obligation is fulfilled by the landlord lighting a Hanukkah menorah, provided he participates in the cost (cf. Responsa Yehave Da'at 6.43).

In modern Israel, many people have returned to the original practice of lighting the menorah in the entrance or in a window facing on the street. This brings us back to the original approach in ancient Israel, that the light was intended primarily for passersby in the street. Some people still only light inside the home, and one authority has found a way to justify this conservatism. The point at issue is whether a halakhic practice which changed because of external reasons should revert to its original practice when the external reasons no longer pertain.

For example, the rabbis note that the practice of blowing the shofar before musaf [the additional service], instead of first thing in the morning as dictated by the principle of being quick to perform mitzvot, developed because it was feared the gentiles would interpret an early-morning sound of the shas a call to war. In our day, even though this fear is no longer relevant, no one would suggest that the public sounding of the shofar be done before shaharit, the morning service.[2] Similarly, with respect to the matter at hand, one could say that once the halakhah was changed, one is no longer obliged to light the Hanukkah menorah in front of the house (Mishneh Halakhot, [anonymous authorship], 2nd ed., Jerusalem, 1989, 588.1).

New circumstances have given rise to new practices. In earlier times, public Hanukkah lighting only took place within the synagogue, and posekim wondered what grounds there were for reciting a blessing on the public ritual. Today, however, public lighting has become the practice everywhere to mark the holiday of Hanukkah. It has become especially widespread due to the Lubavitch Hassidim lighting Hanukkah menorahs in public places throughout the world. When lighting menorahs, they recite the blessing on kindling the lights because of the popular feeling that if a blessing is not recited, the act has no significance. Even though this custom of public lighting reflects a return to the older approach of illuminating the public area, since the halakhic obligation now devolves on the household, many posekim have ruled that it is not proper to recite a blessing at public lightings. Nevertheless, it is fine to extend the practice of lighting Hanukkah menorahs everywhere in order to spread the tidings of the miracle, and may "the Jews have light and glee"[3] -- orah vesimhah.


[1] "Ner hanukah mitzvah le-hanihah" is written in the feminine, to refer to the Hanukkah lights, even though the word for light or lamp, ner, is masculine, because the Sages put the emphasis on Hanukkah, which is feminine. Cf. H. J. Ehrenreich, Otzar Ha-Hayyim, I (1925), p. 45; H. Erentroy, Iyyunim be-Divrei Hazal u-vi-Leshonam, Jerusalem (1978), pp. 10-11; and Joshua Brand, Klei Ha-Heres be-Tekufat ha-Talmud, Jerusalem 1953, p. 356. In the Jerusalem Talmud the Hanukkah lights are simply called "Hanukkah," as in the phrase "One may not use the light of the Hanukkah" (Shabbat 2.1.7c). Cf. Rashi on Shabbat 21a, s.v. "kavta zakuk lah," and Rosh Yosef by R. Joseph Teomim on the same.

[2] There are other reasons, as well, for postponing the shofar blasts until the Mussaf service. See my book, Moadei Yisrael be-Tekufat ha-Mishnah veha-Talmud, Magnes, Jerusalem 1996, pp. 247-248. Also see Issachar Tamar, Alei Tamar, Moed, 1, Alon Shevut 1992, pp. 227-228.

[3] Cf. R. Benjamin Zilber, Az Nidbaru, Part 11, Bnai Berak, 1985, 32. For further information on Hanukkah, see my book cited in note 2, pp. 368-390