Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Mikketz 5763/ December 7, 2002

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
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Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,

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Parashat Mikketz 5763/ December 7, 2002
Shabbat Hanukka

"Only to See Them"

Rabbi Aharon Katz, Head
The Ludwig and Erica Jesselson Institute for Advanced Torah Studies

"These lights are sacred, and we have no right to use them, but only to see them in order to give thanks and praise to Your great name, for Your miracles and wonders."

These words, well-known to us from Al Hannissim recited during the ritual of kindling the Hanukkah lights,[1] express the halakhic rule forbidding us to make use of the Hanukkah lights. Our concern in this essay is the following phrase, "Only to see them". Was the author's intention that we are permitted to look at the candles but not to use them, or was he expressing another halakhic principle, the affirmative obligation (mitzvah) to see and contemplate the Hanukkah lights?

The language used in the Talmudic discussion of Hanukkah in Tractate Shabbat seems to indicate that seeing the Hanukkah lights is specifically commanded. The amora R. Yirmiyah said, "Anyone who sees a Hanukkah light must make a benediction." Rav Yehudah noted that seeing the Hanukkah lights on the first day calls for two benedictions - "who performed miracles," and "shehekheyanu" - and on the remaining days of Hanukkah, only one - "for doing miracles for our ancestors in those days in this season (Shabbat 23a)." Maimonides stated the Halakhah as follows (Hilkhot Hanukkah 3.4):

All those who are obliged to read the Megillah are obliged to kindle Hanukkah lights. The person kindling on the first night recites three benedictions, as follows: "Blessed art Thou, O Lord, King of the Universe, who has sanctified us by Your commandments and commanded us to kindle a Hanukkah light"; "Blessed ..., King of the Universe, who performed miracles for our ancestors in those days, in this season"; "Blessed ..., who has kept us alive and sustained us and brought us to this season." All who see the lights and did not make the benediction [on kindling the lights] recite two benedictions: "who performed miracles...," and "who has kept us alive." On the remaining nights, the one who kindles the lights recites two blessings, and those who see them, one, since "who has kept us alive" is recited only on the first night.

This ruling was mentioned in the Shulhan Arukh and incorporated in prayer books of the Geonim, such as Rav Amram Gaon and Rabbi Saadiah Gaon, who stated in their prayer books that those who see the lights are obliged to recite the benediction, "who performed miracles for our ancestors."

Clearly then, seeing the lights alone obligates one to make blessings. We want to further investigate whether the commandment of seeing the lights stands on its own, apart from the obligation to kindle Hanukkah lights, or is the mitzvah of seeing the Hanukkah lights and reciting a benediction on seeing them part and parcel of the commandment of kindling them? In other words, whoever is able to do so, must kindle lights and recite all the blessings; and whoever is not able to kindle the lights, for whatever reason, and has not had them kindled in his home, upon seeing a Hanukkah light, that person at least recites a benediction on seeing them. But if he has fulfilled the obligation of Hanukkah lights by the lights kindled in his home, then he no longer has the obligation of seeing Hanukkah lights.

The other side of this coin is to say that a person who has already kindled in his home, is still obliged to go out and see the Hanukkah lights and recite the benediction, "who performed miracles." Three distinct approaches to this question can be identified in the works of the rishonim:

Rashba, in his novellae (hiddushim) on tractate Shabbat, wrote as follows regarding the question of Hanukkah:

It turns out that only a person who has not had Hanukkah lights kindled in his home and who will not kindle them that night [needs to recite a benediction upon seeing them], but otherwise he does not need to recite the benediction, since we have not found that a person who has performed the commandment goes back and recites a benediction again on seeing the lights.

In Rashba's opinion, a person who has already satisfied the commandment of Hanukkah lights insofar as they have been kindled in his home, even though he was not at home when the Hanukkah lights were kindled there and was not present while they were still burning, and neither did he hear the benedictions nor see the lights - that person need not see Hanukkah lights and recite the benediction, "who performed miracles." Thus, clearly Rashba held that the essence of the commandment is the act of kindling the lights; but someone who has not kindled lights and will not have them kindled in his home, should at least see the lighted candles and fulfill the commandment in this way. This is regarded as a lesser level of observance.

The same attitude was taken by other rishonim, such as the Tosafists on Tractate Sukkah 46a:

On seeing the Hanukkah lights, one must recite a benediction. With other commandments, such as lulav and sukkah, it was not ruled that a benediction be made upon seeing, but they did with the Hanukkah lights, because the miracle was so dear (havivut ha-nes) and because there are people who have no home and cannot perform the commandment, and the first reason alone is sufficient.

This same approach is apparently behind the formulation of the laws on Hanukkah in the Tur and Shulhan Arukh. This is also how the Halakhah was formulated in the rules on prayer that appear in the prayer books of the more eminent later authorities (aharonim), such as R. Jacob of Lissa,[2] who wrote in his siddur, Derekh Hayyim, as follows:

A person who did not kindle, such as someone on board a ship and the like, and who is not going to kindle that night, and who will not have someone kindling for him in his home - when that person sees Hanukkah lights he recites the benediction, "who performed miracles."

To sum up this view, the mitzvah is in the act of lighting but one who cannot light the candles himself may recite the blessing on seeing the lit candles. An approach reflecting a diametrically opposed stand was taken by R. Menahem Ha-Meiri in his work, Beit Ha-Behirah. In his insights on the question of Hanukkah, in the chapter Bameh Madlikin in Tractate Shabbat, he wrote:

Regarding a person who does not have the ability to kindle nor is he in a place where he can see [Hanukkah lights], some say that he should recite the benediction "who performed miracles" and "who has kept us alive" to himself on the first night, and "who performed miracles" on the remaining nights; and this seems reasonable.

What we can extrapolate from Ha-Meiri's formulation is that the benediction "Who performed miracles" is not necessarily associated with seeing the Hanukkah lights. In his opinion, the days of Hanukkah itself require the benediction (and the first day, the additional benediction of the season, shehekheyanu, as well). The reason we generally recite this benediction at the time of kindling the Hanukkah lights is that this time is most appropriate. It is similar to the law in Tractate Berakhot that one who sees the place where a miracle occurred makes the blessing, "who performed miracles." Indeed, several rabbis deduced from Ha-Meiri's words that a person who does not have a kosher scroll from which to read the Book of Esther on Purim should nevertheless recite the blessing of shehekheyanu because of the miracle, and some added that one should also say the blessing, "who performed miracles for our ancestors."[3] Be that as it may, it should be clear that according to Ha-Meiri these benedictions are not recited for having seen the Hanukkah lights, since there is no particular commandment to see the lights; the Talmudic reference to a person who sees the lights reciting two benedictions is only to indicate that the most appropriate place for saying the blessing, "who performed miracles," is in front of the lights, but the absence of lights does not mean one cannot recite the benediction.

Ha-Meiri's words also have another practical implication. The Shulhan Arukh maintains that one should recite all the benedictions prior to kindling the lights. Commentators on the Shulhan Arukh explained that these benedictions should be viewed as "leading to performance of the act"-- recited directly before actually performing the commandment. Ha-Meiri, however, had the following to say about this:

Some people take care to recite the blessing "to kindle..." beforehand, and "who performed miracles" afterwards, when he sees all the lights that he kindled; but I see no need for this. Be that as it may, the benediction "to kindle (Hanukkah lights)... should be recited before beginning, by reason of "leading to performance of the act" ('over la-'asiyatan, the custom of saying the blessing and then performing the commandment).

Ha-Meiri meant that one need not insist on reciting all the benedictions prior to kindling the lights because, as we explained his view, only the benediction "to kindle the Hanukkah light" pertains to the act of lighting the menorah. Ha-Meiri felt the need to stress that no importance attaches to the timing of the other blessings, since the blessing "who performed miracles" is not a benediction recited on seeing the lights.

A third approach to this question is found in the works of Ha-Mordechai.[4] He related to Rabbi Zeira's remarks in the Talmud about how, when he was a pupil in his rabbi's house, he used to contribute a perutah (small some of money) towards the cost of the oil they used for the Hanukkah lights. After he married[5] he ceased giving a perutah since his wife kindled lights for him in his home, and thereby he fulfilled his obligation regarding Hanukkah lights. Ha-Mordechai remarked on this as follows:

The Talmud concludes that R. Zeira had Hanukkah lights kindled for him in his home; but in any event one must see them, as it says below (Shabbat 23a): "When a person sees them on the first day he recites two benedictions, and on subsequent days, one".

It follows from his remarks that there is a separate and distinct commandment to see the Hanukkah lights. Therefore, a person who has fulfilled the obligation of Hanukkah lights by having his household light for him must nevertheless also see the burning candles and recite the benediction, "who performed miracles," on seeing them (contrary to Rashba's approach). On the other hand, if he does not actually see Hanukkah lights, he cannot recite the benediction (contrary to Ha-Meiri's approach). Ha-Mordechai's argument in support of his interpretation is based on the Talmudic ruling that a person who sees them on the first day recites two benedictions, the second being the benediction of the season (as shehekheyanu is called in Halakhic literature). Now the shehekheyanu blessing can be said over a commandment or over a special day, as we do on holidays, adding the blessing to the kiddush. But if the blessing of shehekheyanu marks Hanukkah as a holiday, what is the purpose of the third benediction, "who performed miracles," recited according to the Talmudic ruling above when kindling Hanukkah lights or when seeing them? One must conclude that Rabbi Yirmiyahu's new insight (Shabbat 23a) was that there is a separate and distinct commandment to see the Hanukkah lights, and that this too merits a benediction. This function is served by the extra blessing, "who performed miracles for our ancestors."

Even though this approach is quite innovative, it has been accepted by notable halakhic authorities, including the Maggid Mishneh, who claimed that it is also the approach advocated by Maimonides, and who added that only in this way can one understand Rabbi Yirmiyah's statement that a person who sees Hanukkah lights must recite a benediction.

Maharshal was of like opinion and added a summary of the rules on Hanukkah in his book of responsa, writing as follows (par. 88):

For a husband and wife, one lighting surely suffices. A married traveller, if he does not know that his wife is lighting for him at home, can light and bless; but if he knows for sure that she is lighting for him, he should not light unless he is alone in the hostel, then he should light [because of the rule] "for those that see".

The Vilna Gaon as well, notes several rishonim who accepted Ha-Mordechai's opinion in theory, and in practice this approach was accepted by the most eminent aharonim, such as the Bayit Hadash, the Peri Hadash and the Alyah Rabbah.

In conclusion, the words of Al Hannissim "only to see them," indicates not only permission to see them, but actually our obligation to observe the lights and thereby relate to the miracles that were performed for our ancestors "in those days in this season".


[1] According to Masekhet Soferim 20.6, and Rosh in the second chapter of Tractate Shabbat, and other rishonim. We know of an abbreviated formulation from Sefer Abudarham.
[2] Rabbi Jacob of Lissa is known for his book, Netivot ha-Mishpat on the Shulhan Arukh, Hoshen Misphat, and his Havat Da'at on the Shulhan Arukh, Yoreh De'ah.
[3] Mishnah Berurah, Hilkhot Megillah 792.1, and the explanation of the halakhah there, s.v. "Shehekheyanu."
[4] Ha-Mordechai referred to Rashi's commentary (the discussion of Hanukkah lights, Tractate Shabbat 23a), where the latter cited remarks by Rabbi Isaac b. R. Mordechai, speaking in the name of R. Jacob ben Yakar, that the benediction, "who performed miracles," was for someone who had not yet kindled and who does not intend to kindle Hanukkah lights.
[5] Although he still studied in his rabbi's house.