Bar-Ilan University

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Daf Parashat Hashavua

(Study Sheet on the Weekly Torah Portion)

Basic Jewish Studies Unit


Kindling the Lights on Hanuka

Professor Yosef Tabori

Department of Talmud

The meaning of the practice of kindling lights on Hanukah can be understood from the law stated in the Talmud: "It is a mitzva to set [the lamp] at the door of one's house, outside" (Shabbat 21b). This obligation may have been regarded as a measure-for-measure practice: just as the Greeks placed their idols at the doors of houses (I Maccabees 1:55), so ought the victory over them to be celebrated by placing the Hanukah lamp there. The practical result was that the lights illuminated the public thoroughfare, and lighting them was not a "family" ceremony confined to the home. In this respect the joy associated with Hanukah resembled that of Simchat Beit ha-Shoeva,1 in which the entire city of Jerusalem was lit up -- and in fact lights were lit out of doors during other festivals as well, to give a festive air to the streets.

The idea of public illumination also emerges from the ruling of Rav Huna, a first-generation Amora in Babylonia, that in a courtyard with two entrances a lamp had to be set at each entrance (Shabbat 23a). The Tosafists inferred from this that "the door of one's house" mentioned in the baraita refers to a point beside a public thoroughfare. From the above it follows, that if a house is reached through a courtyard, the Hanukah lamp should be kindled at the entrance from the courtyard into the street, and not at the house door itself. The importance of achieving public illumination is also indicated by the baraita which fixes the appropriate time for lighting the lamp: "from when the sun sets to when traffic ceases in the market" (Shabbat 21a; Masechet Sofrim 20:2). In the same spirit the baraita stipulates that someone who lives on an upper floor and has no entrance into the street must light his lamp at a window which overlooks the street (ibid.).

What might happen when the Hanukah lamp was kindled out of doors can be learnt from a mishna which discusses fire damage. If, says the Mishna, the load borne by a camel catches fire from a shopkeeper's lamp, placed outside, the shopkeeper is liable for the damage. Rabbi Judah, however, absolves him from responsibility if the lamp is a Hanukah lamp, for since everyone puts lamps outside during Hanukah it is the camel driver's duty to exercise care (Baba Kama 6:6). The supplement to the Mishna known as The Tosefta explains the shopkeeper's Hanukah exemption on the grounds that "he put it down with permission" (Baba Kama 6:28), but while the Sages acknowledge that the lamp was deposited "with permission"--that is, he was entitled to place it there--they do not consider that he has no responsibility for what happens as a result. Rava concluded from this Mishna that the mitzva of lighting the Hanukah lamp requires that the lamp should be placed less than ten tefahim (80-100 cm--about 30 inches) above the ground; if it could be placed higher than that the camel-driver would be entitled to demand of the shopkeeper that it should be placed higher yet, so as not to endanger the camel's load. According to an anonymous passage in the Talmud, Rava's argument does not necessarily follow since it is still possible that there is no actual obligation to set the lamp less than ten tefahim high; but nevertheless the Sages did not wish to rule that the lamp should be placed higher for fear that people would find kindling it too much trouble and would fail to observe the mitzva as a result. However, the rabbinic arbiters were inclined to accept Rava's ruling, despite the insufficiency of his proof-argument.

A change in the general conception of kindling the Hanukah lamp came about in the wake of "danger." The baraita which discusses the placing of the lamp notes that "in time of danger one places it on one's table [inside the house], and that suffices" (Shabbat 21b). What the historical status of this "danger" was is a matter of dispute and uncertainty. The phrase "time of danger" is found a number of times in Tannaitic (Mishnaic) literature in reference to a period in which the non-Jewish authorities passed hostile decrees against the observance of mitzvot--generally, the Hadrianic persecution. But it must be noted that the baraita on the Hanukah lamp is of Babylonian origin and that it does not appear at all in Tannaitic sources. In the Palestinian Massechet Sofrim, which is of later date, the halacha about the placing of the lamp is given as follows: "It is a mitzva to set it at the door, near the public domain, that the mezuza may be on the right hand side and the Hanukah lamp on the left" (20:3). Since the specific notation "outside," which appears in the parallel text in the Babylonian Talmud, is absent here, it is impossible to tell whether Masechat Sofrim is speaking of a lamp placed outside or (in the spirit of later halacha) of a lamp standing inside the house, near the door. At any rate, the fact that Massechet Sofrim does not mention the placing of the lamp on a table allows us to suppose that the origin of this practice--and of the "danger" with which it was associated--lay in Babylonia. It is therefore possible that the Tosafists are correct in stating that the phrase "a time of danger" refers to the activity of the Babylonian fire-worshippers, called by the strange name of "friends" (haverim) who have been close to the authorities and to their decrees against Jews. Because of their worship of fire, these "friends" would take the Hanukah lamps from Jewish houses (Gittin 16b-17a), and Rav allowed people to remove the lamp on Shabbat (when normally it may not be touched), for fear of them (Shabbat 45a). Thus it may well be that the rabbinic permission to place the lamp on a table indoors was associated with the fire-officers, but the point cannot be proved.

The transferral of the lamp from outside the house to a table inside the house led to changes, even as early as the time of the Babylonian Amora Rav Sheshet, with regard to the meaning of the obligation to kindle a lamp. The idea of public illumination disappeared, and the obligation became associated with an individual and not with a house. Even someone who is without a home, such as a guest in a hotel, is required to light. Rav Sheshet found a convenient way to fulfill his obligation. He testified that when he was a student he gave a few small coins to the owner of the house where he lodged in order to become a "partner" in his lamp. After his marriage he felt that he had become exempt from this partnership, it being enough that his wife should light the lamp in his house (Shabbat 23a). From what he says one can conclude, that the obligation to light falls upon individuals, but it can be fulfilled through the action of another person.

The Rabbis, however, attached to his statement the remark of Rav Huna, that someone who possesses a courtyard with two entrances should kindle a lamp at each entrance, "because of suspicion." If only one lamp is lit, someone who sees the lampless entrance and does not realize that there is another way into the house may suspect that the owner of the courtyard has not lit a lamp at all. It follows from this that if a lodger has an entrance of his own he is required to light a lamp there, lest it be thought that he has not participated in the mitzva (Shulkhan Arukh, O.C. 776:5). In the Rema's comments on the Shulkhan Arukh, however, the halakhic pendulum swings the other way, and he rules that "in our times," when everyone lights indoors, the absence of a lamp at a door will not necessarily arouse suspicion that whoever lives there has failed to light--so that even a lodger with a private entrance may fulfill his obligation through the owner of the house, provided he shares in the expense [as Rav Sheshet did] (see Responsa Yehaveh Da'at 6:43).

In the new reality of the State of Israel, many people have gone back to the original halakha and light at the door of their house or at a window which looks onto the street. This was the view of the mitzva in the land of Israel in ancient times, that the illumination was really meant for people outside. Some, however, still light only inside their homes, and one writer hasfound a way to justify this conservative practice. The issue at stake is as follows: Does a halakhic practice which has changed because of "external" reasons return to its original state when these reasons no longer apply? The Rabbis remarked, for example, that the practice of sounding the Shofar before Mussaf (the Additional Service) on Rosh Hashana, instead of first thing in the morning (which showed eagerness to fulfill the mitzva), came about because of fear that non-Jews might think that the shofar was being sounded at dawn to summon the Jews to war. But in our times, although this concern no longer applies, no one would think of suggesting that we ought to blow the shofar before the morning prayer on Rosh Hashana.2

With regard to our particular topic, it is possible to argue, as an anonymous author does,3 that the halakha has changed and there is no longer any obligation to light the Hanukah lamp outside the house. The new reality has also given birth to new practices. Before our own times, public kindling of Hanukah lights took place only in synagogues, and rabbinic authorities were in doubt if under these circumstances there was any proper basis for saying the blessing over lighting the candles, "Blessed are You ... Who has commanded us to kindle the Hanukah light" (since people are in any case obliged to light at home, and blessings must not be said arbitrarily). Today, however, such public ceremonies have everywhere been introduced to mark Hanukah, and the Lubavitch (Habad) movement in particular lays stress upon lighting candles or oil lamps in public places throughout the world, with the standard blessing, because of the popular feeling that otherwise the candle-lighting has no meaning. Although this constitutes an apparent return to the old conception whereby the lights were kindled in order to increase illumination in the streets, the halakhic obligation falling upon houses, as it were, and not upon individuals, many rabbinic authorities have in fact ruled that the blessing should not be said on these public occasions. Nevertheless, it is certainly appropriate to hold such candle-lighting sessions in order to publicize the miracle of Hanukah4 -- and may there be for the Jews, as the book of Esther says, light and joy!

Notes:

1. The water-drawing ceremony which began on the second evening of Sukkot, of which the Mishna says that "He who has not seen the joy of the water-drawing has never seen joy in his life" (Sukka 5:1).

2. However, there are other reasons for the postponement of the shofar until Mussaf: see my Mo'adei Yisrael be-Tekufat ha-Mishna veha-Talmud (Jerusalem: Magnes, 1996), pp. 247-248; and Yissachar Tamar, Moed 2 (Alon Shvut, 1992), pp. 227-228.

3. Mishna Halakhot, 2nd ed. (Jerusalem, 1989), 588:1.

4. But see R. Binyamin Silber, Az Nidbaru, Part 11 (Bnei Barak, 1985), sect. 32. For more on Hanukah see my Mo'adei Yisrael (note 2, above), pp. 368-390.

Translated by Dr Phyllis Hackett

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