The Blessings on the Chanuka Candles and the Manner of Lighting

  • Rav David Brofsky

Dedicated in Memory of Abraham Gontownik 
on the occasion of his seventeenth Yahrzeit; 
and in honor and in celebration of the births of 
Sylvia Carmel to Daniela and Zev 
And Maya Neima to Shira and Ari.
The Gontownik Family


The Berakha Recited Before Candle Lighting

Like most mitzvot, the mitzva of hadlakat neirot is preceded by a birkat ha-mitzva: “le-hadlik ner shel Chanuka” (to kindle the light of Chanuka).

The precise text of this berakha is subject to some debate.

First, while most Rishonim record the text as "le-hadlik ner SHEL Chanuka," some omit the word "SHEL." The Shulchan Arukh (OC 676:1) rules that one should say "le-hadlik ner Chanuka," in accordance with Sefardic practice. Ashkenazic authorities differ as to whether one should omit (Arukh Ha-shulchan 1) or include (Mishna Berura 1) the word "shel."  

Second, according to the Talmud Yerushalmi (Sukka 3:4), the correct text reads, "al mitzvat hadlakat ner Chanuka" (upon the commandment of lighting the light of Chanuka).

This issue relates to the broader subject of the proper text of birkot ha-mitzva generally. One of the great Tosafists, R. Yitzchak of Dampierre (the “Ri”), reportedly "didn’t find any reason for the [different formulations of the] berakhot" (Tosafot, Pesachim 7b, s.v. ve-hilchata). Many other Rishonim, however, make attempts to explain all of the different cases, often leading to innovative understandings of certain mitzvot.

Rabbeinu Tam (Sefer Ha-Yashar 340), for example, explains that one recites the text of "AL mitzvat…" upon performing a mitzva which is fulfilled immediately, such as mila, shekhita, pidyon ha-ben, tevilat keilim, netilat yadayim, mikra megilla, marror, hafrashat challa, etc. However, if the mitzva's performance occurs over an extended period, and there is no conclusion to its performance, such as Torah study, tzitzit, tefillin and sukka, one recites the berakha of "LE…" (such as “leishev ba-sukka”).

Regarding neirot Chanuka, Rabbeinu Tam explains that despite the accepted ruling that "kavta – ein zakuk la" (if the light is extinguished, one need not rekindle the flame), one must still provide enough oil for the light to burn for an extended period of time, "until the wayfarers leave the market." As such, even ner Chanuka is categorized as a mitzva whose performance extends over a period of time, warranting the text of “le-hadlik.” The Meiri (Pesachim 7b) and the Ramban (ibid.) reject this explanation.

By contrast, the Riva (Rabbi Yitzchak b. Asher Ha-levi), cited by the Rosh (Pesachim 1:10), maintains that the different formulations depend upon not the duration of a mitzva's performance, but rather the relationship between the person and the commandment. He claims that upon performing a mitzva which one may fulfill through a shaliach (agent), one recites "AL mitzvat…," as opposed to a mitzva which one must fulfill personally, upon which one recites "LE…." (This theory gives rise to numerous difficulties, a full discussion of which lies beyond the scope of our shiur.)  The Riva comments that although the obligation of neirot Chanuka can be fulfilled through a shaliach, the proper text is still "LE-hadlik,” because people generally light their own candles.

Other Rishonim who discuss this opinion suggest that the mitzva of hadlakat neirot may actually be more 'personal' than we thought. The Ran (in the Rif, Pesachim 4a), for example, proves from the case of a lodger, who must share the costs of the Chanuka lights, that one may NOT fulfill the obligation of ner Chanuka through an agent, and therefore the formula of "LE-hadlik" is indeed appropriate.

The Ramban (Pesachim 7b) offers two other answers. First, he notes that one who sees neirot Chanuka burning, under certain circumstances, recites the berakha of she-asa nissim, indicating that there is a mitzva to view the Chanuka lights, in addition to lighting them. (This halakha will be discussed more fully later in this shiur). While one may fulfill the mitzva of LIGHTING through an agent, the mitzva to WITNESS the lit candles is, by definition, personal. Therefore, he explains, we recite the text of "LE-hadlik."

Second, the Ramban suggests that "the lighting is the mitzva” means that the lighting “achieves the mitzva." In other words, one does not fulfill the mitzva through the act of lighting; rather, the mitzva is fulfilled as a result of the fact that the candles burn. Ostensibly, the Ramban is suggesting that unlike most other mitzvot, which require a specific action, the focus of the neirot Chanuka obligation is not the act of lighting, but rather the result of having a ner Chanuka burning in one's house. One doesn’t fulfill the mitzva through the act of a shaliach, but rather by the fact that candles are lit in his house.

Thus, while the Yerushalmi's formula of the berakha is not accepted, it certainly raises interesting questions regarding the nature of hadlakat neirot, and the relationship between the person and the mitzva.

As we’ve discussed, Halakha follows the view that allows lighting through a shaliach, and the shaliach even recites the berakha of "le-hadlik ner shel Chanuka."

If a person lit the first candle before reciting the berakha, should he recite the berakha before kindling the remaining lights?

In an earlier shiur (, we addressed the relationship between the first candle, which fulfills the basic obligation of "ner ish u-veito," and the other candles, which fulfill the higher standard of "mehadrin min ha-mehadrin." We also noted the debate between the Beit Yosef (citing the Orchot Chayim) and the Peri Megadim as to whether one who lights one candle with a berakha, and later receives additional candles, should light the new candles with a berakha. The Beit Yosef implies that if one did not have the additional candles in mind when he recited the berakha, he should recite the berakha again upon kindling the new lights. The Peri Megadim disagrees. The Magen Avraham (651:23) discusses this issue and rules in accordance with the Beit Yosef.

This debate, we suggested, may reflect different perspectives on the issue of whether the additional lights constitute an integral part of the basic mitzva, or are merely a hiddur, a means of enhancing the mitzva, but not part of the mitzva itself. Furthermore, it may also hinge on the question of whether a berakha may be recited on a hiddur mitzva (as we discussed). In other words, although one has already fulfilled the mitzva of ner ish u-veito, does the fulfillment of the mehadrin min ha-mehadrin, either as a hiddur mitzva, or as a separate mitzva, warrant reciting another berakha? Similarly, regarding our scenario in which one forgot to recite the berakha altogether, should one recite a berakha upon the remaining candles?

The Be'er Heitev (676:5) rules that one who lights without reciting the berakha should recite the berakha at that point and then continue lighting. R. Akiva Eiger (1761-1837) devotes an entire response to this question (Mahadura Tinyana 13), and concludes that as long as the first candle has not been extinguished, one may recite the berakha and continue lighting.

She-Asa Nissim and She-hecheyanu

Regarding the second berakha recited over the Chanuka lights, "she-asa nissim," the Talmud (23a) teaches:

R. Chiya b. Ashi said: One who lights the lamp must recite a berakha; while R. Yirmiyahu said: One who sees the Chanuka lamp must recite a berakha. Rav Yehuda said: On the first day, one who sees must recite two berakhot, and one who lights must recite three berakhot; thereafter, one who lights recites two berakhot, and one who sees recites one berakha. What is omitted? — The 'season' [she-hecheyanu] is omitted.  Why not let the 'miracle' [she-asa nissim] be omitted? The miracle is relevant every day.

According the Gemara, one recites the berakha of she-asa nissim in two situations: upon lighting, and upon seeing, neirot Chanuka.

The Rishonim discuss the circumstances under which one recites she-asa nissim upon seeing Chanuka candles.  They also address the nature of this berakha and its relationship to the berakhot recited upon lighting the neirot Chanuka.

Under what circumstances does an observer recite the berakha of she-asa nissim?

1. Some Rishonim (see Rashi s.v. ha-roe, Or Zaru'a 325, Rambam 3:4) explain that one who has yet to light his own candles recites she-asa nissim upon seeing another person's lights. Some (see Ritva, Shabbat 23a) even suggest that one may recite the berakha upon seeing the neirot Chanuka, and then say the berakha again upon lighting his own candles. Others (Rosh 2:8, Hagahot Maimoniyot 3:1 in the name of R. Simcha and the Ra'avya) maintain that one who intends to light later should preferably wait to recite she-asa nissim upon lighting his own candles. In their view, only one who will not light his own candles later that evening recites she-asa nissim upon seeing somebody else’s Chanuka lights.

2. The Mordechai (267) and Maharshal maintain that even if somebody is away from home, and fulfills the obligation through the lighting performed by his family members back home, he should recite she-asa nissim upon seeing Chanuka lights.

The Bach (Bayit Chadash commentary to the Tur by R. Yoel Sirkis, 1561-1640), explains that there are two mitzvot fulfilled through ner Chanuka: the obligation of HADLAKA (lighting), and an obligation of HODA'A (thanking God for the miracle). One who has somebody lighting for him at his home fulfills his obligation to LIGHT, but does not fulfill his personal obligation of HODA'A, which one fulfills through reciting the berakha of she-asa nissim upon seeing lit Chanuka candles..

3. The Rashba (Shabbat 23a s.v. ha-ro’eh), Ran (Rif, Shabbat 10a s.v. amar), and Tur (676) disagree, ruling that only one who will not light, and who has no one at home lighting on his behalf, should recite this berakha. This is also the implication of Tosafot in Masekhet Sukka (46a s.v. ha-ro’eh). Tosafot there explain that the berakha upon seeing was instituted for neirot Chanuka, and not other mitzvot, because people without a home are unable to fulfill the mitzva of hadlakat neirot, and so Chazal instituted a special berakha to include them in the mitzva.  This certainly implies that the birkat ha-ro’eh was intended for those who don’t fulfill the mitzva at all.

The Shulchan Arukh (676:3), and, subsequently, the Taz (4) and Magen Avraham (1), rule in accordance with the third opinion, that one recites this berakha only if he will not light and has no one lighting for him at home.

Regarding the berakha of she-asa nissim recited upon lighting the neirot Chanuka, the Rishonim (see Ritva 23) discuss the timing, as well as the nature, of this berakha. Some maintain that one should recite the berakha before lighting the candles, as "one always recites berakhot immediately before their performance." Others insist that one should first recite the berakha "le-hadlik ner," light the candles, and then say she-asa nissim upon seeing the lit candles. This view is supported by a passage from Masekhet Sofrim (20:4).

These views likely disagree as to whether the berakha of she-asa nissim functions as a "birkat ha-mitzva," which must always be recited before the mitzva’s performance, or exclusively as a "birkat ha-shevach," which one generally recites after observing a specific phenomenon.

The Rema (676:2), citing the Maharil, rules that one should recite all the berakhot – including she-asa nissim – before lighting the candles.

Rav Soloveitchik (Nefesh Ha-Rav, pg. 225) records that his father (after the first night) would attempt to fulfill both opinions, by first reciting the birkat ha-mitzva, lighting the first candle, reciting shasa nissim and then lighting the remaining candles.

As mentioned, the Talmud (Shabbat 23a) teaches that one should recite the berakha of she-hecheyanu on the first night of Chanuka, regardless of whether he personally lights or merely observes the candles lit.

Interestingly, the Meiri (Shabbat 23a) cites those who assert that one who will neither light nor see neirot Chanuka should nevertheless recite the berakha of she-hecheyanu upon the occasion of Chanuka. The Chafetz Chayyim, in his Sha'ar Ha-Tziyun notes to the Mishna Berura (676:3), writes:

It is possible that just as we maintain in general that the berakha of she-hecheyanu may be recited [on Yom Tov] even in the marketplace, because it relates to the special quality of the festival itself, here, too, it relates to the special quality of Chanuka at which time miracles and wonders were performed [for us], though ideally [the Rabbis] adjoined it to the time of lighting. A similar argument is found in the Meiri.

Similarly, in his Bi'ur Halakha (692), the Chafetz Chayim cites a debate among the Acharonim as to whether one who is unable to read the Megilla on Purim should nevertheless recite the birkat she-hecheyanu.

Practically, the Peri Chadash (676:1), R. Moshe Feinstein (Iggerot Moshe O.C. 1:190; 5:43:2) and R. Ovadya Yosef (Yabia Omer 6: 42:2) conclude that one does not recite she-hecheyanu on the occasion of Chanuka itself if one does not light candles.

Ha-neirot Halalu

The Ha-neirot Halalu prayer, which is traditionally recited after the Chanuka candle lighting, appears in the eighth-century minor tractate of Sofrim (20:4). Centuries later, this prayer appears in the writings of Maharam Mi-Rutenberg and the Rosh (2:8). The Tur (676) testifies that the Maharam, and his father the Rosh, would recite this prayer upon lighting the neirot Chanuka.

The formulation of the mishna in Masekhet Sofrim strongly implies that one should recite the birkat ha-mitzva, recite Ha-neirot Halalu at that point, and then conclude with she-hecheyanu and she'asa nissim. This sequence is quite puzzling, as the recitation of Ha-neirot Halalu would seemingly constitute an interruption between the first berakha and the second and third!

R. Soloveitchik, as cited by R. Hershel Schachter in his Nefesh Ha-Rav (pg. 224), explains that Ha-neirot Halalu is not simply a liturgical poem.  Rather, just as the pirsumei nisa of Pesach and Purim require a text to properly publicize the miracle (the Haggada, and the Megilla), similarly, we recite Ha-neirot Halalu as the text through which our lighting properly publicizes the miracle of Chanuka. If so, as Masekhet Sofrim apparently maintains, one should integrate the text of the pirsumei nisa, i.e. Ha-neirot Halalu, within the fulfillment of the mitzva!

The Rema (676), however, as we learned above, cites the Maharil as requiring one to first recite all three berakhot, and only then recite Ha-neirot Halalu. The Shulchan Arukh (676:4) likewise rules that one should recite Ha-neirot Halalu AFTER lighting.

            Should one recite Ha-neirot Halalu after lighting ALL the candles, or immediately after kindling the first light?

The Maharshal (see Magen Avraham 676:3, and Taz 676:5) writes that one should recite Ha-neirot Halalu immediately after lighting the first candle, while lighting the remaining candles. Others recite it only after lighting all the candles (see Peri Megadim 676, Mishbetzot Zahav 5 and Eishel Avraham 3). The Mishna Berura (8) cites both opinions, though seems partial to the first practice.

R. Yosef b. Moshe (1423-1490), author of the Leket Yosher, an intellectual biography of his teacher R. Yisrael Isserlein (the Terumat Ha-deshen), records the custom of reciting the famous Ma'oz Tzur hymn. He relates (Leket Yosher 1, pg. 152) that the Terumat Ha-deshen would 'play' (menagen) this poem after reciting Ha-neirot Halalu. On Shabbat, however, he would recite it during the meal, along with the other mizmorim.

R. Yeshayahu Horowitz (the “Shela,” 1565-1630) records the final stanza (“Chasof zero’a kodshekha…”), in which we pray for the redemption from our current exile.  This stanza does not appear in the earlier versions of Ma’oz Tzur.

The Placement of the Lights: “Chanukiyot

The Talmud (Shabbat 23b) teaches:

Rava said: If one fills a dish with oil and surrounds it with wicks, and places a vessel over it, it is credited to many people; if he does not place a vessel over it, he turns it into a kind of 'medura' (fire), and is not credited even to one.

This passage teaches two halakhot. Firstly, each person's lights must appear separate and distinct from the others’. Secondly, one must light a NER Chanuka (Chanuka CANDLE), and not what appears as a large fire (medura).

Nowadays, people customarily light separate candles or cups of oil, which are often held in place by the "chanukiya."

The Rema (671:4) rules that one should place the lights in a row, and not in a circle, which would give the appearance of a medura.

The Ben Ish Chai (R. Yosef Chayim b. Eliyahu al-Chakam of Baghdad, 1835-1909), in his work Rav Pe'alim (4:30), suggests that while the lights should preferably be arranged in a straight line, similar to the menorah of the Beit Ha-mikdash, one might still suggest that our lights, which are generally separate and distinct candles, may be arranged in a circle. Similarly, R. Chizkiya da Silva (1659-1698), in his Peri Chadash (671:4), rules that one need not be concerned with the Rema's ruling, as long as the candles are separate from each other, similar to one who "fills a dish with oil and surrounds it with wicks, and places a vessel over it." It seems, however, that common practice follows the Rema’s ruling.

The Magen Avraham (3) cites the Maharil as opposing lighting the candles in a jagged line (one in, one out). The Mishna Berura (15) cites this ruling, as well, commenting that it is not "worthwhile" to arrange one's candles as such, as it may lead one to place the candles in a circular pattern.

The Order for Lighting Neirot Chanuka

From which direction should one kindle the Chanuka lights?

The Mordechai (Shabbat 268) reports that his teacher, the Maharam Mi-Rutenburg, would begin lighting from the left, and then, while facing right, light the remaining candles. He cites the Talmud’s comment (Yoma 58b) regarding the Yom Kippur sacrificial service that one should always move towards the right ("all of your turns should be towards the right"). Similarly, the Maharil (40) would begin from the leftmost candle, and complete the lighting while facing towards the right. R. Yosef Colon (the Maharik, 1420–1480), a disciple of the Maharil, adds that on each night one should recite the berakha over the newest candle, added on the left, in order to highlight the miracle wrought on each additional day of Chanuka (shoresh 183).

The Terumat Ha-deshen (106) cites two customs in this regard. While the Western Rhine communities would begin lighting from the left side, in accordance with the Maharam and Maharik, the Eastern communities of Austria and its environs would light from the right side. The Levush (676:5) and Vilan Gaon (Ma'aseh Rav 232) also rule that one should begin from the right. (In his comments to the Shulchan Arukh (676:5), however, the Vilna Gaon writes that one should always begin with the candle closest to the door.)

The Shulchan Arukh (676:5) rules in accordance with the Maharam, and writes that on the first night one should light on the right side, and on subsequent nights, one should begin from the left and continue rightward. Common custom follows this view.

[Rav Brofsky’s shiurim on the laws of the holidays have been published as Hilkhot Moadim: Understanding the Laws of the Festivals (Maggid Books).]