Chanuka Candles as an Obligation of the House

  • Rav Moshe Taragin

The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash


Chanuka Candles as an Obligation of the House

By Rav Moshe Taragin

The gemara (Shabbat 21b) articulates the basic mitzva of "neirot Chanuka" (the Chanuka lights) in very suggestive terms. The gemara asserts that the mitzva takes the form of "ner ish u-beito" (the candle of a man and his household). This language indicates that each household must light one candle or wick each evening, regardless of the day and regardless of the number of family members. This basic level represents the essential obligation of Chanuka candles. Those who seek to perform a higher level of the mitzva add lights based upon the amount of family members and the ascending day of Chanuka.

What does the gemara intend by the term "beito"? Does the word merely imply that each "household" is obligated to light one candle? Or does the gemara suggest that the mitzva of the Chanuka lights is somehow closely identified with the Jewish home?

In general, mitzvot apply to individuals and can be conditioned by certain geographical or temporal factors. For example, a person must eat matza on the 15th of Nissan. The mitzva devolves upon each person on that day. Similarly, a person must, under certain circumstances, offer a sacrifice in the Beit Ha-mikdash, the Temple. Though the mitzva cannot be performed outside of the Mikdash, the mitzva still applies to the person; the holy precinct is merely the site of the execution of the mitzva.

One notable exception is the mitzva of mezuza, which applies to the house. A person is not obligated to live in a house with a mezuza; rather, if a Jew owns a house, he or she must then convert it into a house with mezuzot. In this instance, the mitzva which a person must perform relates directly to the house. The classic language employed to describe this condition is that mezuza is a "chovat ha-bayit" (an obligation pertaining to the house) rather than a "chovat gavra" (an obligation pertaining the person).

Does the gemara, by employing the language "ner ish u-beito," suggest that Chanuka candles should be analogous to mezuza? How seriously or literally should we take this language? Must a person light Chanuka candles, with the selected site for execution of this mitzva being the house, or is the mitzva defined as turning a house into one which contains Chanuka candles?


Two sources that study the relationship between Chanuka candles and mezuza must first be inspected. Tosafot (Sukka 46a) question why, of all mitzvot, the mitzva of Chanuka candles features a unique blessing for someone who witnesses the performance of the mitzva but does not perform it himself. The gemara (Shabbat 24a) claims that, under certain conditions, a person who gazes upon a lit menora should recite the blessing "She-asa nissim la-avoteinu," "Who performed miracles for our ancestors." Why does someone who witnesses a sukka not recite a similar blessing?

Tosafot's first answer analyzes the role of Chanuka candles in celebrating and publicizing a miracle; this special function mandates a blessing even for a witness who is not actually performing the mitzva. Tosafot consider a second reason for Chanuka candles' privileged status: since many people do not own houses (and would not otherwise fulfill any element of the mitzva), a special blessing was instituted for spectators. Tosafot then question this last answer: if the concern for homeless people were so dominant, we would establish a similar blessing in the case of mezuza, which also cannot be fulfilled without a house. Do Tosafot mean to equate mezuza and Chanuka candles at a structural level? Just as mezuza is a chovat ha-bayit and does not enjoy a special blessing, similarly Chanuka candles, which is also a chovat ha-bayit, should not be granted this blessing? Or, alternatively, do Tosafot merely suggest that since these two mitzvot are performed only in the context of a house, they should exhibit similar properties regarding blessings for spectators? It is somewhat difficult to assess the basis of Tosafot's analogy.

From the Rambam's view (Hilkhot Berakhot 11:2), however, we might receive a less ambiguous understanding of Chanuka candles. The Rambam (in his catalogue of various mitzvot and their respective blessings) suggests that there are two types of mitzvot: "chova," an absolute obligation, and "reshut," a command which must be fulfilled only if certain preconditions exist. Of course, the two classic examples of biblical mitzvot of the latter category are mezuza and tzitzit. Without a four-cornered garment, a person has absolutely no obligation to purchase one in order to fulfill the mitzva of tzitzit; similarly, one has no obligation to buy a house in order to fulfill the mitzva of mezuza. Moreover, just as these two categories of mitzvot exist on the Biblical plane, they appear on the rabbinical one as well. Examples of rabbinical reshut include "eiruvei chatzeirot," the extension of one's domain to permit carrying outside on Shabbat, and "netillat yadayim," the obligation to wash one's hand before eating bread. Examples of rabbinical chova include reading the megilla on Purim and lighting candles on Chanuka. The Rambam unequivocally defines Chanuka candles as a chovat gavra; regardless of whether he owns a house, a person is obligated in the mitzva - but from a technical standpoint, without a house, once cannot execute the mitzva.

This question regarding the fundamental nature of Chanuka candles comes to expression in several halakhic manifestations. The most glaring might just be the case of "akhsenai" (lodger) debated by the gemara (Shabbat 23a). If someone is a guest at another's house during Chanuka, how does he fulfill the mitzva of Chanuka candles? The Gemara first quotes Rav Sheishet, who declares that a guest is obligated to fulfill the mitzva. By not specifying any special mode of executing the mitzva, Rav Sheshet suggests the guest performs it in the exact same manner as the host, by lighting his own menora. The Ran, in his commentary to the Rif's rulings, concludes from this halakha that Chanuka candles should not be confused with mezuza; whereas the latter is obligatory only if one owns a house, the obligation of Chanuka candles applies even if one does not. By announcing the obligation and manner of performance of the akhsenai, the gemara preempts any thoughts of comparing Chanuka candles to mezuza.

After Rav Sheshet, the gemara cites Rav Zeira, who suggests a different manner by which the guest performs the mitzva: the visitor pays a peruta's worth of money to his or her host. This new manner of performing the mitzva supports the notion that Chanuka candles are indeed a chovat ha-bayit, thus forcing the akhsenai to adjust his performance. The guest cannot just light his or her own menora, because the akhsenai is not lighting in his own house. By paying money, the akhsenai is asking the homeowner to perform the mitzva on the guest's behalf. Some have even suggested that this payment turns the akhsenai, having paid a symbolic rent, into a temporary member of the household, and allows the guest to perform the mitzva of Chanuka candles in a context approximating his or her own residence. Regardless, either explanation assumes that an akhsenai cannot merely replicate the behavior of a homeowner, confirming that indeed the mitzva of Chanuka candles is a chovat ha-bayit according to the view of Rav Zeira. Indeed, our question may form the basis of his argument with Rav Sheshet.

A second consequence of this question deals with the exact placement of the menora. Though the aforementioned gemara suggested that it must be lit in the house, that passage does not specify the exact location within the house. A subsequent gemara (21b) claims that the menora is placed in the entrance to the house, on the outside. This statement seems to imply that the menora is to be set in the entrance from the reshut ha-rabbim (street, or public domain) to the house. Such a reading wouldactually place the menora in reshut ha-rabbim. Rashi disputes this idea and claims that the menora should be placed in the entrance from the courtyard to the house. (In Mishnaic and Talmudic times, a common courtyard was shared by the inhabitants of a number of private houses.)

What forced Rashi to relocate the menora from the reshut ha-rabbim to the courtyard? Could Rashi have opposed placing a menora in the public area because he viewed the mitzva as one OF THE HOUSE and not merely as one performed IN THE HOUSE? If the house is merely the site of the mitzva, then the part of reshut ha-rabbim adjacent to the house suffices; if, however, we must convert the house into one which is graced by Chanuka candles, we might insist that the menora be located within the four walls and the domain of the house. It should be noted that not only do many authorities dispute Rashi's ruling, but Rashi himself (Shabbat 22 and Bava Kama 22) seems to allow a menora in reshut ha-rabbim under certain conditions. The context of this shiur does not allow a fuller explication of Rashi's position, but his comments on Shabbat 21b do indeed evoke an image of chovat ha-bayit.

Another issue relating to placement of the menora relates to the height. The gemara disqualifies a menora which is placed above twenty amot, or 30-40 feet (in those days before apartment building); since people generally did not look above twenty amot, the publicizing of the miracle, the primary aim of lighting Chanuka candles, would have been severely compromised. Subsequently, the gemara debates whether we should impose an even stricter height limit of ten tefachim (30-40 inches). The source of the ten-tefach limit, however, is not clear.

The Ritva comments that halakha often recognizes a height of ten tefachim as a separate legal domain. For example, if a podium of ten tefachim is placed in reshut ha-rabbim, that area is deemed a private domain for Shabbat purposes (i.e., a person may freely carry on the podium). As the space above ten tefachim is a different domain, the menora must be placed beneath ten tefachim, so that a person and his or her menora will remain in the same domain.

Though the Ritva's interpretation of the ten-tefach space is provocative, his conclusion that a person and the menora should occupy the same space might corroborate our earlier view. Since Chanuka candles are a mitzva OF THE HOUSE, we must situate the menora firmly within the house. Just as Rashi disallows dislocating the menora from the house into the reshut ha-rabbim, the Ritva insists that the menora be tethered to the actual zone within the house that its lighters occupy. Rashi's limitation and the Ritva's explanation derive from the same logical concept.


To receive the parsha shiur every week, write to:


[email protected]

With the message:


Subscribe yhe-parsha

This shiur is provided courtesy of the Virtual Beit Midrash, the premier source of online courses on Torah and Judaism - 14 different courses on all levels, for all backgrounds.

Make Jewish learning part of your week on a regular basis - enroll in the
Virtual Beit Midrash

(c) Yeshivat Har Etzion1997 Allrights reserved to Yeshivat Har Etzion

Yeshivat Har Etzion
Alon Shvut, Israel, 90433
[email protected]