Chanuka: A Holiday of Renewing the Covenant (Part I)

  • Harav Mosheh Lichtenstein

I

 

            The Shulchan Arukh (Orach Chayyim 676:5) rules:

 

On the first night [of Chanuka] a person starts lighting with the rightmost candle. On the second night, when he adds another candle next to it, he recites the blessing over the additional leftmost candle, so that he will proceed toward the right. Similarly, on the third night, when he adds another candle next to the first two, he starts with the additional candle, reciting the blessing over it, and then proceeds toward the right. And so too every night. It turns out then that he always recites the blessing over the additional candle that attests to the miracle, for with each additional day, the miracle increased.

 

            The Vilna Gaon traces this position to the Maharik (181), and then rejects it out of hand, saying:

 

“He recites the blessing over the additional candle” – [This is the view of] the Maharik, but it has neither savor nor flavor, for that [i.e., lighting additional candles] is only for the extremely zealous [mehadrin min ha-mehadrin], and thus he passes over the principal mitzva and recites the blessing over an optional [element]. See 674:1 in Rema. Moreover, in order to proceed toward the right, he cancels the principal [element of the] mitzva that [the Chanuka candle be lit] within the handbreadth nearest the door.

Rather, what is correct is that he should begin with the candle closest to the door, whether he lights to the right of the door or to its left. He should recite the blessing over that [candle] every night. He should always light and recite the blessing over [the candle] closest to the door, it being the principal mitzva. See Magen Avraham in the name of the Maharshal.

 

            The Terumat ha-Deshen (no. 106) notes that this issue had already been subject to dispute in earlier generations. In the Rhineland communities, it was the customary practice to light from left to right, whereas in Austria, they conducted themselves in the opposite manner and began lighting with the rightmost candle. R. Yisrael Isserlein himself tries to reconcile the conflicting practices by suggesting that one who has a mezuza on the door of his house should light from the left, so that the mezuza is on his right and the Chanuka candle on his left, whereas one who does not have a mezuza on the door of his house[1] should light from the right. In this way the diverse practices can be united into a single custom. It must be noted, however, that this proposed reconciliation of the conflicting practices remains within the confines of conjecture. Moreover, whatever the validity of R. Isserlein’s suggestion, it is clear that the Shulchan Arukh and the Vilna Gaon (and other Acharonim[2]) maintain diametrically opposed positions, and so we must try to understand the underlying issue about which they disagree.

            The Gemara states (Shabbat 22a):

 

Rabba said: There is a mitzva to place the Chanuka candle within the handbreadth nearest the door. And where is it placed? Rav Acha son of Rava said: On the right hand side. Rav Shemuel of Difti said: On the left hand side. And the law is, on the left, so that the Chanuka candle is on the left and the mezuza on the right.

 

It is from here that we learn that the Chanuka candle must be lit next to the door to one’s house. But it is not clear from this passage whether lighting the Chanuka candle to the right or to the left of the door is an essential requirement and fundamental element of the laws governing Chanuka candles, or merely an adornment of the mitzva and a praiseworthy custom.

            At first glance it would seem that lighting the Chanuka candle to the left of the door is a praiseworthy custom to be practiced when lighting next to the door, and nothing more. For the mitzva of lighting a Chanuka candle is based on the principle of “publicizing the miracle” (as stated in Shabbat 23b), and the essence of the mitzva is that the Chanuka candle should be visible to the public at large. The reason that we light the candle next to the door to the house is that the entranceway to one’s house is the place most visible to the public and thus it gives the miracle the widest publicity. This is what Rashi (Shabbat 21b) writes when he explains the law that one must light a Chanuka candle next to the entrance to one’s house from the outside: “In order to publicize the miracle.” Therefore, when lighting at one’s doorway does not achieve the goal of publicizing the miracle, it should be preferable to light in a place where the candle is visible to the public, e.g., in a second-story window, or the like, and thus give greater publicity to the miracle, instead of lighting next to the door. This, indeed, is the Magen Avraham’s ruling (671:8) that in such a case it is preferable to light in an upstairs window. It stands to reason that if lighting at the door has no significance in itself, placement of the candle to the right or to the left of the door cannot be essential to the fulfillment of the mitzva, but rather it is a fitting custom for one who lights at his door when it is a place exposed to the public eye.

            This conclusion follows from the Rema’s ruling concerning lighting the Chanuka candle within the handbreadth nearest the door in our time. He writes (671:7):

 

In our time, however, when we all light inside [the house], and nothing at all is visible to those in the public domain, there is no need to be concerned about lighting within the handbreadth nearest the door. The common custom, however, is to light within the handbreadth nearest the door as in times of old.  There should be no deviation from this practice unless there are many members of the household, in which case it is preferable that they each light in a distinct place, rather than that they all light in one place, leaving no indication as to how many candles were lit [that night].

 

            The Rema’s ruling means that we are not insistent about lighting next to the door, for by strict law there is no obligation to light there. The door is merely a place where the miracle can be publicized to the outside world, but it is irrelevant when lighting for the members of one’s household inside, and therefore today there is no need to light next to the door.

            What was obvious to the Rema, was not, however, accepted by all the Rishonim. The Meiri (22a, s.v., ner Chanuka) writes:

 

Regarding the Chanuka candle, the mitzva is to place it within the handbreadth nearest the door and to light it there, both when lighting outside in times of old, and when lighting inside today. The candle is lit on the left side so that the mezuza is on the right side of the person entering the house [and the Chanuka candle on his left].

 

            The author of the Shibbolei ha-Leket and Rabbenu Efrayim (Shibbolei ha-Leket, beginning of sec. 185) agree with the Meiri, and this seems also to be the position of the Sefer ha-Teruma (sec. 228), the Sefer Mitzvot ha-Katan (sec. 280), and the Shulchan Arukh.

            What emerges from all this is that many authorities maintain that lighting Chanuka candles next to the door has independent importance, even when it does not serve to publicize the miracle, against the Rema. We must try to understand the significance of lighting Chanuka candles next to the entranceway to one’s house, and the connection between the candle and that entranceway.

 

II

 

            The Orchot Chayyim (Hilkhot Chanuka, par. 13-14) writes:

 

A lodger is obligated in [the mitzva of lighting a] Chanuka candle and shares the cost, if they do not light for him in his own house… A courtyard or house that has two doors on two sides needs two candles because of the suspicion of passers-by… It seems that this only applies when the doors are to one house, but if they are to two houses on two sides and one person lives in them, and people go in and out of both, he must light in both of them, but he recites only one blessing. Since we maintain that [lighting Chanuka candles] is an obligation upon the person, we say that the two constitute a single mitzva… The author of the Me’orot writes in the name of Rav Yitzchak b. Rav Abba Mari that we see from here that if many people live in the same courtyard, they all share the cost of one candle. Thus far [the Me’orot]. And some say that this only applies if they didn’t open a door for themselves as is the custom of lodgers. And so writes the Sefer ha-Teruma that the law of a lodger comes to teach us that I might have thought that the obligation is upon the door, like a mezuza, since it is stated that the mitzva is to place [the Chanuka candle] next to the door of one’s house. And I might have said that one who has a door is obligated, and one who does not have a door is exempt. Therefore it comes to teach us that [the latter] is obligated. This is not similar to mezuza, for in the case of mezuza, even if a person has many doors, they are each obligated [in mezuza], but in the case of a Chanuka candle, [lighting] at one suffices. So too one who lives on the second floor is exempt from mezuza but obligated [to light] a Chanuka candle.

 

            In contrast, Tosafot in Sukka (46a, s.v. ha-ro’eh) argue that one who does not have a house is exempt from the mitzva of lighting a Chanuka candle:

 

Regarding other mitzvot, e.g., lulav and sukka, [the Sages] did not institute a blessing for the observer, but only regarding the Chanuka candle, owing to the dearness of the miracle, and also because there are people who don’t have houses and are unable to fulfill the mitzva. The first explanation is preferable, so that an objection not be raised from mezuza.

 

            We see, then, that the Rishonim disagree whether lighting Chanuka candles is an obligation of the door, similar to mezuza (so that someone who does not have a house is exempt from the obligation of lighting), or whether it is a personal obligation of every individual, unconnected to whether he has a house.

            Another factor must be taken into consideration. The famous baraita regarding lighting Chanuka candles (Shabbat 21b) states:

 

Our Rabbis taught: The precept of Chanuka [demands] one light for a man and his household; the zealous (mehadrin) [kindle] a light for each member [of the household]; and the extremely zealous (mehadrin min ha-mehadrin) – Beit Shammai maintain: On the first day eight lights are lit and thereafter they are gradually reduced; but Beit Hillel say: On the first day one is lit and thereafter they are progressively increased.

 

The early authorities disagree about the mehadrin min ha-mehadrin: according to both Tosafot (ad loc., s.v. ve-ha-mehadrin) and the Rambam (Hilkhot Chanuka 4:1-2), only the head of the household lights in accordance with the number of days (and the other members of the household do not light at all), whereas according to the Rema (671:2) and Ashkenazi custom, each member of the household lights increasing numbers of candles.

            The Acharonim discuss why there is a special enactment for the extremely zealous regarding the mitzva of lighting Chanuka candles. In all other mitzvot, by contrast, there is a general law of hiddur mitzva (enhancement and beautification of a mitzva) derived from the verse, “This is my God and I will beautify Him,” but the Sages did not enact a special law for the extremely zealous. Two points must be clarified: why was a special law enacted in the case of Chanuka candles, and what is the meaning of the law – does the law of mehadrin min ha-mehadrin come to express the dearness of the mitzva like hiddur mitzva in other mitzvot, or is enhancing the mitzva in the case of Chanuka candles part of the essence of the mitzva itself?[3]

            It seems that, according to the Rema, both sides are correct. The basic law of “a candle for a man and his household” is an obligation of the house, as argued by the Tosafot in Sukka, and therefore only the head of the household lights. The enactment of mehadrin min ha-mehadrin adds a personal obligation to each member of the household to light as an individual, in addition to the obligation imposed on the house as a whole.[4]

            This, however, does not end the discussion, for we must still understand why the Sages made two enactments regarding Chanuka candles, and why they decided to impose one obligation upon the house and another on the individual, rather than sufficing with a single obligation, as is the case with other mitzvot.

 

To be continued.

 

Translated by David Strauss.  The original Hebrew version of this article includes a lengthy section on Purim as well.  The original article appeared in Ketonet Yosef: Studies in Memory of R. Yosef Wanefsky z”l, eds. R. Daniel Z. Feldman, R. Dovid Gottlieb, and R. Shmuel Maybruch (NY, 2002), and is available at www.yutorah.org.

[1] “Today in most places and regarding the vast majority of people, even Torah scholars, people do not have mezuzas in their winter rooms where they light [Chanuka candles]” (Terumat ha-Deshen, ibid.).

[2] See Magen Avraham (ibid. no. 4).

[3] See Encyclopedia Talmudit, vol. 16, s.v. Chanuka, no. 4, which cites the relevant sources. See also p. 272, regarding reciting a blessing over hiddur mitzva.

[4] Here I assume that the law of mehadrin min ha-mehadrin is part of the enactment of lighting Chanuka candles, and not merely a law of hiddur mitzva. However, in commenting on Rambam’s Hilkhot Chanuka, Rav Yitzchak Ze’ev Halevi Soloveitchik writes the opposite: “Even according to the Rema, who believes that each member of the household lights for himself, it is nevertheless obvious that it makes no difference whatsoever whether he himself performs the kindling, or someone else lights on his behalf. For even regarding the essential mitzva of Chanuka candles – ‘a man and his household’ – someone else can light, even if he is not a member of the household, provided that he is obligated in the mitzva. The main difference between the view of the Rambam and that of the Rema is that according to the Rambam, all of the candles are a single lighting, and there are no distinct candles and lightings for each and every individual, whereas according to the Rema, in the case of mehadrin, each and every person lights individually with specific candles and a separate lighting, and he does not fulfill his mitzva with the candle of the head of the household, and this is the hiddur. But even according to the Rema, this lighting can be performed by one person for all the members of the household, one candle for each individual. For it does not depend on the act of lighting but on the candles; but the act of lighting can be performed by someone else, provided that he is obligated in the mitzva, as is the case with the essential mitzva. This is obvious.”

What he says here must be understood in light of what he says earlier, where he argues that the disagreement between the Rambam and the Rema relates to the definition of the act of the mitzva and not to the obligation. There he writes: “According to the basic enactment, the mitzva of lighting a Chanuka candle is the same as all other mitzvot, that there is an element that is the essence of the mitzva and indispensible, and an element that is an enhancement and the best way to perform the mitzva….”

In contrast, Or Same’ach (Hilkhot Chanuka 4:12) rules that one may take from charity in order to fulfill the hiddur and not only to fulfill the basic mitzva. This is because even the hiddur is regarded as part of the essence of the mitzva of Chanuka candles, and not merely an enhancement of the mitzva.