Chanuka Lights: Oil, Wax or Electricity?

  • Rav David Brofsky
Dedicated in memory of Abraham Gontownik z"l 
on the occasion of his eighteenth Yahrzeit; 
and in honor and in celebration of both the births of 
Pliya Shulamit to Yoni and Bellene, and Daniel David to Shira and Ari, 
and the engagement of Ezra to Lilly Katz.
The Gontownik Family
The Talmud (Shabbat 21b) concludes that all wicks and oils, even those which may not be used for neirot Shabbat, may be used for neirot Chanuka.  The Gemara (23a) does, however, express a preference for olive oil:
R. Yehoshua b. Levi said: All oils are fit for the Chanuka lamp, but olive oil is the most preferred. Abayei said: At first the Master [Rabba] used to seek poppy-seed oil, saying, “The light of this lasts longer”; but when he heard this [dictum] of R. Yehoshua b. Levi, he was particular for olive oil, saying, “This yields a clearer light.”
Many Rishonim (Tosafot s.v. me-reish, Mordechai 278, and others) interpret this Gemara as referring to ner Chanuka, and expressing a preference for olive oil due to its clear flame. Others (Meiri, Kol Bo, and others) prefer olive oil because the miracle of the flask of oil occurred with olive oil. By contrast, some Rishonim (Rif, Rambam, Rosh, Tur, and others) don’t record any preference.
The Rema (673:1) writes that while it is preferable to light with olive oil, it is customary to light with wax candles, because they, like oil, produce a clear flame. The Acharonim discuss the question of whether it is nevertheless preferable to light with olive oil.
Interestingly, the Maharal of Prague (R. Yehuda Loew ben Betzalel, 1520-1609) prohibited lighting with wax candles. His grandson even records that he instituted a communal ban on lighting with wax, and even forced his synagogue to change their menorah to accommodate lighting with oil (Yemei Hallel Ve-hoda'a, p. 106, note 21). 
In recent years, poskim have addressed the question of whether one may use electric lights for neirot Chanuka
A minority of authorities have sanctioned using electric chanukiyot to fulfill one's obligation. For example, R. Yosef Messas (1892-1974), former chief Rabbi of Haifa, rules that one may use electric lights (made with incandescent bulbs) for neirot Chanuka (Mayim Chayim OC 79).  He insists that that metal filament should fulfill the requirement for a "wick". Furthermore, he argues that just as Ashkenazic Jews reportedly use wax candles for hadlakat neirot, as the Rema records, then certainly there seems to be no requirement to use oil. Furthermore, the act of turning the light off and on should also satisfy the requirement of hadlaka.
Indeed, in his work on the laws of Chanuka, entitled Ner Mitzva (p. 15), he shockingly asserts:
And I say more, that it is simple and clear, that if the electrical light existed in the time of the Temple, certainly with it they would have lit the menorah, since it is impossible to be that we would fill our everyday homes with these great lights of the precious electrical light, that it is a kind of example from the heavens, and in the House of Our Holy Lord we would light with olive oil, that even the extremely poor are disgusted by it at this time, and it is simple that from it [i.e. electrical light] we will light in the last house [i.e. Temple] that will be built speedily in our days amen.
However, most authorities object to using electric lights for neirot Chanuka, for a number of reasons.
Some claim that the light produced by an electric light does not satisfy the halakhic requirement of "eish" (fire). Indeed, regarding the laws of Shabbat, many poskim agree, based upon the Rambam (Shabbat 12:1), that heating the filament of an incandescent light bulb, causing it to glow, violates the melakha of mav'ir (kindling a flame), as the hot, glowing metal is considered "eish." Florescent, neon and LED displays do NOT create light through the heating of a metal filament, and are thus not considered "eish" on Shabbat.
Regarding neirot Chanuka, assuming that this mitzva requires “eish,” one certainly cannot light a fluorescent light or LED display in order to fulfill the mitzva. As for an incandescent bulb, one might, at first glance, compare the requirement of "eish" for neirot Chanuka (assuming such a requirement exists) to the definition of "eish" on Shabbat.  Some authorities, however, nevertheless disqualify the use of an incandescent bulb, claiming that even if it contains "eish," it does not constitute a "ner." Similarly, R. Tzvi Pesach Frank, cites R. Yosef Rosen (the Rogatchover Gaon, 1858-1936) as permitting the use of an incandescent bulb for havdala, as it qualifies as "eish," but not for Shabbat candle lighting, as it does not qualify as a "ner" (Har Tzvi, O.C. 2,:114:2). Furthermore, some authorities claim that a bulb produces too much light, rendering it similar to a medura (a large fire).
Others contend that the use of a bulb differs too dramatically from the miracle which occurred in the Beit Ha-mikdash to fulfill the obligation (Kaf Ha-Chayim 673:19). Additionally, some authorities argued that by definition, ner Chanuka requires a source of fuel (oil or wax) and a wick, both of which are absent from electric lights.
Some authorities disqualified the use of electric bulbs because of the requirement to light candles containing at least enough wax or oil to burn for a half-hour.  Since an electric bulb has no fuel, it cannot be used (though one could argue that the use of a battery suffices as an adequate source of “fuel” in this regard).
While most poskim do not accept the use of electric lights, some (Be'er Moshe 6:58, Yabi'a Omer OC 3:35) suggest that under extenuating circumstances one should light an electric light without reciting a berakha, in order to satisfy the minority opinion.
For more on this topic, see the articles by Rabbis Howard Jachter and Michael Broyde in the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society (volumes 21 and 25), and R. Feitel Levin's "Chanukiya Chashmalit" in Techumin (9).