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Expressions of Pirsumei Nissa

Rav Moshe Taragin
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We have previously discussed the berakha of she-assa nissim ( recited when lighting the Chanuka candles, and we used that berakha to evaluate if there is a second layer to the mitzva of hadlakat nerot. In this shiur, we will examine additional indications that this mitzva is indeed multi-layered. 


An interesting and much discussed consequence of this mitzva's additional layer of pirsumei nissa lies in the all-encompassing nature of the obligation. Although women are generally exempt from time-bound obligations (mitzvot asei she-ha-zeman gerama), they are nevertheless obligated to light Chanuka candles, since "af hen hayu be-oto ha-nes" – they were directly involved in the miracle. Some suggest that this principle does not mean that women were merely saved along with their male counterparts, and are therefore similarly obligated, but rather that women formed the vanguard in the miracles of both Chanuka and Purim. Yet we do not utilize the principle of “af hen hayu be-oto ha-nes” to obligate women in other time-bound mitzvot. For example, women are not obligated to don tefillin, even though that mitzva is performed to commemorate our Exodus from Egypt – "Le-ma'an tihyeh Torat Hashem be-ficha ki be-yad chazaka hotziacha Hashem mi-Mitzrayim" (Shemot 13:9).  Since tefillin is time-bound, as it does not apply at night according to some and is limited to weekdays according to all, women are exempt from the mitzva, despite the fact that they participated in the miracles of the Exodus. 


R. Moshe Soloveitchik (father of the Rav zt"l) suggested a difference between mitzvot that are performed “zekher la-nes” – in commemoration of a miracle - and those which are performed to enable “pirsumei nissa,” publicity of the miracle. The function of tefillin is merely to commemorate - to provide a daily reminder of the obvious role of Hashem's intervention in history and how He redeemed us from the oppressive conditions in Egypt. Since those events were obvious, no publicity is necessary, and tefillin certainly do not serve the function of pirsumei nissa.  Women are therefore not included in this mitzva because it is time-bound. Unlike tefillin, hadlakat nerot serves to publicize a miracle that was not self-evident. Although the events were blatantly miraculous, because they occurred in the post-prophetic era of the Second Temple, they might not be viewed as supernatural and may not elicit the same degree of gratitude.  Charged with the responsibility of accentuating the Divine nature of this miracle, the candles do not merely commemorate - they publicize. Women are included in the obligation to perform this function, despite the fact that it is time-bound.


This analysis assumes that the principle of af hen hayu be-oto ha-nes can obligate women even in Biblical mitzvot. This is the assumption of Tosafot in Megilla, but is not universally accepted. If we deny this premise, no distinction between the mitzvot of tefillin and hadlakat nerot is necessary to explain why af hen hayu be-oto ha-nes is operative only in the latter. If af hen hayu be-oto ha-nes does not work to obligate women in Biblical mitzvot, there is no question of why women are not obligated in tefillin. 


Another expression of the pirsumei nissa component of the mitzva of hadlakat nerot can be detected in the unique halakha requiring an individual to spend whatever amount necessary to fulfill the mitzva. A person is generally exempt from fulfilling a mitzva if it will cost more than twenty percent of his assets to fulfill it. However, the Rambam (Hilkhot Chanuka 4:12) writes that even if a person is penniless, he must spend any money he possesses to acquire the materials needed to kindle Chanuka lights. The Maggid Mishneh explains that this unique obligation can be attributed to the pirsumei nissa facet of lighting Chanuka candles. Standard mitzvot do not require these extraordinary measures, but pirsumei nissa does. 


The source of this halakha can be traced to a well-known mishna (opening the tenth perek of Pesachim), which states that even a poor person who depends on public charity should be given the resources to fulfill the mitzva of drinking four cups of wine on Pesach. The mitzva of drinking four cups of wine is also viewed by Chazal as an attempt to publicize a certain feature of the miracle of Egypt. (In fact, women are included in this mitzva as well, despite it being a mitzvat asei she-ha-zeman gerama; we apply the principle of af hen hayu be-oto ha-nes to a mitzva that functions as pirsumei nissa). This mishna establishes that lack of funds does not exempt from a mitzva of pirsumei nissa – either at a personal or societal level. Just as an individual must expend all assets to fulfill the mitzva, so must a community allocate public funds to facilitate every member's performance of the mitzva. The Rambam, according to the Maggid Mishneh, is merely applying the principle of that mishna to the comparable mitzva of hadlakat nerot.


Another fascinating expression of pirsumei nissa is the custom to light candles in the Beit Kenesset.  In fact, we even recite a berakha on this lighting, and the person who lights and recites the berakha then returns home and recites additional berakhot. What is the basis of this custom, and why are Chanuka candles the only “personal” mitzva that is repeated in the Beit Kenesset? 


The Rishonim differ as to the exact reason for this public lighting. The Sefer Ha-Manhig – a 12th century author – claimed that lighting in shul is indicative of the fact that Chanuka lighting is, in some ways, an extension of the lighting of the menora in the Beit Ha-Mikdash. This position stems from two interesting sources. Parashat Beha'alotekha begins with Hashem commanding Aharon – yet again - about lighting the menora in the Beit Ha-Mikdash. Chazal portray Aharon as despairing at not having enthusiastically joined the Nesi'im of the various shevatim in providing gifts at the Mishkan's inauguration.  Responding to Aharon's dejection, Hashem awards him with this mitzva of lighting the menorah, informing him, "shelkha gedola mi-shelahem" - your mitzva will surpass theirs. The Ramban inquires as to why Aharon would take unique comfort in this promise, since the destruction of the Beit Ha-Mikdash would render obsolete both the gifts of the Nesi'im as well as the lighting of the menora.  The Ramban claims that lighting the menora on Chanuka perpetuates the ceremony of lighting in the Temple, and this is precisely what comforted Aharon.  He was informed that he would begin a mitzva whose performance would outlast the destruction of the Mikdash. 


According to the Manhig, since lighting a menora perpetuates the lighting of the menora of the Mikdash, it is reasonable that the menora should also be lit in a setting reminiscent of the original Mikdash. Based upon the pasuk in Yechezkel 27, every Beit Kenesset is considered a “mikdash me’at,” a miniature Mikdash, and is thus a natural setting in which to capture the Mikdash environment of lighting the menora.


Ironically, the Ba'al Ha-Ma'or (who is usually involved in strident disputes with the Ramban) adopted this same principle in explaining the gemara in Shabbat (21a), which rules that the oil of the Chanuka lights are assur be-hana'a (forbidden for personal use). The Ba'al Ha-Ma'or claims that since our menora is an extension of the menora in the Mikdash, the oil is considered legally hekdesh (property of the Beit Ha-Mikdash) and any benefit is therefore forbidden. This is a bold application of the Manhig's concept. This approach gives new perspective to the phrase, "Ha-nerot halalu kodesh hem" – these candles are holy - which we recite in the hymn titled by those words. The candles are indeed holy, since they are invested with the status of kedusha normally reserved for items of hekdesh.


After posing this first approach, the Manhig suggests a different basis for lighting in the Beit Ha-Kenesset. Since the objective of the mitzva is to publicize the miracle, the lighting should be performed in a public setting. By lighting in the Beit Kenesset, we ensure publicity not just to individuals, but to a group of people which has attained the status of a minyan. This is not merely a quantitative expansion of pirsumei nissa by publicizing to more individuals. Lighting in the Beit Kenesset entails a qualitatively different form of pirsumei nissa by advertising the miracle to a tzibbur - a halakhically assembled group of people. 


This view may explain an interesting custom. On Motza'ei Shabbat of Chanuka, logic would dictate that we should first recite havdala and subsequently light the Chanuka candles. Indeed, the Shulchan Arukh suggests this sequence. Yet the same Shulchan Arukh maintains that in shul, Chanuka candles are lit prior to the recitation of havdala (681:2)! The Rav zt"l explained that Chanuka candles must be scheduled prior to havdala in the synagogue to ensure that they are kindled in the presence of a minyan. Once havdala is performed, even if everyone in shul remains, the minyan has halakhically disbanded and the Chanuka candles are no longer being kindled in the presence of a halakhically viable or necessary minyan. In fact, the Rav zt"l recorded a custom in Brisk to light Chanuka candles even earlier in the Ma’ariv service, prior to the recitation of "Viyhi no'am," in order to ensure that they were lit in front of a minyan that was still required halakhically for tefillot still to come. Perhaps the goal of lighting in front of a minyan is not achieved if lighting the Chanuka nerot takes place just prior to havdala. If havdala does not require a halakhic minyan, then the minyan has already disbanded after "Viyhi no'am," even if havdala has yet to be recited. By scheduling candle lighting prior to "Viyhi no'am," they hoped to enable its performance before a halakhically mandated minyan.  Although we do not adopt this practice, our lighting in shul prior to havdala certainly suggests that the mitzva is performed in shul to facilitate pirsumei nissa in front of a halakhically mandated minyan.

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