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Ner Chanuka: Who Lights and How Many Candles?

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Ner Chanuka: Who Lights and How Many Candles?

Rav David Brofsky



In this shiur, we will we discuss a woman's obligation in ner Chanuka, and the practical and conceptual importance of this issue.  In addition, we will endeavor to define the essential mitzva of ner Chanuka and try to understand the various opinions that exist regarding the three different levels of performing this mitzva enumerated by the Gemara.  

Women and Nerot Chanuka 

The Gemara (Shabbat 23a) teaches: 

"Women certainly light, as Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi taught: Women are obligated in ner Chanuka, as they were also in the miracle…" 

Apparently, despite the broad exemption from time-bound commandments ("mitzvot aseh she-hazman gerama"), women are obligated to fulfill the mitzva of Chanuka lights. Similarly, the Gemara elsewhere teaches that women are included in the obligations of mikra megilla (Megilla 4a) and arba kosot (Pesachim 108a), which are also time-bound commandments.  

The Rishonim discuss the precise meaning of the phrase, “af hen hayu be-oto ha-nes” – "they were also in the miracle." Rashi, in the context of Megilla reading (Megilla 4a), explains that the decree of annihilation included both men and women, and hence the mitzvot enacted to commemorate the nation’s deliverance naturally apply to men and women alike. The Rashbam (Tosafot, Megilla 4a, s.v. she-af hen) disagrees, explaining that in all three instances – in Persia, in Egypt, and during the Greek persecution – women played a crucial role in Am Yisrael’s salvation. Esther, of course, brought about the deliverance of the Jewish people during the time of Achashverosh. The four cups of wine drunk at the seder commemorate the Exodus from Egypt, regarding which the Sages comment (in Sota 11b and elsewhere), “In the merit of righteous women, the children of Israel were redeemed from Egypt." As for the Chanuka miracle, the Rashbam claims that this miracle was facilitated by Yehudit, a beautiful Jewish widow known to us through the apocryphal book of Judith. Yehudit ingratiated herself to the enemy general, Holofernes, and eventually decapitated him while he slept in a drunken stupor. The Syrians, having lost their leader, fled, and the Jewish people were saved.  

Aside from the questionable historicity of this story, Tosafot note that the phrase, "they were ALSO in the miracle" indicates that the women were also saved, or, as the Talmud Yerushalmi explains, they were "also in the same situation of insecurity" (“safek,” or danger), and not that they were responsible for the miraculous deliverance in each occurrence. 

The Rishonim also discuss the scope and nature of this halakha. Tosafot (Pesachim 108b s.v. hayu), for example, question why women are exempt from the commandment to dwell in sukkot, given that they, too, benefited from God’s miraculous protection in the wilderness. Elsewhere (Megilla 4a ibid.), Tosafot inquire as to why the Talmud does not invoke the rule of af hen hayu as the basis for women’s inclusion in the mitzva of matza, resorting instead to a different source. 

Interestingly, the Chatam Sofer (Rabbi Moshe Sofer, 1762-1839), in his work of responsa (O.C. 185), asks why the Talmud didn't obligate women to wear tefillin, which also serve as a reminder for the Exodus from Egypt. 

Tosafot (Pesachim 108b) suggest that the principle of af hen hayu refers only to women’s obligation to perform mitzvot that are of Rabbinic origin (mi-derabbanan).  As such, this rule cannot be applied to sukka or matza. Furthermore, they claim that af hen hayu is effective only in obligating women on a Rabbinic level, and cannot mandate the performance of a mitzva on the level of Torah obligation (mi-de’orayta). 

Theoretically, it would seem, the principle of af hen, according to Tosafot, may obligate women to perform any mitzva of Rabbinic origin instituted to commemorate a miracle experienced equally by women.  

Thus, for example, we might consider applying this rule to the obligation of shalosh se’udot – to eat three meals on Shabbat.  The Talmud (Shabbat 117b) infers this requirement from the Torah’s threefold use of the word “today” (ha-yom) in reference to the manna: "And Moshe said: Eat it (the manna) today, for today is Shabbat to God; today you will not find it in the field" (Shemot 16:25).  The repetition of the word ha-yom indicated to Chazal that that one should eat three meals each Shabbat in order to commemorate the miracle of the mann. While according to most opinions, the obligation to eat three meals on Shabbat is of Rabbinic origin, the Gemara clearly relates its performance to the miracle of the mann. 

Rabbeinu Tam (Sefer Ha-yashar, Teshuvot 70) insists that women are included under this obligation, as they also benefitted from the miracle of the mann which the three Shabbat meals are intended to commemorate. The Shulchan Arukh (O.C. 291:6) codifies this position, though his ruling may be attributed to various different reasons, and does not necessarily stem from Rabbeinu Tam’s contention (see Mishna Berura 26). 

Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik often cited his father, Rav Moshe Soloveitchik, as suggesting a distinction between a mitzva intended to publicize a miracle (pirsumei nisa), and a mitzva that we perform merely to recall a miracle. He explained that the three mitzvot to which the Talmud applies the rule of af hen hayuner Chanuka, mikra megilla, and arba kosot – are intended for pirsumei nisa, to publicize the given miracle. This is not the case with the other mitzvot mentioned above.  Although by sitting in a sukka one recalls God's protection of the Jewish people in the desert, and the three Shabbat meals commemorate the miracle of the mann, their primary function is not to publicize these miracles. 

"Af hen hayu be-oto ha-nes," R. Moshe Soloveitchik explains, applies only to mitzvot of pirsumei nisa, and therefore does not apply to mitzvot such as sukka, tefillin and shalosh se'udot, which are not intended for the purpose of publicizing a miracle. 

This approach clearly underscores the special quality of ner Chanuka, as a mitzva defined and dictated by its ability to publicize the miracle. 

Women and Mehadrin 

The basic mitzva of ner Chanuka is ner ish u-veito (Shabbat 21b), meaning, that a single light be kindled in the home each night of Chanuka.  The higher level of performance, or mehadrin, requires that each member of the household light Chanuka candles. The question arises as to whether women, especially married women, should kindle their own lights, like other members of the household, or whether they should fulfill their obligation through the lighting of their husbands or other family members. As we shall see shortly, this question is only relevant according to the Ashkenazic practice, according to which each person kindles their own lights. According to Sephardic custom only one person, usually the head of the household, lights.  

The Maharshal (Rabbi Shlomo Luria, 1510–1574) writes that one candle certainly suffices for both husband and wife (Teshuvot Maharshal 85). The Eliya Rabba (671) and, later, the Mishna Berura (671:9), explain that married women do not light because of the halakhic concept of ishto ke-gufo ('a man’s wife is like himself'). The Eliya Rabba adds that for this reason, married women do not light individually to fulfill the level of mehadrin. Rav Moshe Feinstein (Iggrot Moshe O.C. 109) notes that according to this rationale, if the wife had lit Chanuka candles, then the husband should not light, unless he specifically had in mind not to fulfill his obligation through his wife's lighting (see Rema 677:3). Furthermore, it would seem that according to the Eliya Rabba, there is no inherent preference for the husband to light instead of the wife, and they may even take turns if they so desire. 

In any event, the practice among many married women is not to light Chanuka candles. As noted by many Acharonim, this custom is valid only with regard to married women; it would seem that unmarried women and women whose husbands are not currently at home must certainly light Chanuka candles. 

Yet, in many communities it is customary for even single women not to light Chanuka candles. Some have suggested that the since this lighting should preferably take place outside, and imposing such a requirement upon an unmarried girl would violate her "modesty," the custom developed for unmarried women not to light at all (Chatam Sofer, Shabbat 21b). Others explain that it would be disrespectful for a girl to light given that her married mother does not light (Mishmeret Shalom 48:2).  Yet a third theory claims, quite simply, that since a girl will not light after marriage, there is no reason to encourage her to light while still single. Clearly, however, a woman living alone must light nerot Chanuka. 

Rav Soloveitchik, as recorded by R. Hershel Schachter (Nefesh Ha-Rav, pg. 226), found it difficult to apply the principle of ishto ke-gufo to this mitzva, and therefore ruled that even married women, not to mention unmarried women, should kindle their own Chanuka lights. 

Interestingly, R. Moshe Harari, in his Mikraei Kodesh - Hilkhot Chanuka (addendum 7 pg. 154), cites previously unpublished comments of R. Moshe Feinstein recalling that women in his hometown in Europe did, in fact, light nerot Chanuka, with a berakha, contrary to the impression given by the Mishna Berura. His wife, however, was not accustomed to lighting nerot Chanuka, and R. Feinstein did not impose his customs (including that of women lighting nerot Chanuka) on his wife. In any event, R. Feinstein observed that women in America are not accustomed to lighting ner Chanuka.  

As women are equally obligated in the mitzva of ner Chanuka, a woman may fulfill her family's obligation to light.


Ner Ish U-Veito - How Many Lights?


One of the great difficulties in understanding the mitzva of ner Chanuka relates to the following Talmudic passage (Shabbat 21b):


"Our Rabbis taught: The precept of Chanuka [demands] one light for a man and his household (ner ish u-veito); 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…"


First, the Talmud presents an unprecedented three-tiered description of this mitzva's performance: ner ish u-veito, mehadrin and mehadrin min ha-mehadrin. This itself requires some explanation, as we discussed in an earlier shiur (


Second, the relationship between the levels of mehadrin and mehadrin min hamehadrin is unclear, and subject to considerable debate, as we shall see.


Let us begin, however, by posing a more basic question, one which pertains to numerous halakhic issues, such as how many candles one lights, where one should light, whether and how a guest should light, and whether a traveler or somebody with no home should light.


The Gemara mentions an obligation imposed upon a person (ish) and his household (beito).  This description gives rise to the question of whether we should view the mitzva as a personal obligation (chovat gavra) which one performs (maybe only preferably) at the entrance of his house, or as an obligation upon a house (chovat ha-bayit), similar to mezuza.


On the one hand, the Gemara may be instructing us that one fulfills his individual mitzva by having a candle lit at the entrance to the house. The fact that the lighting should take place in the context of one's house, according to this perspective, is but one detail of the mitzva, which is defined essentially as a personal obligation.  Conceivably, if we accept this approach, we may even allow for fulfilling this mitzva without a house (as we will discuss), since the house is not essential to the basic definition of the obligation.


On the other hand, one might suggest that the mitzva is essentially defined as requiring candle lighting in one’s home.  The Rambam, for example, writes (Hilkhot Megilla Ve-Chanuka 4:1), "The mitzva is such that EACH AND EVERY HOUSE SHOULD LIGHT ONE CANDLE, regardless of whether the inhabitants of the house are many, or even just one…" The Rambam describes the mitzva as a requirement incumbent upon the house, rather than an obligation upon individuals. Similarly, the Ran (Rif, Shabbat 10a) understood a comment in the Gemara as proposing that guests be entirely exempt from ner Chanuka, just as a guest is not obligated to affix his own mezuza in someone else's house.  This notion certainly reflects a perspective that views the obligation as essentially defined as an obligation upon the home.


Mehadrin and Mehadrin Min Ha-mehadrin


This question may also affect our understanding of the mehadrin and mehadrin min ha-mehadrin levels of ner Chanuka.


The Gemara (Shabbat 21b) establishes that beyond the basic obligation of ner ish u-veito, there are two higher levels at which this mitzva may be performed: mehadrin and mehadrin min ha-mehadrin, the latter of which is subject to a debate between Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel.


The Gemara teaches that "the zealous ('ha-mehadrin') [kindle] a light for each member [of the household]…" This seems to mean that the ba'al ha-bayit (head of the household) lights on each night the number of candles corresponding to the members of the household. While one may view the attention to the individuals as evidence of a chovat gavra, one may also simply understand that the mehadrin house must also reflect its inhabitants.


The Gemara continues:


“The extremely zealous (ha-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…”


As for the basis of their debate, the Gemara explains:


“'Ulla said: Two Amora’im in the West [Israel], R. Yose b. Abin and R. Yose b. Zebida, differ therein.  One maintains that Beit Shammai’s reason is that it shall correspond to the days still to come, and that of Beit Hillel is that it shall correspond to the days that have passed; but another maintains that Beit Shammai's reason is that it shall correspond to the bullocks of the Festival [Sukkot], whilst Beit Hillel's reason is that we advance in [matters of] sanctity, but do not reduce (‘ma’alin ba-kodesh ve-ein moridin’).”


The Rishonim differ as to how to understand the mehadrin min ha-mehadrin standard.  Tosafot (Shabbat 21b), as well as the Ra'ah (cited in the Ran, Shabbat 21b) and others, understood that the Gemara establishes two types of hidur (“enhancement”): One, the mehadrin, dictates lighting in a manner which reflects the number of inhabitants of the house, while the other, the mehadrin min ha-mehadrin, requires lighting in a manner which reflects the ascending or descending days of Chanuka.  In other words, the “mehadrin min ha-mehadrin” is not an extension of the mehadrin, but rather stands independently of the mehadrin and expands the basic mitzva of “ner ish u-veito.”


Furthermore, Tosafot note that if the mehadrin min ha-mehadrin would expand the mehadrin, the entire purpose of these higher standards would be undermined.  Since the number of candles would correspond to both the members of the household and the number of days that have passed, observers would be unable to determine the number of members of the household, or the number of days that have passed. Tosafot therefore maintain that the mehadrin min ha-mehadrin is intended to reflect the number of days instead of (and not in addition to) the members of the household, as reflecting the number of days emphasizes the enormity of the miracle of the oil, and. is a greater form of pirsum ha-nes (publicizing the miracle). It would seem, however, that if one could light in a manner that would accurately reflect the amount of days, as well as the number of residents, that would certainly be preferred; we will return to this point shortly.  


The Rambam (4:3) records the following as “the simple custom in all our cities in Sefarad”:


“… All the members of the house light one candle on the first night, and they continually add a candle each night until they have lit eight lights, regardless of whether the members of the household are numerous, or even one…”


This custom corresponds with Tosafot’s view, that the mehadrin min ha-mehadrin does not include the mehadrin, meaning, each household – and not each person – lights the number of candles corresponding with the number of the day.  (Granted, the opening phrase in this passage – “All the members of the house…” – give rise to some confusion and require some explanation, but this lies beyond the scope of our discussion.)


The Rambam himself (4:2), however, as well as R. Yohanatan of Lunel (Ran, Shabbat 21b) and the Ritva (Shabbat 21b), disagree. The Rambam explains that while the mehader et ha-mitzvot (“one who performs the mitzvot in a beautified manner) lights the number of candles corresponding to the number of household members, one who wishes to "beautify the mitzvot even more, and fulfill the mitzva in the optimal way," also calculates the night of Chanuka. Therefore, he continues, if there are ten members of the household, the ba'al ha-bayit lights ten candles on the first night, while on the eighth night he will light eighty. Tosafot, as we noted above, rejects this option, as one who sees these lights cannot readily discern between the amount of household members and the number of nights.


In summary, while Tosafot prefer to publicize that the miracle lasted for eight days, the Rambam views the additional lights, which reflect multiple nights and household members, as the hidur.


The Maharil (Rabbi Yaakov b. Moshe Moellin, 1360-1427) records (Teshuvot 145) the prevalent custom – presumably among German communities – for each individual to light nerot Chanuka. This practice seems to imply that the mitzva of ner Chanuka, or at least the mehadrin min ha-mehadrin, focuses upon the lighting of the individual, or what we referred to as a chovat gavra.


Practical Halakha


The Shulchan Arukh (O.C. 671:2), rules in accordance with the practice documented by the Rambam, and the position of Tosafot, that the ba'al ha-bayit should light one candle each night, corresponding to the number of nights, concluding with eight candles on the eighth night. 


The Rema, on the other hand, writes:


"Some say that each member of the house should light, and that is the common custom. [But] each person should be careful to place his lights in a designated place, so that it should be clear how many candles are being lit…"


Some Acharonim (see, for example, Taz 671:1) question how the Shulchan Arukh, which represents the Sephardic tradition, rules in accordance with Tosafot, while the Rema, the voice of Ashkenzic practice, favors the Rambam’s position.


In truth, the Shulchan Arukh’s ruling follows the prevalent custom of the cities of Sefarad as recorded by the Rambam, and it should therefore come as no surprise.


[Regarding single Sephardic soldiers, or older students studying in yeshivot or university, some authorities (R. Ovadya Yosef, Yechave Da'at 6:43, R. Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, Shalmei Moed, pg. 204) rule that they fulfill their obligation through the lighting in their homes. R. Auerbach even believes that overseas students whose parents light in a different time zone should still refrain from lighting. R. Yosef disagrees (see Chazon Ovadya Chanuka, pg.150).  Others (R. Ovadiah Hadayah, Yaskil Avdi, 7, pg. 386, Chazon Ish and R. Elyashiv, Yemi Hallel Ve-hodaya, pg. 277, R. Shalom Mashash and R. Avrum Shapiro (Peninei Halacha Zemanim, pg. 281) maintain that single soldiers and students (after high school) are considered independent and must light on their own.]


However, the Rema, who rules that the number of lights should correspond to the number of residents as well as to the number of days, indeed seems to accept the Rambam’s ruling over that of Tosafot, in contrast to the Rema’s procedure of codifying the Ashkenazic custom.


A closer examination of the Rema’s ruling reveals that it does not actually reflect the view of the Rambam.  For one thing, the Rambam rules that the ba'al ha-bayit lights all of the candles, while the Rema insists that each individual lights in his/her own separate place. Secondly, in his earlier work, Darkhei Moshe (a commentary to the Tur), the Rema cites the Maharal of Prague as commenting that since we no longer light outside, it is possible for each person to light in a separate area, such that both the number of days and number of residents can be signified through the lighting.


In other words, the Rema rules according to Tosafot, who would certainly agree that when possible, one should fulfill BOTH types of hidur: reflecting the number of inhabitants, and the number of days. He therefore rules that nowadays, when this dual hidur is attainable, it becomes the ideal arrangement for lighting.  (Incidentally, the Rema's interpretation of Tosafot strongly suggests an emphasis upon the chovat gavra, as opposed to an obligation upon the household; we shall develop this point further a bit later.)


The Acharonim raise numerous questions on the Rema’s ruling. For example, once one person has lit, and all members of the household have fulfilled the basic obligation of ner ish u-veito, how is it possible for other members of the household to light with a berakha? While some (see Peri Megadim M"Z 671:1, R. Akiva Eiger – Mahadura Tinyana 13) suggest that one should have in mind not to fulfill the mitzva through another person's lighting, others (see Sefat Emet 21b) disagree. If so, then how does one recite a blessing upon a hidur mitzva if he has already fulfilled the basic obligation?


The Griz (R. Yitzchak Ze'ev Soloveitchik) explained that the Rema and the Rambam perhaps disagree concerning the status of a hidur mitzva that is not performed as part of the basic mitzva. The Rema apparently assigns great significance to a hidur mitzva and therefore sanctions reciting a berakha when performing the hidur, even when it is performed independently.


Alternatively, we might suggest that the Talmud here establishes three distinct ways to perform the mitzva, such that one who fulfills the mehadrin min ha-mehadrin has not simply “glorified" the mitzva, but has rather fulfilled the mitzva of reflecting the number of days and the house's residents through the number of lights.  Since he fulfills an entirely new mitzva by lighting the extra candles, he recites a berakha despite the fact that he has already fulfilled the basic obligation.


The Acharonim raise a number of other interesting questions relevant to the mehadrin min ha-mehadrin, as well. For example, may one who began lighting without reciting the berakha subsequently recite the berakha and continue lighting? And do the halakhot regarding personal use of the light of the ner Chanuka apply to the mehadrin min ha-mehadrin candles?  These questions, too, touch upon the issue of whether we should view the extra candle as integral to the basic obligation, or as fulfilling a separate mitzva.


Interestingly, the Mishna Berura (672:6) cites a 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 reciting 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 should, seemingly, also affect the case of who speaks after lighting the first candle.  Here, too, we might assume, the Beit Yosef would require a new berakha, while the Peri Megadim would not. However, the Peri Megadim elsewhere (Rosh Yosef, Shabbat 23a) writes that one who speaks between lighting the first and second candles should, in fact, recite another berakha. The later Acharonim attempt to reconcile these seemingly contradictory rulings. In any event, these issues reflect the basic question of whether the additional lights constitute an integral part of the basic mitzva, or are merely a hidur, a means of enhancing the mitzva, but not part of the mitzva itself.


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