The Relationship Between Pirsumei Nissa and the Act of Lighting

  • Rav Moshe Taragin

Several gemarot establish that the mitzva to light the Chanuka candles entails not only the mechanical act of lighting, but also the element of pirsumei nissa, publicizing the miracle. The gemara that most directly articulates this aspect is found in Shabbat (23b), which prioritizes lighting Chanuka candles over Kiddush on Friday night. If a person lacks enough money to pay for both, he should use the funds he has to buy Chanuka candles, since they generate pirsumei nissa, which always demands augmented financial outlay. In this shiur, we will explore the relationship between the mechanical act of lighting and the element of pirsumei nissa.

An interesting gemara in Shabbat (23a) establishes a unique berakha opportunity. The lighting of the Chanuka candles is usually accompanied by two berakhot, “Le-hadlik ner shel Chanuka” followed by “She-assa nissim la-avoteinu.” Presumably, the presence of a second berakha in addition to the birkat ha-mitzva indicates the existence of this second layer of the mitzva, the pirsumei nissa component. This logic is asserted both by Tosafot (Sukka 46) and the Ramban (Pesachim 7a).

After establishing this extra berakha, the gemara obligates one who sees Chanuka neirot to similarly recite the berakha of She-Assa Nissim. Following the above stated logic, it appears that the gemara encourages a berakha upon experiencing pirsumei nissa even when that pirsumei nissa experience is severed from the actual lighting. This simple reading of the gemara is adopted by Rashi (Sukka 46a, and to a lesser degree in Shabbat 23a).

Based in part upon Rashi’s explanation, the Meiri quotes an even more radical opinion, one which completely severs the pirsumei nissa aspect of the mitzva from the formal act of hadlaka. In Rashi’s scenario, pirsumei nissa entails witnessing a halakhically lit Chanuka candle of another person. Although the witness’s pirsumei nissa experience is not associated with his own lighting, at least the pirsumei nissa here surrounds a halakhically prepared Chanuka candle. But the Meiri cites a position (in the name of “gedolei ha-doros”) regarding someone who finds himself on Chanuka without a home and who is not in the presence of Jews who are lighting in their homes, and he is therefore unable to recite She-Assa Nissim on his personal lighting or on the lighting of others. The Meiri suggests that such a person should light a candle and recite the berakha of She-Assa Nissim – even though this candle does not constitute a halakhically lit Chanuka candle! Indeed, since the person lighting does not own a home where the candle is being lit, he cannot recite the berakha of Le-Hadlik. Nevertheless, the Meiri maintains that this candle can catalyze pirsumei nissa, and therefore mandates a berakha of She-Assa Nissim. Evidently, pirsumei nissa is completely detached from the formal mitzva of hadlaka and can be experienced (and accompanied by a berakha) even in the absence of a halakhic lighting.

However, the gemara that establishes a berakha upon witnessing someone else’s lit menora does not necessarily assert a split between the act of lighting and the pirsumei nissa. Indeed, many Rishonim disagree with Rashi. Rashi himself (in Shabbat) cites his teachers as claiming that only someone who has not lit nor has plans to light that evening should recite She-Assa Nissim upon seeing someone else’s candles. The Rashba popularized this position, and it forms the basis of the psak of the Shulchan Arukh; when traveling home on Chanuka evening, one does not recite She-Assa Nissim upon seeing the first menora he encounters.

Evidently, Rashi’s teachers and the Rashba did not sever pirsumei nissa from the act of lighting. It is preferable to delay the berakha of She-Assa Nissim until pirsumei nissa is experienced alongside one’s person lighting, rather than to recite it upon the first experience of pirsumei nissa.

An interesting comment of the Ramban in Pesachim also appears to connect the pirsumei nissa to the act of hadlaka. Questioning the syntax of various birchot ha-mitzva, the Ramban questions why some begin with the prefix of "lamed," while other are introduced by the preposition "al." His basic strategy is to distinguish between mitzvot that can be executed by a secondary agent (shaliach), which begin with “al,” and those that require personal involvement, which begin with "lamed." The first challenge to this theory surrounds “Le-hadlik ner shel Chanuka,” which seems to contradict this policy. Chanuka candles can be lit be a representative, yet the berakha begins with the more personalized "lamed"! The Ramban’s second answer to this question asserts that since pirsumei nissa can only be performed personally, the berakha of Le-Hadlik carries the “personal” prefix. If pirsumei nissa and the act of hadlaka were completely distinct, with each possessing their respective berakha, there would be no reason that the personalized nature of pirsumei nissa should alter the syntax of the berakha assigned to the act of hadlaka. Evidently, in the Ramban’s view, the two layers are integrated. Chazal instituted a mitzva to light, and through that lighting, to create pirsumei nissa. Since pirsumei nissa is an element of lighting, its character defines the character of the lighting as well. Since pirsumei nissa is personalized, an element of the lighting process is also personalized, and the entire lighting process therefore carries the more personalized conclusion prefixed with a "lamed."

Further indications that pirsumei nissa is not an autonomous layer of the mitzva, but is rather integrated into some aspect of lighting, can be gathered from exploring an interesting position that the gemara raises but ultimately rejects. Understanding the logic of this rejected position may help us understand the logic of the other opinion, which is ultimately ratified.

The gemara in Shabbat (22b-23a) questions whether “hadlaka oseh mitzva,” the primary mitzva consists of an act of lighting, or “hanacha oseh mitzva,” the primary mitzva entails placement. Clearly, the possibility that focuses on placement evokes the element of pirsumei nissa. Placing a candle in a public setting will publicize the miracle, and it hence entails the primary mitzva. However, the gemara’s defense of this position may indicate that even this opinion, which is centered around pirsumei nissa, still requires elements of hadlaka. In effect, pirsumei nissa cannot exist independent of an act of lighting.

The first scenario posed surrounds someone who lit candles inside his home and only afterward placed them in the proper position. A beraita invalidates this process, and the gemara questions how to explain this invalidation according to the opinion that maintains the centrality of hanacha. Why should placement of a candle that was lit inside be invalid? The gemara responds that onlookers will assume that the candle was lit for personal use, rather than for Chanuka use. Thus, the candle lit inside must be extinguished and relit, even according to the opinion that hanacha is the pivot of the mitzva.

Some assume that this requirement is merely to debunk suspicion. People who see someone light inside and then move the candles will assume that the person did not fulfill the mitzva of ner Chanuka. To quell this suspicion, he must relight in an obvious Chanuka manner. Indeed, there is ample precedent for the obligation to quell suspicion in general, and suspicion surrounding Chanukah lighting in particular. For example, the gemara (Shabbat 23a) cites the obligation to light a  menora at each entranceway leading to a large estate in order to avoid the suspicion of those who may not notice a menora placed at another entrance (which presumably is out of their range of visibility). Perhaps the gemara requiring the person who lit inside to relight intends a similar obligation. Fundamentally, he has fulfilled the mitzva, as pirsumei nissa can be accomplished even without a proper hadlaka as long as the candles are place in the proper location. However, since people will suspect him of lighting for personal use, he must re-light the candle in a manner that demonstrates his intent for Chanuka.

Several Rishonim disagree, however, and claim that even the position that maintains that hanacha is the primary pivot of the mitzva still requires a properly lit candle. (R. Akiva Eiger, 2:125, clearly articulates this position.) If the candle is lit out of its proper position, positioning it will not accomplish pirsumei nissa. Chazal dictated pirsumei nissa with a halakhically lit candle, and perhaps also as a continuation of a halakhic act of lighting. Although positioning achieves pirsumei nissa, it is not sufficient if it is not performed on a properly lit candle and in the wake of an act of hadlaka. This provides further proof that at least according to the opinion that hanacha oseh mitzva, pirsumei nissa is not an autonomous element, but is rather integrated with hadlaka.

Similar evidence emerges from a gemara in Shabbat (23a) that discusses a candle that has remained lit from the day before. In theory, the position of hanacha oseh mitzva should permit one to merely raise the candle and reposition it in order to fulfill the mitzva on the second night. Yet the gemara demands that the light be extinguished and relit before being repositioned on the second night. Once again, hanacha alone would be insufficient, even though it creates the desired pirsumei nissa. Since the candle was lit for an earlier night, the medium for pirsumei nissa doesn’t exist. Additionally, the repositioning does not occur as a continuation of an original halakhic act of lighting. Pirsumei nissa is not an independent mitzva.

This logic explains the opinion that hanacha oseh mitzva, but based on this logic we may speculate about the basis of the alternate opinion of hadlaka oseh mitzva. This is particularly important given the fact that we actually adopt this principle as the halakhic ruling. Perhaps this view maintains that hadlaka is not simply a prelude to hanacha and the resultant pirsumei nissa. Rather, in addition to serving this function, Chazal instituted a formal act of lighting, which operates even independent of any pirsumei nissa-inducing role.