The Rambam, towards the end of Hilkhot Chanukah (4:12), rules that a pauper who relies on charity for his basic sustenance must find a way to fulfill the mitzva of Chanukah candles, such as by selling his clothes or borrowing oil and wicks. The Maggid Mishneh comments that the Rambam inferred this halakha from the explicit ruling of the Mishna in Pesachim (10:1) requiring an impoverished pauper to find a way to drink four cups of wine on the night of Pesach. If a beggar dependent on charity is required to drink four cups of wine on Pesach, the Maggid Mishneh writes, then certainly he is required to light Chanukah candles.
The Lechem Mishneh questions the Maggid Mishneh’s comment, wondering why it is more intuitive to require a pauper to fulfill the mitzva of Chanukah lights than to fulfill the obligation of the four cups of wine on Pesach. Why, the Lechem Mishneh asks, did the Maggid Mishneh present an a fortiori argument based on the halakha relevant to Pesach to prove the halakha regarding Chanukah lights?
The Avnei Neizer (O.C. 501) suggests explaining the Maggid Mishneh’s rationale based on the desired public impact of the Chanukah candle lighting. The reason why poverty does not excuse a person from fulfilling the obligations of the seder, the Avnei Neizer writes, is because he bears the obligation to transmit the knowledge of the Exodus to his children. Although his personal obligations can be absolved by his state of destitution, his responsibility to his children cannot. The Maggid Mishneh thus reasoned that if this is the case regarding the obligations of Pesach, which involve teaching and inspiring one’s offspring, then it certainly applies to the Chanukah candles, which are lit to publicize the miracle far and wide. Whereas the mitzvot of Pesach are focused upon the family and home, the mitzva of Chanukah candles is focused outward to the public sphere. We light the Chanukah candles outdoors to inform everybody who passes by about the great miracle. Therefore, if our educational responsibility to our children must be met even when this entails great difficulty, then certainly our educational responsibility to the world at large must be met under difficult conditions.
We should, however, note one important caveat to the Avnei Neizer’s clever analysis. In the final passage in Hilkhot Chanukah, the Rambam clarifies that if a pauper can afford either candles to illuminate his home or candles for Chanukah, he should purchase candles for illumination, due to the primacy of shalom bayit (domestic harmony). As vitally important an obligation as it is to publicize the Chanukah miracle, this does not override the more basic obligation to maintain a joyful, serene aura in the home. The mitzva of Chanukah lights is deemed more significant than the mitzva of the four cups on Pesach, but it still pales in comparison to the obligation to create a happy home for one’s family. Without shalom bayit, the Rambam teaches us, we lack the foundation from which we can kindle the light of faith for the benefit of others, and thus illuminating our homes takes precedence to the need to provide spiritual illumination to those outside our homes.