Shiur 25: Women And Chanuka Candles

  • Rav Chaim Navon

I. Mehadrin Min Ha-Mehadrin

 

            The mitzva of lighting Chanuka candles is discussed in a famous Talmudic passage:

 

Our Rabbis taught: The mitzvaof Chanuka [requires] one light for a man and his household; the scrupulous [kindle] a light for each member [of the household]; and [regarding] the extremely scrupulous, Beit Shammai maintain: On the first day eight lights are lit and thereafter [their number is] gradually reduced; but Beit Hillel say: On the first day one is lit and thereafter [their number is] progressively increased. (Shabbat 21b)

 

The Gemara presents here, in an exceptional manner that we do not find in connection with other mitzvot, three levels of fulfillment: basic obligation, mehadrin (the scrupulous), and mehadrin min ha-mehadrin (the extremely scrupulous).[1] The basic obligation is to light one candle in each house on each night. Those who are scrupulous in their performance of mitzvot light one candle for each member of the household. Finally, the extremely scrupulous add an additional candle each night (following the opinion of Beit Hillel). Today we all follow the practice of the extremely scrupulous, but the posekim disagree what exactly this entails.

 

            The Tosafot, commenting on the above passage, write that the third level – mehadrin min ha-mehadrin – relates back to the first, rather than to the second level. In other words, when Beit Hillel say that the extremely scrupulous add an additional candle each night, they do not mean that each member of the household adds an additional candle each night. Rather, one person lights on behalf of the entire household (similar to the first level), and it is this solitary lighting whose number of candles progressively increases each night. The reason for this is that if candles were lit for each member of the household, and an additional candle was added for each person on each night, this would cause great confusion: When people would see a family lighting eight candles on the second night, they would not know whether there are eight people in that house, each one lighting a candle for himself, or if there are four people, each one lighting two candles. Therefore on the second night, the extremely scrupulous light only two candles for the house, regardless of the number of people living there.

 

The Rambam, however, understands the matter differently:

 

How many candles should one light on Chanuka? The mitzva is that a single candle should be lit in each and every house, regardless of whether there are many members of the household, or merely one person [lives] there. A person who performs the mitzva in a beautiful and scrupulous manner should light candles for every member of the household, whether male or female. A person who is even more scrupulous in his performance of the mitzva than this and observes the mitzva in the most desirable manner should light candles for every member of his household, a candle for each individual, whether male or female, on the first night. On each subsequent night, he should add a candle [for each member of the household]. (Hilkhot Chanuka 4:1)

 

According to the Rambam, the two embellishments – a candle for each person and an additional candle each night – join together. On the first night, the extremely scrupulous light the number of candles corresponding to the number of people in the household, and on the second night they double that number.

 

According to the Tosafot, the term mehadrin min ha-mehadrin means that some people are even more scrupulous than the “regular” scrupulous individuals, and because of this adopt a different and more successful embellishment.According to the Rambam, the term can be understood differently: Among those who are scrupulous, there are those who add an additional embellishment.

 

The Shulchan Arukh and the Rema rule as follows:

 

How many candles does one light? On the first night he lights one candle; from then on he adds one every night until there are eight on the last night. Even if there are many family members, he should not light any more.

 

Rema: And some say that each member of the household should light (Rambam), and this is the common practice. They should take care that each person should light his candles in a separate place, so that it is evident how many candles they are lighting. (Orach Chayyim 671:2)

 

As the Taz points out, this is a novel set of rulings, as the Shulchan Arukh rules in accordance with the Ashkenazi authority – Tosafot – whereas the Rema rules in accordance with the Sefardi authority – the Rambam.[2]

 

To be precise, however, the Rambam's wording is different from that of the Rema. The Rema writes that each member of the household lights separately. The wording of the Rambam, however, implies that one person lights candles in accordance with the number of the members of the household. The Acharonim explain the dispute as follows: According to the Rema, candle lighting on the level of mehadrin is an obligation that is incumbent upon each individual; according to the Rambam, candle lighting is an obligation that is incumbent upon the family, meaning that it fundamentally falls upon all the members of the household as a whole, rather than upon each person individually (as the formulation of the basic law implies: “One light for a man and his household”). Therefore, according to the Rambam, there is only one lighting for all the members of the household, and the embellishment relates exclusively to the number of candles.[3]

 

It would appear that the Rema and the Rambam understand the law of mehadrin in entirely different ways. According to the Rema, we are dealing with an embellishment similar to “mitzva bo yoter mi-bishlucho,” that it is preferable for each person to perform the mitzvaby himself, rather than through an agent. In contrast, the Rambam maintains that the embellishment here is the increased publicity of the miracle, totally unconnected to the principle of mitzva bo yoter mi-bishlucho. According to the Rambam, we are dealing with a mitzva that relates in its very essence to the family, rather than to the individual, and therefore it would be inappropriate for each person to light for himself.

 

II. Women and Chanuka Candles

 

Lighting candles on Chanuka is a time-bound positive commandment. Fundamentally, then, women should be exempt from the mitzva. But the Gemara explicitly states that women are obligated:

 

If a deaf-mute, a mental incompetent, or a minor lights, he accomplishes nothing. But a woman may certainly light, for Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said: “The [mitzvaof the] Chanuka light is obligatory for women, for they too were included in that miracle.” (Shabbat 23a)

 

Chazal cite this same rationale – that they too were included in that miracle – in obligating women in the mitzvaof drinking four cups of wine at the Pesach seder and in the mitzva of reading the megilla on Purim. What is the meaning of “they too were included in that miracle?”

 

“For they too were included in that miracle” – The Rashbam explains that the main miracle was through [women]: on Purim, through Esther; on Chanuka, through Yehudit; on Pesach, by virtue of the righteous women in that generation they were redeemed. This is difficult, for the wording, “for they too,” implies that they were secondary. According to his explanation, it should have [simply] said: “for they.” It therefore seems to me that they too were in danger of being destroyed and killed, and similarly on Pesach, they [too] were enslaved to Pharaoh in Egypt, and similarly on Chanuka, the decree was very much against them. (Tosafot, Megilla 4a)

 

The Tosafot cite two explanations: The women were among the saviors, e.g., Yehudit, who killed the Greek general Holofernes, or that the women were included in the decrees and in the dangers, and therefore they too were saved by the miracle. The Tosafot incline toward the second explanation, for if we focus on the saviors, rather then on those who were saved, the wording “for they too” is inappropriate. Queen Esther was not “also” among the saviors, but rather “the main miracle was through her.” Therefore, the Tosafot explain that even the women were delivered from the dangers that threatened them during the times of persecution.

 

According to the Sefardi custom that only one person lights for all members of the household, the issue of a woman's obligation does not usually arise. Only one person lights, irrespective of the makeup of the household. But even according to the Ashkenazi custom that each member of the household lights, there is a widespread custom that women do not light. This seems to be contrary to the plain meaning of the Talmudic passage. The Mishna Berura (661, no. 9) writes that a married woman does not light her own candles, because of the rule that “a man's wife is like himself,” and therefore she fulfills her obligation through her husband's lighting. The Maharshal already mentioned this consideration:

 

The mitzvaof Chanuka [requires] one light for a man and his household; the scrupulous kindle a light for each member of the household; and the extremely scrupulous add an additional candle each night and also light a candle for each member of the household, as explained by the Rambam. And this is the common practice, and not like the Ri[4] who maintains that the other members of the household do not light, but rather there is only one candle. A man and his wife certainly suffice with one candle. (Responsa Ha-Maharshal, no. 85)

 

HaRav Aharon Lichtenstein argues that the wording of the Maharshal implies that he speaks specifically according to the view of the Rambam. We inferred from the Rambam that the scrupulous require only one lighting, in accordance with the number of the members of the household. According to this position, the Maharshal explains that a man and his wife count as one. It is possible that even the Maharshal would agree that according to the Rema, who says that there is a mitzvafor each individual to light independently, even a woman is obligated to light (if she wishes to perform the mitzvain a scrupulous manner). If the embellishment is merely in the numbers, then we count the woman and her husband as one. But if the embellishment is based on the principle of mitzva bo yoter mi-bishlucho,that it is preferable to perform a mitzvaby oneself and not through an agent, it is difficult to say that this does not apply to a woman as well.

 

The Mishna Berura (675, no. 9), citing the Olat Shemuel,formulates his explanation of the customary practice of women to refrain from lighting differently: Women do not light Chanuka candles because they are secondary to men. According to this, even unmarried women do not light. The Olat Shemuel appears to be referring to the aforementioned Tosafot (Megilla 4a), which states that the women were secondary to the men with respect to the miracle of Chanuka. For this reason, the Tosafot rejected the Rashbam's explanation that women participated in the act of deliverance. The Tosafot argued that in this respect they were not secondary. Therefore, the Tosafot explained that the women were partners in the danger, and in this regard they were indeed secondary to the men. In other words, the men, for various reasons, faced a greater danger than the women, and therefore the primary obligation falls upon them. According to the Olat Shemuel,the obligation based on the argument that “they too were included in that miracle” does not equate the levels of obligation of men and women.

 

The Chatam Sofer proposes another explanation:

 

In my humble opinion, at first when they instituted that the mitzvaof Chanuka demands one light for a man and his household at the door of the house from the outside, and the people embellished the mitzva and went outside and lit by themselves in addition to the lighting of the head of the household, no women were then included among the scrupulous, because it does not accord with a woman's dignity to go outside into the public domain toward evening and light candles among the men… If there is a man lighting, it is not an act of piety for a woman to be stringent upon herself in this matter and put herself under suspicion. Now, therefore, even though we all light inside, nevertheless the original custom does not move from its place. This appears correct to me, with God's help. (Chatam Sofer, Shabbat 21b)

 

According to the Chatam Sofer, women are accustomed to refrain from lighting Chanuka candles primarily for reason of modesty. In the past, it was customary to light outside, and women did not ordinarily go out in the evening and mingle with the many men there.[5]

 

All this notwithstanding, we are left with the Gemara's clear implication that according to the strict law, women who wish to fulfill the mitzvain a scrupulous manner must light themselves, and there does not seem to be any reason to refrain from doing this. Indeed, many women today follow this approach and take care to light Chanuka candles on their own.

 

(Translated by David Strauss)



[1] Rashi implies that the term “mehadrin” is not derived from the word “hadar,” meaning beauty, but from the Aramaic verb meaning to go about in search of something. Thus, the term mehadrin refers to people who go about in search of mitzvot.

[2] Indeed, our practice today adheres to normal halakhicconvention; Sefardi Jews follow the ruling of the Shulchan Arukh, and Ashkenazi Jews follow the ruling of the Rema.

[3] The author of Mo’adim U-zemanim (II, no. 133, p. 63) suggests that perhaps, according to the Rambam, lighting candles is an obligation incumbent upon the house itself, similar to the mitzva of mezuza; but this is true only when the candles are lit outside at the door of the house. When the candles are lit inside, as is the predominant practice today, the “house’s obligation” (chovat ha-bayit)is not fulfilled. Instead, only the individual’s obligation (chovat gavra) is fulfilled. In order to perfom the mitzva on the level of mehadrin in such a case, each person must light for himself. It is for this reason that the Rema veered from the words of the Rambam.

[4] One of the Ba’alei Ha-Tosafot

[5] The author of Mo’adim u-Zemanim (II, no. 133) offers another reason. According to him, there are two aspects to the obligation to light Chanuka candles: it gives expression to the joy of victory and also serves as a reminder of the lighting of the menora in the Temple. Women did not have a part in the lighting of the menora in the Temple, as they were not obligated in the mitzvato donate a half-shekel. As a result, they did not participate in financing the oil burned in the menora. Therefore, when a woman lights, she only achieves partial fulfillment of the reasons for lighting Chanuka candles. Even though this distinction has no expression in halakha, it manifests itself in common practice: Women are accustomed to fulfill their obligation through the lighting of men, which is more complete than their own.