A Woman's Obligation to Light Chanuka Candles
Based on a shiur by Harav Aharon Lichtenstein
Translated by David Strauss
The main discussion of the laws governing the lighting of Chanuka candles is found in tractate Shabbat, beginning on daf 22. One of the central questions arising in that passage is whether "the kindling constitutes the mitzva" or "the placing constitutes the mitzva." The Gemara (23a) concludes that the kindling constitutes the mitzva, and then states:
Now that we say that the kindling constitutes the mitzva, if a deaf-mute, idiot, or minor lights [the Chanuka candle], he does nothing. But a woman certainly lights [it], for Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said: The [mitzva of the] Chanuka candle is obligatory upon women, for they too were part of that miracle.
The Gemara's conclusion, following the position of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi, raises a question regarding the nature of a woman's obligation in the mitzva of lighting Chanuka candles. This shiur will deal with this question and its practical halakhic ramifications for our times.
Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi's statement parallels what he says about two other matters, as cited in two other passages - regarding the mitzva of megilla reading (Megilla 4a), and regarding the mitzva of drinking four cups of wine at the Pesach seder (Pesachim 108a). It would seem that, fundamentally, women should have been exempt in all three cases, all three of the mitzvot being positive time-determined precepts. Since, however, "They too were part of that miracle," an exception was made to the general rule, and in each of the three instances an obligation was cast upon women as well.
It may be mentioned parenthetically that all this is true if we assume that women are exempt not only from positive time-determined mitzvot that are biblical in origin, but also from those that are binding only by rabbinic decree. Rashi implies that this is not the case, but this assumption appears to be accepted by the rest of the Rishonim. In any event, even if we understand that, generally speaking, women are obligated in positive time-determined mitzvot of rabbinic origin, it is possible to suggest that while these three mitzvot are indeed of rabbinic origin, their fulfillment involves a biblical element, i.e., publicizing a miracle. (Rav Y.F. Perlow has an extensive discussion of this point in his commentary to the Sefer ha-Mitzvot of Rabbenu Sa'adya Gaon. He implies that the element of praise and thanksgiving in these mitzvot involves a biblical obligation.)
THE SCOPE OF "THEY TOO WERE PART OF THAT MIRACLE"
The Tosafot in Megilla raise an interesting objection. The Gemara in Pesachim (43b) concludes that women are obligated to eat matza on the first day of Pesach because of an analogy - "Whoever is bound by the negative precept of eating chametz, is similarly bound by the positive precept of eating matza." Why does the Gemara require this analogy; why can't it simply explain that "they too were part of that miracle"? Answering this objection, the Tosafot explain that the rationale of "they too were part of that miracle" applies only on the level of rabbinic law, but not on the level of biblical law. Therefore, in order to prove that women are obligated to eat matza by Torah law, it was necessary to invoke an analogy, since the rationale of "they too were part of that miracle" would not have sufficed.
Rav Joseph B. Solovetchik proposed an alternate explanation in the name of his father, Rav Moshe Soloveitchik: The rationale of "they too were part of that miracle" was only said about mitzvot that relate directly to the miracle, i.e. mitzvot containing an element of "publicizing the miracle." In the case of matza and sukka, the underlying reason of the mitzva is the miracle which had been performed for the Jewish people, but the substance of the mitzva does not include the element of "publicizing the miracle." The Torah commanded us to sit in a sukka in order to publicize the miracle performed in the wilderness, but this is the goal of the mitzva and not the substance of the commandment imposed upon every individual. The command is not to publicize the miracle, but rather to sit in a sukka. The same is true regarding the eating of matza: a Jew is commanded to eat matza, and publicizing the miracle of the exodus from Egypt is merely the rationale of the mitzva. In contrast, regarding the first three mitzvot that were mentioned above - drinking the four cups of wine, reading the megilla, and lighting Chanuka candles - "publicizing the miracle" is not only the purpose of the mitzva, but a component of the definition of the mitzva: this is the substance of the command cast upon each and every individual, to publicize the miracle.
Proof for this distinction between the different categories of mitzvot may be adduced from the blessings recited prior to their fulfillment. When lighting the Chanuka candles and reading the megilla, we recite the blessing "She-asa nisim" ("Who has performed miracles") in addition to the regular blessing recited prior to the performance of a mitzva. The wording of this blessing attests to the fact that the substance of the commandment is to "publicize the miracle." As for the four cups of wine, already the Ra'avad raised the question of why we do not recite a blessing mentioning the miracle. He explained that the blessing "Asher ge'alanu" ("Who has redeemed us") includes the dimension of "publicizing the miracle." Thus, the rationale, "they too were part of that miracle," can obligate women in these three mitzvot, but not in other mitzvot, such as eating matza.
THE NATURE OF THE OBLIGATION OF WOMEN
Can a woman light Chanuka candles for a man in order discharge his obligation? The Rishonim more commonly addressed a similar question regarding megilla reading, but they also related to the issue of lighting Chanuka candles.
Regarding megilla reading, the Rambam rules (Hilkhot Megilla 1:1-2):
Reading the megilla in its proper time is a positive precept from the words of the scribes, and it is well known that it is an enactment of the prophets. All are obligated in its reading: men, women, converts, and emancipated slaves. Minors are taught to read it. Even priests serving [in the Temple] interrupt their service, and come to hear the megilla reading…
Both the reader and one who hears [the megilla] from the reader discharge their obligations, provided that he hears it from one who is obligated to read it. Therefore, if the reader was a minor or an idiot, one who hears it from him has not discharged his obligation.
It appears from the Rambam that a woman's obligation regarding the reading of the megilla is identical to that of a man. He makes no mention of any differences between them. Thus, there is no reason to think that the Rambam distinguishes between men and women regarding the lighting of Chanuka candles.
In contrast to the Rambam, the Tosefta in Megilla (according to one reading) states that women cannot read the megilla for men. This is also the ruling of the Behag (Ba'al Halakhot Gedolot).
What is the law regarding the Chanuka candles? There would seem to be three basic possibilities:
- The laws applying to Chanuka candles are identical to those applying to megilla reading. If a woman can read the megilla for a man, she can also light Chanuka candles for him.
- Generally speaking, a woman can discharge a man's obligation, for "they too were part of that miracle." For some particular reason, megilla reading is an exception, and women cannot read the megilla for men.
- The level of obligation stemming from "they too were part of that miracle" is of lesser standing, and therefore, generally speaking, a woman cannot discharge a man's obligation. The mitzva of lighting Chanuka candles is (for some reason) exceptional, and therefore a woman can light Chanuka candles for a man.
We have already seen the first approach in the Rambam. It is easy to understand why we should draw an analogy between reading the megilla and lighting Chanuka candles.
THE MITZVA OF MEGILLA READING AS AN EXCEPTION
We shall turn now to the second possibility: Why would we say that the mitzva of megilla reading is exceptional in relation to the other mitzvot?
1. The Tosafot (Sukka 38a s.v. be-emet) write:
Or else [women cannot say birkat ha-mazon for men] because it is dishonorable for the many, for it is [like] megilla in which women are obligated [but] the Halakhot Gedolot explained that women do not enable the many to fulfill their obligation in megilla.
Megilla reading involves the problematic element of "honor due to the community." According to this understanding of the Behag, it would seem that a woman can read the megilla for a single man, for in such a case there is no problem of "honor due to the community."
According to this understanding, it would seem that a woman should be able to light Chanuka candles for a man, for the mitzva of lighting Chanuka candles is generally performed within a family setting, rather than in a public framework.
2. The Semag (Sefer Mitzvot ha-Gadol) as well argues that the mitzva of megilla reading is exceptional, but for a different reason. According to him, a woman can light Chanuka candles for a man, but she cannot read the megilla for him, because reading the megilla is like reading the Torah, which a woman cannot do for a man. It is not entirely clear why the Semag draws an analogy between the two readings, but it would follow from what he says that a woman cannot read the megilla even for a single man.
The Magen Avraham (Orach Chayyim 689) discusses the relationship between megilla reading and Chanuka candles. He cites the Semag, and says:
This means: They are disqualified because of the honor due to the community, and therefore they cannot even discharge the obligation of an individual, because we do not distinguish.
The rationale of "honor due to the community" does not appear in the Semag, but the Magen Avraham interprets his position in light of the Tosafot.
3. Another reason that megilla reading may be the exceptional mitzva follows from the more generally accepted understanding of the Behag. According to this understanding, the obligation of megilla reading is substantively different for men and women: men are obligated in the reading of the megilla, whereas women are obligated in the hearing of the megilla. Hence, a woman cannot read for a man and discharge thereby his obligation, for she herself is not obligated in reading the megilla.
The wording of the Gemara is a little difficult according to this understanding, for the Gemara states that "everybody is obligated in the reading of the megilla," making no distinction between men and women, and not mentioning an obligation "to hear the megilla."
The Ra'avya takes this idea even further, and concludes that women should recite the blessing, "and commanded us about hearing the megilla," rather than the blessing recited by men, "and commanded us about reading the megilla," even when the women read for themselves. It may be noted parenthetically that it is not clear from what he says whether or not a woman discharges her obligation if she reads the megilla but does not hear her reading.
In any event, the conclusion according to this approach is that the level of obligation stemming from "they too were part of that miracle" is in no way inferior to that of the basic obligation. The mitzva of megilla reading is exceptional in that a woman cannot perform the mitzva for a man.
"THEY TOO WERE PART OF THAT MIRACLE"
In order to argue that with respect to Chanuka candles as well, a woman cannot perform the mitzva for a man, we must accept one of the following possibilities:
1. The mitzva of lighting Chanuka candles is comprised of two elements, men being obligated in the one, and women in the other.
2. The obligation stemming from "they too were part of that miracle" places women on a lower level of obligation than men.
The last point is connected to the special factor that obligates women in the mitzva of lighting Chanuka candles - "they too were part of that miracle." What is the meaning of the word "af" (translated here as "too")? Does it imply that the obligation of women is not at the same level as the basic obligation, but somehow appended to the obligation of men? Or perhaps "af" implies a total correspondence with respect to the level of obligation?
According to the first approach, the level of a woman's obligation is inferior to that of a man, and this is the reason (according to Ra'avya) that they were commanded only to hear the megilla. The distinction between the command to read the megilla and the command to hear its reading points to two different levels of obligation, one for men and another for women. It may be inferred from here that with respect to the lighting of Chanuka candles as well, even though the substance of the obligation of men is identical to that of women, their levels of obligation are nevertheless different.
There were those who wished to use this approach, which distinguishes between different levels of obligation, to explain the Tosafot in Megilla (4a, s.v. she'af hen):
Rashbam explains that the main miracle was performed through them: on Purim, through Esther; on Chanuka, through Yehudit; on Pesach, they were redeemed by the merits of the righteous women of the generation. But there is a difficulty, for the wording "af hen" ("they too") implies that [the women] were subordinate, and according to [the Rashbam's] explanation, it should have read: "For they." Therefore, it seems to me that they too were in danger of being destroyed and killed. And similarly regarding Pesach, they [too] were enslaved to Pharaoh. And similarly regarding Chanuka, the decree was severe against them.
Truth be told, the Tosafot seem not to be relating to the question of the level of the obligation, whether or not there is a difference between men and women, but only to the question regarding the reason and rationale of the obligation. Even if the wording "they too" implies that the women were subordinate, and that they were partners only in the decree but not in the miracle itself - it is still possible that a woman's level of obligation is identical to that of a man. From the Ra'avya, however, as we saw above, it follows that "they too were part of that miracle" imposes an obligation of lesser standing.
THE UNIQUENESS OF THE MITZVA OF LIGHTING CHANUKA CANDLES
The third possibility that we raised above was that the mitzva of lighting Chanuka candles is exceptional, and that only in that case is the obligation of men and women identical. What is the rationale for such a position?
The Peri Chadash cites the position of the Mordekhai, who, in the name of the Tosafot, discusses the law governing a person who finds himself outside his town on Chanuka. He cites the Gemara stating that a guest can rely on the candle lighting in his own home. He explains that the reason for this is that the Sages were lenient regarding the mitzva of Chanuka candles.
Why is there a special leniency regarding Chanuka candles? Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik explains that in the case of Chanuka candles, the mitzva is "one light for a man and his household." The obligation falls upon the house, as opposed to all the other commandments that involve "publicizing the miracle," where the mitzva to perform a specific activity is cast upon each and every individual. The wording, "one light for a man and his household," implies that it is not even necessary that one of the members of the household do the actual lighting; it suffices that someone should light in the house, even if he is not a member of the household. The basic obligation is that there be a candle lit in the house; a personal obligation enters the picture in that "the kindling constitutes the mitzva."
According to this, when the Gemara that states that a deaf-mute, an idiot, and a minor cannot light, it means that they cannot create a situation of a "lit candle" in the house. Not every burning candle is considered a "lit candle" for the purpose of lighting Chanuka candles. A person cannot discharge his obligation with a candle lit by a deaf-mute, an idiot, or a minor. Hence, the previous discussion undergoes a complete change. It is not necessary to clarify whether or not a woman can discharge a man's obligation, but whether or not a woman can create a situation of a "lit candle" in the home. If she can, then the man discharges his obligation on his own.
THE LIGHTING OF WOMEN IN A PLACE WHERE MEN LIGHT
According to the prevailing custom, women do not light Chanuka candles. Even in the Ashkenazic communities, where each member of the household lights his own candles, it is customary for women not to light.
This custom is far from simple, for surely the Gemara explicitly states that women are obligated! Why then should the law for women be different than that of men? A number of Acharonim tried to resolve this difficulty. Obviously, according to the Sephardic custom (that only the head of the household lights), the question regarding the obligation of women does not generally arise.
HUSBAND AND WIFE
The Maharshal (responsum 88) writes that a married couple discharge their obligation with a single candle, and for that reason a married woman is not obligated to light. The Maharshal does not relate to the question who should light - the man or the woman. And he relates there to the position of the Rambam, who maintains that the head of the house lights candles according to the number of the members of his household. It is in this context that the Maharshal rules that one candle suffices for a man and his wife.
Is it possible to apply the position of the Maharshal to the view of the Rema, that each member of the household lights for himself? It seems that the simplest way of understanding the Rema's position is that the basic mitzva devolves upon the house ("one light for a man and his household"). The "extremely zealous" (mehadrin min ha-mehadrin), however, impose a personal obligation on each and every individual, and therefore each individual lights with a blessing. If this is the correct understanding of the Rema, it is difficult to apply to him the position of the Maharshal. Even if the principle that "a man's wife is considered like himself" implies that a married couple is considered a single member of the household, it is difficult to conclude from this that a woman is exempt from a personal obligation that had been imposed upon her.
The Griz (Rav Yitzchak Ze'ev [Velvel] Soloveitchik), in his work on the Rambam, treats the mitzva of lighting Chanuka candles at length, weaving into his discussion a far-reaching novel idea. He suggests that even a person who is not a member of the household can discharge the household's obligation, as long as he lights in that house. The Griz implies that this applies even according to the Rema, who rules that each member of the household must light for himself. He argues that, according to the Rema, the "extremely zealous" do not impose a personal obligation upon each member of the household, but rather they require that there be a "lighting" for each of them, a "lighting" which may be performed even by another person.
According to the Griz, it is possible to apply the rule of "a man's wife is considered like himself" to the position of the Rema. For now this rule does not come to exempt a woman from a personal obligation that had been imposed upon her, but rather to define the man's lighting as the "lighting" of the woman as well.
Either way, the words of the Maharshal are relevant only to married women, and not to single women.
Various Acharonim have tried to suggest why single women are accustomed not to light Chanuka candles.
The Olat Shemuel (no. 105) explains that a woman's level of obligation is different than a man's, because the level of the miracle was different. According to him, only men were obligated to sacrifice their lives, and so, only they were saved from the death that could have resulted from the decrees of Antiochus. The miracle performed for the men was, therefore, greater, and so it was only the men who accepted upon themselves the level of the "extremely zealous," and only upon them is there imposed a personal obligation. This contrasts with megilla reading and the four cups, regarding which the decree was upon the women and men in equal measure, the miracle was the same, and therefore the level of obligation is the same. The "Olat Shemuel" supports his position from the Tosafot mentioned above, which states that women are subordinate to men in this mitzva. However, as we explained above, it appears that the Tosafot relate to the rationale of the mitzva, and not to the level of obligation.
Another explanation why women do not light Chanuka candles is found in the Ketav Sofer. He argues that in ancient times, when it was customary to light outdoors, women refrained from lighting for reasons of modesty. Therefore, even afterwards, when people began to light inside, the custom of women not lighting remained in place. This explanation raises several questions. First of all, on the factual level, it is difficult to assume that women living in the ancient period never left their houses. Second, the practice of the "extremely zealous," according to the custom of the Rema, is not merely a nice custom or stringency, but rather similar to the basic mitzva, so that each person who lights also recites a blessing. It is difficult to assume that Chazal cancelled the basic mitzva ("a light for each individual") merely because of a side reason, that women were once unable to leave their homes.
The Acharonim have proposed additional resolutions, but their explanations seem forced.
THE VIEW OF THE MISHNA BERURA
There is a contradiction in the Mishna Berura. The Rema rules in Orach Chayyim 671:2:
And there are those who say that each member of the household lights, and this is the prevailing custom.
The Mishna Berura (671:9) cites the rationale that "a man's wife is considered like himself":
Except for his wife, who is considered like himself.
Elsewhere, the Shulchan Arukh (675:3) rules:
A woman lights Chanuka candles, for she too is obligated [in the mitzva].
There the Mishna Berura (675:9) cites a different reason, that women are subordinate to men in this mitzva:
Even a man can appoint a woman as an agent to discharge his obligation… nevertheless, a woman is not obligated to light, because they are subordinate to men. But if they wish to light, they may recite a blessing, for it is like the rest of the positive time-determined mitzvot, regarding which they can recite a blessing.
Practically speaking, it is customary in many homes that women do not light Chanuka candles. In the home of Rav Soloveitchik zt"l, it was customary for women to light, and so is the custom in my home. As we have seen, the simple understanding of the law is that women are obligated just like men (on the level of the "extremely zealous"), and the burden of proof falls upon those who think otherwise.
 It is clearly not the Mishna Berura's intention to outline a general attitude towards women as subordinate to men, but only to note the relationship between them with respect to their respective levels of obligation.
This lecture was not reviewed by Harav Lichtenstein.