A Primer on the Laws of Chanukah

One should try to leave work early and light the Chanukah candles close to sunset * One who returns home late from work should make an effort to light candles no later than nine o’clock * When a spouse gets home late, should lighting be postponed? * According to Sephardic custom, can children light candles with a blessing? * Can Chanukah candles be lit with a blessing at parties and public gatherings? * One who lives on an upper floor in an apartment building should light the candles by the window facing the street * All types of candles are kosher, provided they remain lit for half an hour *
The halakha for a guest on Shabbat and Motzei Shabbat

Lighting Time

Our Sages determined that the Chanukah candles should be lit at an hour which allows for maximum publicity of the Chanukah miracle. In the past when there were no street lamps, people would begin gathering in their homes just before nightfall. At sunset, therefore, the streets were full of people returning home. For that reason, our Sages ruled that the time for lighting Chanukah candles is “from sundown until the marketplace has emptied out” (Shabbat 21b).

Even though today we have electric lighting and most people return home hours after nightfall, the ideal time for lighting Chanukah candles is still the time chosen by our Sages – tzeit ha’kochavim (when three medium-sized stars emerge). 

How nice it would be if on the days of Chanukah one could return home before five o’clock, and after lighting the candles, engage in Torah study and family gatherings centering on commemorating the miracle and the destiny of the Jewish nation.

What Comes First: Evening Prayers, or Lighting the Candles?

Those who customarily pray the Evening Prayer (Ma’ariv) at tzeit ha’kochavim, should pray the evening services before lighting the candles, according to the rule, “tadir v’she’eino tadir, tadir kodem” (that which comes more frequently takes precedence). At the end of the Ma’ariv, they should return home quickly to light candles as close as possible to tzeit ha’kochavim.

But someone whose custom is to pray Ma’ariv later, it is preferable to light candles at tzeit ha’kochavim and pray Ma’ariv as usual, so he can light candles at the ideal time, tzeit ha’kochavim.

However, in that case, one should take care not to eat dinner beforehand. If there is a concern that as a result of festivities following the lighting of the candles one might forget to pray Ma’ariv, it is preferable to pray at tzeit ha’kochavim, and light the candles after Ma’ariv.

Should Lighting be Postponed until Coming Home from Work?

If it is difficult for someone to return home at tzeit ha’kochavim because, for example, he has to work until seven o’clock, he may light candles with a bracha (blessing) upon returning home from work, because even in the past according to most poskim (Jewish law authorities), bediavad (after the fact), one could fulfill the mitzvah all night long – all the more so today, when many people are accustomed to return home after tzeit ha’kochavim.

In any case, latecomers should make an effort to light as early as possible, and to light no later than nine o’clock, because by that time even those people who work late, return home. Only in a sha’at dachak (pressing situation) is one permitted to light the candles all night, but reciting the blessing is permitted only on the condition that there is another person present who sees the candles (Peninei Halakha: Z’manim 13:8, footnote 12).

A latecomer must be careful not to eat ‘achilat keva’ (a meal) before lighting the candles (Peninei Halakha: Z’manim 13:6).

Should a Spouse Wait for Their Partner to Return Home?

In many families a question arises: in a case where one of the spouses cannot return home from work at tzeit ha’kochavim, when should the candles be lit? Should the spouse at home light candles at nightfall (about 5:00 P.M.), or wait for his or her partner to return home? 

Seemingly, according to the letter of the law, it is preferable for the spouse at home to light candles at nightfall and thus discharge his or her partner of the obligation. However, in practice, it is usually best to wait for the delayed spouse to return.

For if the other spouse is not able to hear the blessings over the candles elsewhere, one should wait for him. And if there is a chance he will be offended, or his connection to the mitzvah will be weakened, one should wait until he returns.

If the couple wishes, the spouse at home can light candles on time, and when the other spouse returns home, they can light candles once more with a bracha (see, Peninei Halakha: Z’manim 12:4, footnote 2).

Should Lighting be Postponed for Children Who Come Home Late?

According to Sephardic custom in which only one family member lights a candle for the entire family, one should wait for each member of the family for the same reasons mentioned above in regards to waiting for a spouse.

However, if the latecomer will arrive after nine in the evening, it is preferable not to wait for him, and to light earlier. The latecomer should take care to participate in a candle lighting and hear the blessings wherever he happens to be. If he cannot, and it is not a one-time occurrence, it is preferable for him to act according to the Ashkenazi minhag (custom), and have intention not to fulfill his obligation with his families’ lighting, and upon returning home, to light the candles with a bracha on his own.

According to Ashkenazic custom, lighting should not be postponed for children who are late, and when they arrive home – they should light their own candles with a bracha.

Can Children Light Candles with a Bracha According to Sephardi Custom?

According to Sephardi custom, only the head of the household lights Chanukah candles. If children are eager to light a menorah as well, they are permitted to light their own candles, provided they light them in another place, so that it is evident how many candles are lit each day.

As far as the blessing is concerned, the prevalent custom is not to recite a blessing when lighting, because they fulfill the mitzvah through their father’s lighting, and it is appropriate to continue this minhag. However, a person whose children are eager to recite the bracha, or genuinely wants them to recite the bracha as well, can rely on the opinion of the Rishon L’Tzion, Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu ztz”l  who permitted children up to the age of Bar Mitzvah to light candles with a blessing.

And in the opinion of Rabbi Shalom Mesas ztz”l, boys over the age of Bar Mitzvah can have kavana (intention) not to fulfill their obligation in the mitzvah through their father’s lighting, and light with a bracha (Yalkut Shemesh, O.C. 192).When necessary, one may rely on his opinion.

Candle Lighting at Parties and Public Events

Many people are scrupulous to publicize the miracle and light Chanukah candles wherever people gather, such as weddings, Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, Chanukah parties, and lectures. The question is: is it permissible to recite a blessing over the lighting at such events?

Many poskim hold that one should not recite a blessing, because the blessings are customarily said only in synagogues, and we do not have the authority to invent new customs in other places. According to them, one who recites a blessing in places other than a synagogue is pronouncing a blessing in vein (Rav Orbach, Rav Eliyashiv).

On the other hand, several poskim maintain that one may light Chanukah candles with a blessing wherever there is a public gathering. After all, the reason we light in the synagogue is to publicize the miracle; therefore, one should light with a blessing wherever groups of people gather together (Rav Yisraeli, Rav Ovadiah). It is preferable, though, to pray Ma’ariv in such a place thus giving it the status of a synagogue to a certain extent, and then, a blessing may be recited as the custom dictates (Rav Eliyahu).

In practice, one who wishes to rely on those who hold that it is permissible to light with a blessing may do so, and it is proper to do so l’chatchila (from the outset) when people who are not meticulous in mitzvoth are present. In such a case, it is preferable to honor a non-observant person with lighting of the candles, for by doing so, it will be evident that the mitzvoth belong to all Jews, both observant and non-observant (Peninei Halakha: Z’manim 12:18). 

Where to Light Chanukah Candles in an Apartment Building

Our Sages determined that ideally, one should light candles near the entranceway facing the street, in order to publicize the miracle to passers-by in the vicinity of the house. But there is a dispute as to where the entranceway is for someone living in an apartment building. Some authorities say the building’s entrance, but this opinion should not be adopted since other poskim say that by doing so, one does not fulfill his obligation because the mitzvah is to light the candles near his private house.

Therefore, it is preferable to light the candles in a window facing the public domain. And although some poskim say it is preferable to light on the left side of the door facing the hallway, it is preferable to light at the window, because ‘pirsum ha’nes’ (publicizing the miracle) is most important. And even those who live on the fourth floor and above should preferably light there. True, our Sages said that one who lights in a place higher than twenty cubits (9.12 meters) has not fulfilled his obligation, however they were talking about a person who lit the candles on a pole in the middle of his yard. But someone who lights the candles in the window inside his home, approximately a meter and a half from the floor, definitely fulfills his obligation. And since people are used to glancing at the windows of buildings, by lighting there, the miracle will be more publicized (Peninei Halakha 13:3).

If they follow the Ashkenazic custom in which children also light candles, it is preferable for the head of the family to light the candles on the window sill, and one of the children to light near the apartment door.

The Candles

All types of oils and wicks are kosher for Chanukah candles, provided it can stay lit for at least a half-an-hour. If many people see the candles from the street, it is best to light candles that will remain lit for many hours, in order to heighten the ‘pirsum ha’nes’.

The Chanukah candles lit on Erev Shabbat should burn at least an hour and a quarter because since they are lit before Shabbat begins, they must continue burning a half hour after tzeit ha’kochavim.

L’chatchila, it is best to use candles that shine radiantly in order to publicize the miracle. Therefore, many people choose to light candles made of wax or paraffin. Others say it is preferable to light with olive oil, whose light is also radiant, and also recalls the miracle of Chanukah which was performed with olive oil (Peninei Halakha 12:6).

Electric Lights

In practice, most poskim hold that one cannot use electric lights, because they do not have wicks and oil like conventional candles do.
Indeed, regarding Shabbat candles many poskim hold that one can fulfill the mitzvah with an electric lightbulb, because the main purpose of Shabbat candles is to increase light, whereas Chanukah candles are intended to remind us of the miracle that occurred with the menorah of the Beit HaMikdash (Holy Temple), therefore they should resemble the candles of the Holy Temple.

Candle Lighting for Guests

A family who are guests on Shabbat and also sleep at their host’s home, that Shabbat, their guest’s house is considered their residence. According to the Sephardic minhag where only one menorah is lit at home, the guest should give a shekel to the host, so as to be partners in his candles. Bediavad (after the fact), even if they did not give a shekel, they have fulfilled their obligation since they rely on their host for meals, and his lighting includes all guests. According to the Ashkenazi minhag, where each person lights a menorah, guests should also light candles with a bracha.

If the guests sleep in a separate apartment, according to all minhagim they should light candles there with a bracha.

Where to Light on Motzei Shabbat

A family who are guests on Shabbat and plan to return home immediately after Shabbat, it is preferable for them to light the candles in their own home. But if they plan to return home late, when people are no longer on the streets, it is better for them to fulfill their obligation of the mitzvah in the home of their hosts. And even though their intention is to return home and sleep there, since the previous night they slept at their hosts, as long as they have not departed, they are still considered as ‘members of the household’.

But if they do not intend to return quickly, but also, not that late, they may choose where to light their candles. As far as the previous day is concerned, they are still considered as guests of their host, and regarding the following day, they will be at home, therefore they are permitted to choose where they wish to light (Peninei Halakha: Z’manim 13:10).

This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper, and was translated from Hebrew. Other interesting, informative, and thought-provoking articles by Rabbi Melamed can be found at: http://en.yhb.org.il/

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