– Author: Rav Joel Kenigsberg

Technological advances and changes in the way our cities and homes are built mean that our modern day reality often bears little resemblance to that described by Chazal. The courtyards and alleyways mentioned in the Gemara have given way for multi-story skyscrapers, and the apartments of the twenty-first century are somewhat different to the dwellings occupied by our Sages.

These changes have led to new and varied halachic questions across a wide range of topics. Principles which once seemed relatively straightforward have become anything but simple to apply in the complex reality in which we find ourselves. Finding the appropriate place to light Channukah candles was once as simple as locating the entrance to the house. Yet today we occupy homes and buildings larger than anyone in Chazal’s days would have dreamed to imagine. Should one who lives on the upper floor go down to the lobby to light? Perhaps the hallway of the building would suffice? Maybe a window (even higher than twenty amot) now has the status of an opening to the public domain?[1]

Other questions have arisen due to the facilitation of convenient means of transport in recent generations. Whereas not too long ago people tended to stay put where they were, these days travel over great distances has become far more commonplace.

Modern day Poskim have grappled with the question of one who faces an overnight stay in a train cabin or plane.[2] How would one in such a situation fulfill the obligation to light Channukah candles? Would such an obligation even exist in the case in point?

“A Bracha for those who don’t have a home”

A starting point for solving the above question is the gemara’s discussion of Birkat HaRo’eh – The Blessing for one who sees [the Channukah candles]. The Gemara[3] states that in addition to one who lights and thus fulfills the mitzvah of Channukah candles, one who sees such candles burning is obligated to make a bracha. This statement seems puzzling. Tosfot[4] points out that no similar precedent exists by other mitzvot such as lulav and sukkah where the only bracha established was for the one performing the mitzvah. What makes Channukah different? Tosfot answers with the somewhat cryptic statement that this bracha was established for those who are unable to perform the mitzvah since they do not have a home.

Tosfot seems to be suggesting that the remembrance of the Channukah miracle is so important that Chazal made a special decree in order to ensure that every Jew would have the possibility of having some part in it, even those who are precluded from fulfilling the mitzvah of lighting Channukah candles. Yet this itself begs the question – why do those who don’t have a home lack the possibility of fulfilling the mitzvah? Why can the candles not be lit by any Jew wherever they are, irrespective of whether they find themselves in a physical structure called a house?

This view is rooted in a literal understanding of the Gemara’s definition[5] of the Channukah mitzvah. The phraseology of “Ner Ish u’Beito” – which could be taken figuratively to refer to a person’s household,[6]  seems to be understood by Tosfot (and other Rishonim[7]) as defining the mitzvah as one connected to the house.

Rashi’s explanation of “birkat haro’eh” implies that he too supports the above idea. Rashi writes that the bracha was established “for those who have not yet lit candles in their home, and also for one who dwells on a ship”. Having seen that the mitzvah is deeply connected to the home, we can now understand why Rashi holds that one on board a ship would be exempt.

Subsequently a traveller on a plane or train would also fit into the category of one who is away from home and thus exempt from lighting Channukah candles.[8]

Lighting in the Shul

“Birkat haRo’eh” is not the only place from which we see that the lighting of Channukah candles is dependent on the presence of a home.

The Shulchan Aruch records the custom to light candles in the shul and to recite a bracha. In explaining the source of this minhag he writes[9]:

It seems it was established [to light candles in the shul] on account of guests who don’t have a home in which to light, as was similarly established to make Kiddush in the shul on account of the guests who would eat and drink there… and another reason is in order to publicize the miracle before the whole nation… and thus writes the Rivash “This custom to light in the shul is an ancient custom in order to publicize the miracle. Since we are unable to fulfill the mitzvah fully to light outside our houses… Nonetheless one does not fulfill his obligation of the mitzvah by lighting in the shul and each one is required to light again in his home. נראה שתיקנו כן מפני האורחים שאין להם בית להדליק בו וכמו שתיקנו קידוש בבית הכנסת משום אורחים דאכלו ושתו בבי כנישתא… וכתב [עוד] טעם אחר שהוא כדי לפרסם הנס בפני כל העם… וזה לשון הריב”ש בתשובה (סי’ קיא) המנהג הזה להדליק בבית הכנסת מנהג ותיקין הוא משום פרסומי ניסא כיון שאין אנו יכולין לקיים המצוה כתיקונה להדליק כל אחד בפתח ביתו מבחוץ מפני שיד האומות תקיפה… ומכל מקום באותה הדלקה של בית הכנסת אין אדם יוצא בה וצריך לחזור ולהדליק כל אחד בביתו עכ”ל:

In earlier generations the shul served not just as a place of prayer, but also provided a temporary lodging for guests and passersby. Thus the custom of lighting in the shul was enacted only on account of it’s being a “home” of sorts.[10] Today although this reasoning no longer applies we continue to perform the established custom, yet as stressed above in doing so we do not fulfil our primary obligation of lighting Channukah candles. That can only be done in the home.[11]

Pirsumei Nisa – Publicizing the miracle

Why do we light candles on Channukah? In the words of the Rambam[12]:

The mitzvah of [lighting] Channukah candles is extremely precious and a person is required to be scrupulous about [fulfilling] it in order to publicize the miracle and to increase praise and thanks to G-d for the miracles He did for us. מצות נר חנוכה מצוה חביבה היא עד מאד וצריך אדם להזהר בה כדי להודיע הנס ולהוסיף בשבח האל והודיה לו על הנסים שעשה לנו

As the Rambam succinctly explains, the purpose of lighting these candles is “pirsumei nisa” – the publicizing of the Channukah miracle. Indeed this concept is ever present in the laws of Channukah. The halachot regarding the location of the candles and the time in which to light, are governed by that which will ensure maximum visibility of the candles.

Yet doesn’t this contradict that which we have seen above – that the mitzvah of lighting Channukah candles is intrinsically tied to the home. The home represents the most private domain imaginable. The act of publicizing would seem to be effective anywhere but the home. Surely the custom of Chabad to light Channukah candles in parks, malls, town squares and other public settings is a much more effective means of achieving the goal the Rambam spoke about?[13] When Chazal enacted this mitzvah why did they not establish that the candles should be lit at public gatherings? At the very least, the shul seems far more fitting as a setting to create the “pirsumei nisa” required.[14] Why did Chazal insist on tying the mitzvah of Channukah to the presence of the home?[15]

Lighting Inside

This question becomes even more difficult with the advent of the custom to light the candles not outside the house, but inside.[16]

Although the home is a private domain, a candle lit outside adjacent to the public domain will surely be seen by passersby. Although we questioned the effectiveness of thus publicizing the miracle, at least in such a scenario those on the outside would have the possibility of seeing the candles.

What can be said for the lighting of candles inside the home, the purpose of which is that no one outside will see them? Seemingly the most fundamental element of this mitzvah – that of publicizing the miracle has just been discarded?

  1. No Pirsum Inside

Earlier we brought the words of the Rivash quoted by the Bet Yosef regarding lighting inside a shul. The Rivash explained that we light in the shul in order to publicize the miracle, since this element is lost when we light the candles inside. Clearly the mitzvah of lighting and the obligation to publicize the miracle are two separate matters in his view. The mitzvah of lighting candles applies only in or around the home. The publicizing of the miracle can take place only outside – in or near the public arena.

Once again we are left puzzled. If the mitzvah is comprised of two distinct, disparate elements, why was it not established in a way that would always unite the two?

  1. Pirsum inside out

It is possible to suggest an alternative explanation. We can posit that “pirsumei nisa” is in fact an inherent part of the mitzvah and the candles cannot be lit if this element is absent. How then is the miracle publicized when the candles are lit inside? The answer is that it is publicized within the home.

This view is expressed most clearly regarding the discussion about the latest time for candle lighting.  While the Shulchan Aruch rules that candles may be lit until approximately half an hour after sunset, he cites opinions that one who was unable to light during this time may light the entire night. However here there is a dispute as to whether a bracha may still be recited. According to the opinion of the Chemed Moshe even if no one else is present at the time of lighting and no one else will see the candles a bracha may still be said. The Magen Avraham by contrast rules that only if one’s family members are present and awake to witness the lighting may the bracha be said.

These two achronim seem to be arguing about whether “pirsumei nisa” is an inherent part of the mitzvah or not. According to the Chemed Moshe the lack of publicity does not prevent one from fulfilling the mitzvah whilst according to the Magen Avraham it would. But unlike the Rivash who held that “pirsumei nisa” would only apply when the candles are lit outside, the Magen Avraham clearly holds that the publicizing of the miracle takes full effect within the home as well, to the members of one’s own family.

Publicizing within the Home

Perhaps we can use this ruling of the Magen Avraham to redefine our understanding of “pirsumei nisa”. The Rambam we quoted earlier explained the purpose of “pirsumei nisa” as “increasing praise and thanks to G-d for the miracles He did for us”. How are we to increase the awareness of Hashem’s miracles in the world? The first step is by increasing awareness within our own homes.

The Rambam writes that this mitzvah is so precious that everyone is obligated to do his utmost to fulfil it. As opposed to the general principle in halacha whereby we are not obligated to spend excessively in order to fulfill a mitzvah, one needs to buy oil or candles for the Channukah lights even if that involves selling the clothes off his back.[17]

From where did the Rambam learn this unique halacha?

The Magid Mishneh suggests that it was derived from another mitzvah which the Gemara states that even one who is destitute is obligated to fulfill – the four cups by leil haseder. And both of them revolve around the same principle – “pirsum hanes”.

If the supposed public nature of Channukah candles was difficult to understand, the mention of the same concept regarding the four cups of seder night raises the question to an entire new level. There is no level of publicity there at all!

The entire seder night takes place solely within the confines of the home. The only publicity there can be is to the members of the household. In fact this is exactly what we aim to do both on Pesach and on Channukah. The ultimate publicizing of the miracles, the ultimate way of increasing praise of Hashem in the world is not by making public announcements about it to the outside world, but rather by incorporating these ideas into the very fabric of our lives from within our own households.

Of course we want to publicize the miracles in the simplest sense of the word. Of course we want the entire world to see and hear of the wonders and miracles Hashem performed for us. But a story easily told can just as easily be forgotten. The light of the Channukah candles needs to shine inside – to remind us of just what it is that needs to be publicized within the home and to remind us that the family units which make up the Jewish people are those will ensure that those miracles will never be forgotten.

Publicizing Outside

Let us now reverse the question with which we began. If the main idea of publicizing here is truly meant to be within the home, why then are those who hold that the publicizing of the miracle can only take place outside, adjacent to the public domain?

If we are seeking to make the most public announcement possible then the small candle lit outside the house hardly seems to be the ideal strategy. However it does something that can only be achieved next to a house, and that is to publicize the fact that beyond these walls is a home. That candle proves the existence of a Jewish family within that home.[18] Each set of candles represents the sanctity of another Jewish family creating the same bond and keeping the same traditions that have sustained us for generations. The tiny candle outside the home publicizes that miracle in a way that the largest lights in the town square never could.

The mitzvah of Channukah is intrinsically connected to the home, because the home stood at the forefront of the battle with the Greeks. The war was waged not only because of the Greek decrees forbidding the observance of Shabbat, Rosh Chodesh and Milah but first and foremost because of their attempt to violate the sanctity of the Jewish family.[19]  In the words of the Tzitz Eliezer[20]: “The unique family character of Am Yisrael is the secret to our existence and thus the Greeks threw their full weight into trying to annul it… and when the Chashmonaim overcame them they established as a remembrance that in every Jewish home the Channukah candles would be lit to symbolize the restoration of the former glory of the consolidation and unity of the Jewish family unit.”

On Channukah we remember the miracles that were done for us, and we publicize them first and foremost within our own homes. By doing so we make sure to solidify the structure that has withstood the mightiest of storms – the Jewish family. And the strength of that family is the miracle that we publicize to the world at large through the lights of Channukah.

[1] It is beyond the scope of this article to discuss the various halachic factors leading to a ruling in the aforementioned case. Our intention in this introduction is merely to show how the changing reality of our times leads to a difficulty in determining the proper application of the principles laid forth by Chazal.

[2] Obviously where security regulations prevent one from lighting candles, it would be forbidden to do so. However poskim discuss whether there might an alternative way to fulfil the mitzvah, such as with a flashlight. Our discussion focuses on a place where lighting candles would conform to such regulations

[3] Shabbat 23a

[4] Sukkah 46a

[5] Shabbat 21b

[6] See also Mishnah Yoma 1:1

[7] For example see Rambam Hilchot Megillah ve’Channukah 4:1

[8]There are poskim who disagree with this premise, notably Aruch HaShulchan and Tzitz Eliezer. However the majority opinion seems to follow the idea that lighting Channukah candles must be done in connection with a home. Amongst contemporary poskim who subscribe to this view are included Rav Moshe Feinstein, Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach and Rav Ovadya Yosef.

[9] Bet Yosef Orach Chaim 671

[10] At this point we note that a temporary dwelling may be considered a home as well. Thus one who is a guest in a hotel would be obligated to light there. What is excluded is the lack of a physical structure which fulfils the criteria of a dwelling.

[11] There are additional sources which seem to indicate that the mitzvah of Channukah candles is dependent on the home. See for example the sugya of achsanai, Gemara Shabbat 23a.

[12] Hilchot Megillah ve’Channukah 4:12

[13] Specifically in such scenarios we find a point of contention amongst the poskim, the majority of whom are reluctant to allow a bracha to be said on such occasions.

[14] Additionally this would bear similarity to the original miracle which took place in the Bet HaMikdash. The Bet Knesset is a mikdash me’at.

[15] The Pnei Yehoshua writes: “It seems that that which is different about this mitzvah [which is dependent on the house] from other mitzvot which are incumbent upon every individual… is that here it is different since the primary fulfilment of the mitzvah is only adjacent to the public domain due to the publicizing of the miracle. Therefore the obligation of this mitzvah was established as if it was the obligation of the house, and the matter still remains unresolved.”

The Pnei Yehoshua explains that since the principle of “pirsumei nisa” is so important the mitzvah was established regarding the home and not the individual. Yet he is left unsatisfied with his own answer. Perhaps due to the very difficulty which we raised above – there are much more effective ways of publicizing than with a small candle outside the home.

[16] The reason given by the Gemara and subsequently brought in the Shulchan Aruch is that in times of danger one may light inside. However this custom has remained even in our days when the danger no longer applies. For further explanation and sources see Minchat Asher on Channukah.

[17] Rambam Hilchot Megillah ve’Channukah 4:12

[18] Note the similarity to the blood on the doorposts on Pesach night and subsequently the mitzvah of mezuzah, symbolizing the presence of a Jewish home.

[19] The Gemara Shabbat explains that although lighting Channukah candles is a positive timebound mitzvah, women are also obligated since they were also involved in the miracle. One explanation given is that there was a Greek decree that every Jewish girl who was to be wed would be sent to a Greek officer first.

[20] Tzitz Eliezer 12:33

– Length: