This week, we begin the festive holiday of Chanukah. We’ll eat delicious foods, like latkes and soufganiyot, while watching children endlessly spin the dreidel. But the focus of Chanukah, and what’s considered the main mitzvah of the holiday, is to light the Chanukah candles every night.
This custom, which has endured for generations, is one of the few that transcends the Jewish ideological spectrum. Nearly everyone, from the most secular to the most religious, participates in lighting the Chanukah menorah without fail. Let’s take a closer look at the halachot surrounding the Chanukah lights.
The Mishnah and the Talmud devote much space to every major Jewish holiday, except Chanukah. Some commentators speculate that the redactors of the Mishnah didn’t want to risk angering the Roman authorities by devoting too much time to a holiday commemorating a Jewish military victory over an oppressive ruler, especially so soon after the incident occurred.
What is written about the laws of Chanukah is listed in Maasechet Shabbat, where the Talmud discusses the laws of Chanukah along with the laws of Shabbat candles.
Chanukah lights must be actual fire, and accordingly one should not use electric lights. Ideally, one should endeavour to use olive oil with a wick, as this best commemorates the miracle of Chanukah (Mishna Berurah 673:4). In the absence of olive oil, wax candles may be used.
According to the basic halachah, one flame must be lit each night of Chanukah. In order to beautify the mitzvah, we light our Chanukah menorahs according to the custom attributed to Beit Hillel in the Talmud, whereby we light an additional flame on each subsequent night of Chanukah. This differs from the custom attributed to Beit Shammai where one lights eight flames on the first night and reduces the number by one each subsequent night.
Unlike on Shabbat and yom tov, the Chanukah lights are specifically meant to publicize the miracle of Chanukah. As a result, one should be very careful not to use the light of the flames for any purpose. Very often families are seen sitting in a darkened room, reading the brachot or spinning the dreidel by the candlelight. This is expressly forbidden.
There is also a widespread custom that women (and in some communities men) should refrain from all melachah (work) while the flames are burning. The Vilna Gaon writes in his work Biur HaGra, that this custom evolved as a way to remind people to not utilize the light of the fire in any way.
The Chanukah lights should be lit shortly after sunset, and must continue to burn for a minimum of one-half hour after three stars appear in the sky (Igrot Moshe Orach Chaim 4:101-106). As this is not possible on Erev Shabbat, one should light the Chanukah candles immediately prior to the Shabbat candles, and must ensure that there is enough oil (or the candles are big enough) for the candles to remain lit until the prescribed time. In most cases, using Shabbat candles instead of traditional Chanukah candles will achieve this objective.
Chag Urim Samayach!