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"The Laws of Chanukah"

When discussing the festival of Chanukah, it is very important to
relate to the unique character of the holiday. The halachah that will
perhaps help us best accomplish this is the law that deals with the
issue of meals on Chanukah – i.e. is there an obligation to serve a
festive Chanukah meal or not?

The Rishonim were divided on this issue. According to the Maharam of
Rotenburg, there is no mitzvah to serve a special Chanukah meal since
the holiday was not established as one of feasting and drinking – but
rather one of Thanksgiving and Praise alone. This is also how the
Shulchan Aruch rules. In contrast, both Rambam (Maimonedes) and
Maharshal maintain that there is a positive rabbinic obligation to
serve festive meals on Chanukah.

According to all opinions, there is clearly not the obligation on
Chanukah to eat and drink in the same manner as we are mandated to do
on Purim. The question, though, is why? Levush explains that Purim
involved a decree by Haman to completely physically obliterate the
Jewish people; as such, it is fitting to celebrate the physical
survival of our nation by engaging in the physical pleasures of eating
and drinking. Chanukah, however, is a celebration of the victory of
the Jewish spirit over the pressure exerted by Hellenistic culture
(the Greeks issued decrees against the performance of numerous Torah
commandments). Therefore, the main focus of Chanukah is spiritual, to
give thanks and praise Hashem, Who helped us preserve our religious

In practice, the later rabbis (“Acharonim”) ruled according the view
of the Rema (Rabbi Moshe Isserles), who ruled that there is a mitzvah
to serve festive meals on Chanukah, on condition that they are held in
a “spiritual” framework, i.e. a meal filled with words of Torah, songs
and praises to God…

Two separate customs – Ashkenazic and Sephardic – exist regarding the
lighting of Chanukah lights – or, more precisely, the number of
“Chanukiot” (candelabras) that should be set up in each home. It’s
interesting that in this instance, the general pattern of Jewish
custom is not followed; in this instance, the Ashkenazic communities
follow the view of one of the most prominent Sephardic rabbis, the
Rambam, whereas the Sephardim follow the approach of the school of the
Tosafot and the Ashkenazic scholars.

There is another point worthy of mention – and that is, that there are
three ways to fulfill the mitzvah: The performance of the basic
mitzvah, “Mehadrin” ( the practice of those who beautify the mitzvah),
and “Mehadrin min Hamehadrin.” (an even higher-level beautification of
the mitzvah.)

To fulfill the basic mitzvah, it is sufficient to light one candle per
home on behalf of all members of the family; even on the eighth and
final day of Chanukah, this practice is acceptable. But if one wishes
to beautify the mitzvah, each person in the home should light one
candle on each night.

To perform the mitzvah in the most ideal way (“Mehadrin min
Hamehadrin”) one must add one additional candle for each successive
day of Chanukah, to express the graduated intensification of the
miracle. This is to recognize that yet another day of the holiday has
passed, to commemorate the fact that a small vial of oil continued to
burn uninterrupted, and did so for eight days!

Differing customs developed regarding this practice: One custom
maintained that each member of the family should light a separate
Chanukiah, and add candles for each night; the other practice had only
one person, the master of the house, light a Chanukiah with an
additional candle on each night.

Sephardic custom determines that only the master of the house lights
the Chanukiah, adding a candle each night, while Ashkenazic
communities have each family member light a Chanukiah; in the latter
custom, family members are careful to distance their menorahs from one
another, so that each candelabra is distinctly visible, such that the
number of days that have passed since the beginning of the festival
can be clearly visible to the observer. In Ashkenazic custom, grown
women are not accustomed to light their own candles, but a woman is
permitted to if she so wishes; she can even recite a blessing when she
lights. Young girls are accustomed to light with a blessing.

Women have a unique custom of refraining from performing melacha –
acts of creative labor – while the Chanukah candles are burning. In
light of this custom, it has been asked whether or not women are
therefore allowed or prohibited from preparing the traditional jelly
donuts and potato pancakes immediately after candle-lighting.

(We should clarify that the question relates only to the first half
hour after the candles are lit, because, after that time, there is no
legal requirement for the candles to remain lit – and it is even
permissible at that point to extinguish them. Therefore, it is obvious
that a woman may do acts of melacha after the first half hour. The
question, however, remains about the permissibility of cooking
immediately after the candles are lit.)

Two reasons have been offered as to the basis of the custom that women
refrain from acts of melacha after candle-lighting: One is to prevent
them from using the light of the candles for their work. (The Chanukah
candles may only be observed, but not used for reading, work, etc.)
The second reason offered is that since the miracle of Chanukah was
initiated by a woman named Yehudit – whose courage led her to behead a
commander of the enemy forces – women have a higher-level obligation
to celebrate the holiday; for women, then, the holiday is elevated to
the level of a classic, Torah-commanded festival, during which melacha
is prohibited.

If the first reason cited is the main one for the prohibition of
melacha, then any labors that require the light of a candle would be
prohibited for the first half hour after the candles are lit; if the
second reason is the definitive one, the laws of Chanukah would not be
more serious than those of Chol Hamo’ed (the intermediate days of
Sukkot and Pesach) during which it is permissible to cook, but is
forbidden to do laundry or sew. Former Chief Shephardic Rabbi
Moredechai Eliyahu rules according to the second reason; in his view,
therefore, it is permissible for women to bake and cook while the
candles are burning.

However, families accustomed not to do melacha during this time period
should continue to follow their present custom, since they have
apparently taken upon themselves the custom according to the first
reason. One who does not know of an existing family custom may cook
right after candle-lighting, and refrain from melachot forbidden on
Chol Hamo’ed such as laundry, sewing, etc.

All oils and wicks are basically kosher for use on Chanukah, unlike
the rules governing Shabbat candles. Regarding the latter, the Mishna
asks, “With which wicks and oils can we light and with which can we
not?” The reason for the distinction is that the light of the Shabbat
candles is meant to be used; if the candles do not light well, there
is a concern that one will come to adjust the candles so that the
candles burn better; this would constitute a desecration of Shabbat.
Thus the sages forbade using, for Shabbat, wicks and oils that do not
burn well. Such is not the case with Chanukah candles, the light of
which may not be used, but only observed. Therefore, all that is
needed is a candle that will stay lit for a minimum of a half hour.

Nevertheless, the Rema writes that it is preferable to use olive oil
for Chanukah, since the miracle of Chanukah occurred with olive oil;
using olive oil, therefore, is a more accurate commemoration of the
miracle. Many still use regular wax candles since their light is
generally brighter and since such candles are often easier to work

A new issue has been raised in modern times – Is it possible to
fulfill the mitzvah of lighting the Chanukiah with electric light
bulbs? The general consensus among the later rabbis is that electric
lights cannot be used. Various reasons were given for forbidding their
use – one of the central ones is that Chanukah lights must be similar
to those in the Beit Hamikdash (Temple), and an electric light is not
similar to the lights in the Temple Menorah.

The place that the sages established for performing the mitzvah is the
left hand side of the entrance to one’s home, on the outside of the
house; the goal is that all passersby see the lights and remember the
miracle. This special location applies to a home whose door faces a
public thoroughfare. If a person, however, lives on the second storey
of an apartment block, though, it is preferable for him to light in
the window facing the street.

The Chanukiah must be placed at a height of three to ten handbreaths –
between 24 and 80 centimeters off the ground. Why? If the candles are
placed any higher, people may think that the candles were lit to light
the entry-way to the house. If one places the candles too low, it may
seem as if he has placed the candles there only temporarily, and plans
to soon move them. Placing them between 24 and 80 centimeters off the
ground, however, makes it clear to all who view the Chanukiah that the
candles were lit for the purpose of the mitzvah and to publicize the

This is all the preferred way to perform the mitzvah, but if one
unwittingly placed the candles either lower than 24 or higher than 80
centimeters, he has still fulfilled the mitzvah.

There are some instances in which it is preferable to place the
Chanukiah higher than 80 centimeters; for instance, if a person does
not have the proper glass case that would allow him to place his
Chanukiah outside, a situation in which, if he places it less than 80
centimeters from the ground inside the house, only family members
inside the home will see the candles. If he places them on the window
ledge, however, the miracle will be publicized to all passersby. In
this case, it is advisable to place the candles on the window ledge so
that both family members and passersby may see them.

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