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By Rabbi Yitzchak Etshalom | Series: | Level:
[This week we will “take a break” from analyzing the weekly Parashah, preferring to investigate some of the Halakhic nuances of Ner Hanukkah and, perhaps, some of the implications of this Mitzvah. Next week’s issue will be a new shiur, analyzing Psalm 30 which is traditionally recited on Hanukkah. You can catch two podcasts on Parashat Vayyeshev at; they will be posted by late Thursday night PST]



As is commonly known, the entire discussion relating to the Rabbinic formulation of the commemoration of the Hasmonean victory over the Hellenists and Seleucids in 165-163 BCE is found in BT Shabbat 21-24. (Why Hanukkah claims no Massechet for itself is an intriguing topic – but beyond the scope of discussion here.) Amid the Halakhic discussion of proper and improper wicks and fuels for Shabbat candles, the parallel investigation relating to fit materials for Hanukkah candles is introduced. This topic opens the door for the full analysis of Hilkhot Hanukkah, including how many lights to kindle, where and when they are lit, who is obligated etc., covering all relevant Halakhic parameters.

Near the beginning of that discussion, we are presented with a Baraita which teaches that there are multiple levels of fulfilling the Mitzvah of Ner Hanukkah:

Our Rabbis taught: The Mitzvah of Hanukkah is:

1) one Ner for a man and his household;

2) the M’hadrin (zealous – those who wish to beautify and enhance the Mitzvah) [kindle] a light for each member [of the household];

3) and the M’hadrin min haM’hadrin: a) Beit Shammai maintain: On the first day eight lights are lit and thereafter they are gradually reduced; b) but Beit Hillel say: On the first day one is lit and thereafter they are progressively increased.

(BT Shabbat 21b)

The simplest way of understanding this sugya is the way it was outlined above: There is a basic, bare-bones way of fulfilling this Mitzvah; there is a more enhanced way of performing it, identified with the practice of the M’hadrin – and there is the finest, most beautiful style, that associated with the M’hadrin min haM’hadrin. In other words, if someone chooses to fulfill the Mitzvah of Ner Hanukkah in the finest way possible, he will build on to the basic Mitzvah of one candle per household per night, by placing a candle for each member of the household and by increasing this number of candles each night (as in Beit Hillel’s scheme), until the final night will be illuminated by 8 candles times the amount of the people in the house.

This is the approach taken by Rambam, who rules:

How many candles are lit on Hanukkah? The Mitzvah is that each house should have one candle lit, whether there are a lot of people or only one person living there. The one who beautifies (Mehader) the Mitzvah lights candles according to the number of people in the house, one candle for each, men and women. The one who beautifies even more than this and does the ideal Mitzvah lights a candle for each person on the first night and keeps adding one candle each night. For example, if there were ten people in the house, on the first night he lights ten candles, on the second night he lights twenty candles, on the third night he lights thirty candles and so on until the last night when he lights eighty. (MT Hanukkah 4:1-2)

In light of the pursuant discussion in the Gemara, however, this approach may be problematic. The Gemara (Shabbat ibid.) analyzes the dispute between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai and provides two explanations for their dispute:

‘Ulla said: In the West [Eretz Yisra’el] two Amoraim, R. Yossi b. Avin and R. Yossi b. Z’vida, differ therein:

One maintains: The reason of Beit Shammai is that it shall correspond to the days still to come, and that of Beit Hillel is that it shall correspond to the days that are gone;

The other maintains: Beit Shammai’s reason is that it shall correspond to Parei haHag (the bullocks of the Festival The Torah, in Bamidbar 29, commands us to bring a sequence of offerings on Sukkot wherein the number of bulls offered each day grows increasingly smaller, such that on the first day 13 are brought, on the second 12, etc. and on the seventh day, 7 are brought.); whilst Beit Hillel’s reason is Ma’alin baKodesh v’ein Moridin(we promote in [matters of] sanctity but do not reduce).

[note that Ulla is unsure as to which Amora authored which approach; this is likely due to their sharing the first name “Yossi”, thus generating some confusion as to authorship.]

Although this analysis seems to be a purely academic exercise with no practical ramifications, that isn’t necessarily the case. If the bone of contention between the schools of Shammai and Hillel is whether we want to display how many days are yet to come or how many we have already celebrated, we will want to insure that our performance of this Mitzvah fulfills this goal. If, on the other hand, the increase/decrease symbolizes a facet of the Beit HaMikdash (the principle of Ma’alin baKodesh is rooted in – and applied to – Halakhot relating to the Beit HaMikdash. See M. Menahot 11:7), the “informative” perspective of how many candles are displayed becomes less significant. It would seem that Rambam prefers the second analysis, since his description of the ideal Mitzvah (eighty candles) doesn’t seem to do much for informing people how many days have gone (unless passersby are aware of how many people live in this house).

Rambam may have been swayed by the follow-up to Ulla’s report:

Rabbah b. Bar Hana said: There were two old men in Sidon: one did as Beit Shammai and the other as Beit Hillel: the former gave the reason of his action that it should correspond to Parei haHag, while the latter stated his reason because Ma’alin baKodesh…

Although Rabbah b. Bar Hana’s report probably antedates Ulla’s (it apparently reflects a period when Beit Shammai was still a legitimate option; see BT Eruvin 13b), the editors of the Gemara chose to place it after Ulla’s presentation of the two opinions in order to lend support to the Parei haHagMa’alin baKodesh theory. It is, therefore, not unreasonable to assume that the first approach, focused on properly informing the public of the day of Hanukkah, was utterly rejected.

Not all Rishonim read this selection the same way as did Rambam. R. Yitzchak, quoted in Tosafot (Shabbat 21b s.v. v’haM’hadrin) maintains that the M’hadrin min haM’hadrin built directly on the basic Mitzvah. To wit, the ideal way of fulfilling the Mitzvah is to have one candle per household on the first night (regardless of how many people live there), two the second etc. until there are eight candles on the last night. R. Yitzchak’s reasoning is as follows: “…[this way] there is greater hiddur (adornment of the Mitzvah), for there is publicity when he adds or subtracts, corresponding to the days yet to come or the days gone by; however, if he has a candle for each person in the house, even if he adds every day, there is no publicity [to those seeing the candles] for they will think that there are simply that many people in the house.”

Put simply, if I put six candles outside of my door, will a passerby know that there are two of us in the house and that it is the third night? He may think that there are three of us and it is the second night…or that there are six of us and it is the first night (or the reverse). [Keep in mind that the Gemara and these Rishonim are all discussing a situation where all of the household’s candles are lit in one location, without separate Chanukiyyot]

It is apparent that whereas Rambam may have seen the “days to come, days gone by” theory as totally rejected, R. Yitzchak maintains that it is very much alive in the consideration of how to perform the Mitzvah.



Again, we turn to the passage in Massechet Shabbat. Having presented Rav’s opinion that once we have lit the candles, we are not responsible for their staying lit (such that if they are extinguished, we need not relight them), the Gemara challenges this opinion by quoting a Baraita as follows:

Now, if it goes out, does it not require attention? But the following contradicts it: Its observance is from sunset until there is no wayfarer in the street. Does that not mean that if it goes out [within that period] it must be relit?-No: if one has not yet lit, he must light it; or, in respect to the Shiur (amount of oil). (BT Shabbat 21b)

In other words, the Gemara assumed that the time period “from sunset until there is no wayfarer in the street” represents the duration during which the candles must remain lit; so that even if they are extinguished they must be relit. The Gemara defends Rav’s position, interpreting “from…until” as the window of time during which the Mitzvah may be fulfilled. Alternatively, this time period may represent a measure of how much fuel must be placed in the candle so that it has the potential to be lit for that long.

In any case, the Gemara explicitly rules that the proper time for candle-lighting is at sunset and that one may light until the last person has left the street. Instead of leaving this “ending time” open-ended in such a way that each street would have its own measure (depending how late there is foot traffic there), the Gemara establishes a clear ending time:

‘Until there is no wayfarer in the street.’ Until when [is that]? — Rabbah b. Bar Hanah said in R. Yohanan’s name: Until the Palmyreans have departed. (The Palmyreans were wood-choppers who would remain in the street after sunset in order to sell wood to last-minute shoppers – Rashi).

Rambam rules in accordance with the Baraita:

We don’t light Hanukkah candles before sunset; rather we light exactly at sunset, neither earlier nor later. If you forgot or intentionally put it off, you can still light until the last person is out of the marketplace-about one half-hour after sunset. After this time, we don’t light. You have to put in enough oil [or have candles long enough] to light until the last person is out of the market-place. If you lit the candle and it went out, you don’t have to relight it. If it remains lit after the last person left the market-place, you can put it out if you want to. (MT Hanukkah 4:5)

In other words, Rambam combines both answers and explicitly accepts this half-hour time as the only valid time for lighting Ner Hanukkah.

Once again, we find R. Yitzchak disagreeing with Rambam:

“In our day there is no concern as to when you light, for our only publicity is for the members of our household since we light indoors”. (Tosafot Shabbat 21b s.v. d’i lo)

There is an even stronger expression of this viewpoint (which was popular in the Tosafist school) found in Sefer haT’rumah of R. Barukh:

“…this rule [of lighting at sunset] only applied to the earlier generations who lit in the public thoroughfare and there is no publicity for the miracle (Pirsum haNess) after the last person has left the street. We, however, who light indoors, have publicity for the members of our household until dawn.”

In other words, whereas Rambam rules in strict accordance with the Baraita that the only acceptable time for lighting is at sunset, the Tosafists validate lighting Nerot Hanukkah well past the half-hour, reasoning that since the “target audience” of the publicity associated with Ner Hanukkah has changed from the street to the house, the time at which people are up and about at home could well be all night – and that is now a valid time for lighting.



The Gemara (Shabbat ibid.) quotes another Baraita regarding the proper location for Ner Hanukkah:

Our Rabbis taught: It is incumbent to place the Ner Hanukkah by the door of one’s house on the outside; if one dwells in an upper chamber, he places it at the window nearest the street. But in times of danger it is sufficient to place it on the table.

In a later passage (22a), the Gemara quotes another Baraita which states that the Ner Hanukkah should be placed within a handsbreath of the doorway, on the left side (opposite the Mezuzah).

Again, Rambam rules exactly like the Baraita:

It is a Mitzvah to place the Ner Hanukkah by the door on the outside, within a tefach of the door on the left side of the entry so that the Mezuzah will be on the right side and the Ner Hanukkah on the left. If you live upstairs, you place it in the window facing the public access. If you place a Ner Hanukkah higher than 20 amot it is as if you did nothing, because it is not apparent. During dangerous times, you can put the Ner Hanukkah inside the house, even on the table… (MT Hanukkah 4:7-8)

Note that Rambam does not “justify” lighting indoors by associating a different viewing public with that location (the members of the household); he simply follows the words of the Baraita and deems it sufficient to light indoors, even on the table, if it is dangerous to place it in a more public area.

As we saw earlier, the Tosafists took it as a given that it is no longer mandatory to light outdoors and the lighting is done indoors. It isn’t clear from the various sources whether there was an ongoing situation of danger such that every year they were relying on the leniency of “times of danger” or whether the urban reality had shifted such that lighting near the door did not provide much publicity.

In any case, we again find (just as in the case of the time-parameter) that the Tosafists seem to take a flexible approach to the laws of Hanukkah and Rambam is unwilling to waver from the literal ruling of the Gemara.

How can we explain this consistent dispute within the laws of Ner Hanukkah?

It might be tempting to read a global dispute into this examples, as follows: Rambam maintains that when the Rabbis formulate a law, even if the clear and stated aim of that law will no longer be achieved through the method they ordained, we are still bound to follow their ruling as they formulated it. The Tosafists, contradistinctively, hold that when the Rabbis pass legislation, it is with the understanding that that law remains in force in its original formulation only so long as that formulation still speaks to the goals of the law in question.

An alternative to this approach is to posit that Rambam and the Tosafists are disputing the nature of the original enactment – was it “light the candles in this location at this time” or was it “light the candles in the best location and at the best time for maximum publicity”?

Although these suggestions are tempting – and are consistent with an approach found in other rulings of Tosafot (see e.g. Tosafot Eruvin 17b s.v. Mayim Aharonim; Tosafot Betza 30a s.v. t’nan) they don’t satisfy the Rambam-Tosafot dispute regarding the ideal method of fulfilling Nerot Hanukkah – what is the approach of the M’hadrin min haM’hadrin?

I would like to suggest that these three disputes – the ideal performance, the time and the location of Ner Hanukkah – reflect a deeper dispute between Rambam and the Franco-German scholars which cuts to the core of Mitzvat Ner Hanukkah.



It is reasonable to ask a basic question about the Rabbinically mandated ritual of Hanukkah: Why did they choose candle-lighting as the method of celebration and commemoration?

The conventional answer is found in the Baraita from Megillat T’aanit, quoted in BT Shabbat 21b:

What is [the reason of] Hanukkah? For our Rabbis taught: On the twenty-fifth of Kislev [commence] the days of Hanukkah, which are eight on which a lamentation for the dead and fasting are forbidden. For when the Greeks entered the Temple, they defiled all the oils therein, and when the Hasmonean dynasty prevailed against and defeated them, they made search and found only one cruse of oil which lay with the seal of the High Priest, but which contained sufficient for one day’s lighting only; yet a miracle was wrought therein and they lit [the lamp] therewith for eight days. The following year these [days] were appointed a Festival with [the recital of] Hallel and thanksgiving.

In other words, since the cruse of oil lasted eight days, the Rabbis ordained that we “imitate” the miracle by burning oil-lamps (or candles) each night for these eight nights; in order that we inform as many people as possible about this miracle, we should light it in the most public place at the time that most people will see it. In addition, if someone wishes to enhance the Mitzvah, they will do so by making it even clearer how long the oil lasted by increasing the candles until there are a full eight outside of the house on the last night. This publicity would, of course, be defeated if they started with more than one – and increased each night by more than one – since the passersby would have no idea how long the miraculous oil lasted based on the number of candles displayed.

This all fits very nicely with the various rulings presented above in the name of the Tosafists. What are we to make of the Rambam’s rulings which seem to be inflexibly tied to the literal reading of the Gemara, even at the risk of defeating the purpose of this Mitzvah?



In order to understand how Rambam sees this Mitzvah, we need to reexamine the question asked above: Why did the Rabbis enact the Mitzvah of Ner Hanukkah in order to commemorate this great miracle and salvation? After all, there is no model for such behavior; i.e. we never find that we commemorate a miraculous salvation by imitating the miracle itself. Rather, we relive how the B’nei Yisra’el at the time responded to the miraculous salvation; e.g. we have a feast on Pesach night, celebrate with costumes and revelry on Purim, recommit ourselves to diligence in Torah study on Shavuot – and sit on the ground, bewailing our national destruction on Tisha b’Av. Why then are we lighting candles, in apparent imitation of the actual miracle, on Hanukkah?

Here is how the Rambam introduces the Mitzvah of Ner Hanukkah:

During the Second Temple, when the Greeks ruled, they passed decrees on the Jews and annulled their religious observances, not allowing them to be involved in Torah and Mitzvot. They stole their money and daughters and entered the Sanctuary and defiled it, rendering the pure objects impure. They greatly afflicted the Jewish people and oppressed them until the God of their fathers had compassion for them and saved them from their hand and saved them. The sons of Hashmonai, Kohanim G’dolim, defeated and killed them and saved the Jews from their hand and ordained a king from among the Kohanim and the monarchy returned to the Jews for more than 200 years until the destruction of the Second Temple.

When the Jews defeated their enemies and destroyed them, it was the twenty-fifth of Kislev; they entered the Sanctuary and found no pure oil in the Temple, save for one cruse which only had enough to light for one day only and they lit the lamps of the *Ma’arachah* (in due order) from it for eight days until they pressed olives and extracted pure oil.

On account of this the Sages of that generation ordained that these eight days which begin with the night of the 25th of Kislev shall be days of rejoicing and Hallel. We light candles *ba’Erev* (at evening) on the doors of the houses each of these eight nights in order to display and reveal the miracle… (MT Hanukkah 3:1-3)

Note that Rambam does not state that the miracle being celebrated is the long-lasting cruse of oil. It seems from Rambam’s wording here that the miracle being celebrated is the liberation of the Beit haMikdash and the general defeat of the Greeks with the subsequent restoration of Jewish sovereignty over Eretz Yisra’el.

That Rambam maintains that the miracle we are celebrating is the military/political victory and purification of the Mikdash can be seen from another ruling of his:

The Mitzva of Ner Hanukkah is a greatly beloved Mitzvah and a person should be very careful in order to publicize the miracle and to add to the praise of God and thanksgiving for the miracles which He has done for us… (MT Hanukkah 4:12)

Note that Rambam does not state “miracle”, rather “for the miracles”, in the plural. Whether or not the miracle of the cruse of oil plays any significant role in the celebration (i.e. whether it is even a part of the focus of our thanksgiving to God), it is clear that this is not the major focus of the celebration in Rambam’s calculus.

Why, then, do we celebrate and thank God by lighting candles?

Note Rambam’s language – “We light candles ba’Erev(at evening)”

Why did Rambam choose the unusual word *ba’Erev instead of *baLayla* (at night)?

It seems that Rambam understands the Mitzvah of Nerot Hanukkah in a substantively different way than the Tosafists. Whereas the Tosafists maintain that we light Nerot to publicize the miracle of the cruse of oil (a commemorative model unmatched in Halakhah), Rambam says that the ordinance of Nerot Hanukkah follows the standard Halakhic model for commemoration. Just as we do on other commemorative occasions, we relive the response of the B’nei Yisra’el to the miracle of salvation. What did the Hashmona’im do when they were successful, with God’s help, in reclaiming and recleansing the Beit HaMikdash? They immediately resumed the proper worship of the Temple, including (but not limited to) the kindling of the Menorah. Since the Menorah is the only Mikdash-act that we can legitimately “imitate” (albeit with significant differences) outside of the Mikdash (we cannot bring offerings, burn the incense etc. outside of the Mikdash), the Sages of that generation mandated that we celebrate this salvation and victory by lighting a representative-Menorah each of these nights. See the Ramban’s comments at Bamidbar 8:2)

[As to why the celebration/commemoration is 8 days long – that is material for another shiur…perhaps next year, God willing]



We can now look back at the three positions taken by Rambam where he differs from the rulings of the Tosafists and explain:

Unlike the Tosafists, there is no concern with “misleading” the public regarding how long the oil lasted – that isn’t the goal of the Mitzvah. As such, the more candles lit, the greater the Hiddur.

Since this is a Menorah-replica, the lighting must take place just as the Menorah did: Me’Erev ad Boker – from evening ’til morning. The Sages did not obligate us to keep it lit for that entire time, but, in order for it to properly replicate the Menorah, it must be lit during the beginning of that time. This is why Rambam uses the unusual word ba’Erev instead of the more conventional baLayla which we would expect.

The lighting at the doorway is not chiefly motivated by concerns for publicity – which is why Rambam doesn’t stipulate that when lit indoors, there must be “in-house” publicity. It is lit by the door in order to demonstrate that this house is a Jewish house (serving a parallel function to that of the Mezuzah) which carries the flame of the Mikdash. On Hanukkah, each of our houses is a Mikdash and each of us steps into the shoes of Aharon haKohen, declaring to the world that the Shechinah rests among the Jewish people.

Text Copyright © 2008 by Rabbi Yitzchak Etshalom and The author is Educational Coordinator of the Jewish Studies Institute of the Yeshiva of Los Angeles.