Not that simple
Lighting up many a rabbinic debate
It sounds simple: On Chanukah, we light a light in a chanukiah, or Chanukah menorah. We begin the festival by lighting one candle on the first night and work our way up to eight candles on the eighth night.
This is Judaism, however, and nothing is ever that simple.
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It is even more complicated than this article will make it seem, because much of what follows can be found in the Babylonian Talmud tractate Shabbat 21a-23a, which only begins the halachic conversation.
First, there is the matter of the wicks and the oil (oil lamps were used in those days and are making a comeback today). The Sages of blessed memory agreed that olive oil should be used, but not everyone agreed that olive oil had exclusivity; some said that other oils could also be used for the ritual. The law accepts that opinion, although pure olive oil pressed specifically for the purpose remains the top preference.
The debate over the wicks pertained to whether they needed to be of Shabbat quality, meaning that they are not likely to burn too quickly or go out before the oil is used up.
The Babylonian sage Rav Huna argues that the wicks must be of Shabbat quality. Apparently, we are then told, Rav Huna feared that inferior wicks would go out, necessitating that they be relit. Rav Chisda disagreed regarding Shabbat-quality wicks — but only because he did not agree that the lights had to be relit. If they went out, that was it.
Here again, the decision prefers cotton wicks, but any workable wicks are acceptable.
These rabbis also disagreed over whether it was appropriate for the lights of the Chanukah lamps to be used for illumination purposes. Rav Chisda thought that was acceptable; Rav Huna did not. The decision came down against that practice, because kindling a light is not the reason we light these lights. The mitzvah is about publishing the miracle of Chanukah (“pirsum ha-nes”), and lighting the lights is merely the means to that end. To use the light as illumination would send the wrong message.
That raised another issue. Where exactly should the chanukiah be lit if pirsum ha-nes is its purpose? The answer is, outside the door, not inside the house. Thus, “Our Rabbis taught that it is required to place the Chanukah lamp on the outside of one’s house by the door; if one lives in an upstairs room, he places it beside the window facing the pubic thoroughfare. In times of [religious persecution], however, he places it on his [inner] table.”
This, too, led to debates. For one, where exactly outside the door should the chanukiah be placed? “Rabbah said: The Chanukah lamp should be placed within [12 to 16 inches] nearest the door [on the outside]. And where is it placed? Rav Acha, son of Rava, said on the right-hand side. Rav Sh’muel of Difti said on the left-hand side. The law is on the left, so that the Chanukah lamp will be on the left opposite the mezuzah [which is] on the right.”
As for how high off the ground the chanukiah may be placed (I did say this was not as simple as lighting a candle or eight), we are told that it “should be placed within 10 cubits” from the ground, meaning no higher than 15 or 20 feet, depending on how one measures a cubit. “If a Chanukah lamp is placed above 20 cubits [from the ground, meaning 30 or 40 feet], it is unfit” placement because its purpose of pirsum ha-nes — to be seen by passers-by — is defeated at such a height.
This, of course, could pose a problem for the person who “lives in an upstairs room.”
A most interesting debate in this area is over the question of which act fulfills the mitzvah — lighting the candles, or placing them properly. There are valid — and practical — arguments for both points of view, but the winner in this one is the lighting.
Finally, there are several matters pertaining to how to light the Chanukah lights.
The most famous of these is the debate between the schools of Shammai and Hillel. The Sages generally considered it sufficient that one light be lit each night, period. They accepted, however, that people might want to do more than just the minimum. Thus, even though going to extremes is often discouraged in halachah:
“The commandment to kindle on Chanukah means a man and his household [in other words, one light is to be lit in each home each night]; the fervent [would kindle] one light for each person [in the household, presumably each one kindling his or her own]; as for the most fervent, the school of Shammai say, on the first day, he lights eight [candles], from here on, he should reduce it by one, while the school of Hillel say, on the first night he lights one and from here on he adds to it by one.”
All now agree (finally!) that we place the candles into the chanukiah beginning at the far right (meaning, our right, not the chanukiah’s). Each night, we add a candle, again starting from the right and moving left. On the other hand, we light the candles in the exact opposite way — from left to right. In that way, we pay honor to the newest candle (or wick) before lighting the older ones.
That brings us to some modern questions, such as why we do not continue the practice of lighting the chanukiah outside the front door, opposite the mezuzah. Actually, many people still do. It is not always practical, however, especially for apartment dwellers; and local fire regulations probably do not take kindly to a flaming menorah sitting outside the front door of an apartment on the 17th floor. They probably would look just as unkindly with homeowners putting unprotected flames outside their homes on a cold, windy, wintry night.
Finally, if the point of the lights is pirsum ha-nes, to publish the miracle, why not just buy a slew of blue-and-white electric lights and hang them all over the front of our homes and even inside them? We can even have a neon dreidel revolving in our windows, spewing out the words, “Nes gadol hayah sham — a great miracle happened there.” That would accomplish pirsum ha-nes far more effectively and lastingly than the candles on our chanukiot. And the higher you place it, the more people will see it (assuming a big sign).
Actually, all it would do is cause us to violate a Torah precept — to wit, that it is forbidden to copy the religious rituals and practices of the other.