Are These Candles Indeed Holy?

  • Rav Binyamin Tabory


The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Special Holiday Shiur



Are These Candles Indeed Holy?

Chanuka Today and the Temple Menora


Rav Binyamin Tabory


After lighting the Chanuka candles, it is customary to say "Ha-neirot halalu" ("These candles"). (Some have the custom to recite this after lighting the first candle, while the rest are being lit.[1]) The text declares, "These candles are holy, and we are not permitted to use them, but only to look at them."

Is this actually the case? The gemara (Shabbat 22a) relates directly to this issue:

"Rav Yehuda said in the name of Rav Assi: It is forbidden to count coins by the light of the Chanuka candles. When I cited this to Shmuel, he asked me, 'Is there holiness in these candles?' ...[Rather, the reason for the prohibition is] so that the commandments should not be denigrated in his eyes."

While the gemara does conclude that we are not permitted to use the Chanuka candles for a purpose other than the mitzva, for example, for counting coins, it explicitly states that it is NOT because of their holiness! In this shiur, we will attempt to explore the meaning of the expression, "These candles are holy," and discuss how it manifests itself in five matters relating to the mitzva of candle lighting.

1. The Lighting

In the beginning of parashat Beha'alotkha, the Ramban quotes the Midrash Tanchuma: "Why does the section in the Torah about the menora (candelabra) directly follow the description of the sacrifices brought by the heads of the tribes at the dedication of the Tabernacle?" He elaborates on this midrash, explaining that Aharon the High Priest was upset that all the heads of the tribes, except himself, merited participation in the dedication of the altar. God consoled Aharon by telling him that though they merited dedicating the altar, he will merit lighting the candles and tending to the menora daily. Furthermore, while the dedication of the altar remains in effect only as long as the Temple stands, the lighting of the candles of the menora lasts forever.

The obvious question is: didn't the lighting of the candles of the menora cease when the Temple was destroyed, just as the sacrifices were no longer brought? The Ramban responds that the candles referred to are the Chanuka candles, which we light as the result of the actions of Aaron's descendants, the Hasmonean priests.

It is evident from this Ramban that the entire institution of Chanuka candles is a continuation of the candle lighting in the Temple. In other words, the Sages decreed that every Jew should light a Temple-like candle in his home. This opens up the possibility that the holiness of the menora in the Temple lives on through the Chanuka candles.

2. The Berakha

The connection between the Temple menora and Chanuka candles arises again in the Raavad's approach to the blessing over the Chanuka lights. Attempting to establish rules for the different formulations of the blessings on commandments, the Raavad (Hilkhot Berakhot 11:15) suggests that while blessings for rabbinic commandments should be "al mitzvat..." (concerning the commandment of...), the blessing over the Chanuka candles should remain an exception. We should still say "lehadlik ner..." ("to light the candles..."), because this was the blessing recited over the candle lighting in the Temple. The Sages modeled this mitzva of rabbinic origin on a mitzva of Biblical origin. Once again, the Chanuka candles are viewed as a continuation of the candles lit in the Temple.

3. Placing vs. Lighting

A precise definition of the mitzva itself might be influenced by this issue. The gemara, sifting through a long list of proof texts, raises the question of whether the basic obligation of Chanuka candles involves lighting the candles, or placing them in their proper place. It is logical to say that the mitzva is fulfilled through the placing of the candles, for, by that means, the miracle is publicized. Why, then, might the lighting of the candles be considered the essential mitzva?

Rashi (Shabbat 22b) explains, "We light as we did in the Temple" (2). Here, too, we see that the Chanuka candles are modeled after the Temple's candles.

4. Use

The sugya with which we opened (Shabbat 21a) deals with legitimate uses of the Chanuka candles. While the gemara concludes that it is not permissible to use the candles for such activities as "counting coins," the Rishonim still dispute whether the candles can be used for purposes related to a mitzva. Other Amoraim apparently disagreed with Shmuel's understanding of the prohibition ("so that the commandments should not be denigrated in his eyes"). Two reasons to not use the candles are found in the Rishonim (3):

A. It must be made clear that the candles are candles of mitzva (see Rashi 21b). This is a normal caution to be taken with all objects used for a mitzva.

B. "Since the mitzva was instituted because of a miracle that happened through the menora in the Temple, they made the Chanuka candles to be like the menora, which could not be used at all" (see the Ran on the Rif 9a). A more precise explanation appears in the Ba'al Hamaor: "He who maintains that it is forbidden to use the light of the Chanuka candles ... because he believes that since they are in remembrance of the candles and the oil of the Temple..." The Meiri, who relates the ban on use of the candles to the Temple's menora, explores the possibility that use of the oil of the Chanuka lights is prohibited even after the time of the mitzva; there may be an "issur hana'a" (prohibition of benefit) and "kedusha gemura," a status of real holiness.(4)

From this sugya, one could say that not only was the mitzva instituted as an expansion of the candles of the Temple, but also that the prohibition of using the light of the candles is because of the fact that "These candles are holy." Rabbi Sperber (see note 1) even suggests that the reciting of "Ha-neirot Halalu" was instituted to demonstrate this relationship.

5. Synagogue

Although lighting in the synagogue is not mandated by law (because the obligation only applies to a private home), there is an ancient custom to do so.(5) Though some had reservations about reciting a berakha (blessing) on this lighting, it became the accepted practice to light in the synagogue with a berakha. "This custom arose because the miracle happened in the Temple (mikdash beit olamim), and we do likewise in the synagogue - the miniature Temple (Mikdash me'at) - in the Diaspora" (Sefer Ha-manhig, p. 105).

The question of where to place the Synagogue's menora, therefore, is also connected to a dispute between Tannaim regarding how the candles were lit in the Temple. Even the custom of lighting in the synagogue in the morning is based, according to Rabbi Shlomo of Vilna (in his Binyan Shlomo, section 53), on the Rambam's opinion that the candles were lit every morning in the Temple.


The mitzva of lighting Chanuka candles can be seen as a continuation of the mitzva of lighting the menora in the Temple in Jerusalem. This manifests itself in the text of the berakha, the nature of the mitzva, the prohibition of using the candles for a purpose other than the mitzva, and the custom of lighting in the synagogue.

The halakha tells every Jew to take the candles of the Temple (Mikdash) and light them in his private house. Not only is the synagogue a "miniature Temple" (a Mikdash me'at), but the goal of this mitzva is to transform every home into a Mikdash me'at. In truth, these candles are holy - "ha-neirot halalu kodesh hem."



(1) See Shulchan Arukh OC 676 and Mishna Berura note 8. For the source of this custom and for a clarification of the text, see Rabbi Prof. Daniel Sperber's Minhagei Yisrael Mekorot Ve-toldot vol. 1, pp. 162-164. This has been updated in Vol. 5.

(2) See the Minchat Chinukh, Mitzva 98, which deals with the Rambam's approach to the concept "Lighting is the essemitzva" with regard to the menora in the Temple.

(3) See the Ba'al Ha-maor and the Ramban (9a in the Rif), where differences between the two reare discussed. See also Shulchan Arukh and commentaries OC 673:1.

(4) See Minhagei Yisrael ibid., p. 165, where he cites the discussion among the poskim about this point.

(5) Rav Zevin, in his Ha-mo'adim Ba-halakha, p. 170. All the sources regarding this question are found there.


Translated and adapted by Rav Eliezer Kwass