The Laws of Chanuka - The Oils and Wicks for Neirot Chanuka - Deriving Benefit from the Chanuka Lights

  • Rav David Brofsky

the laws of THE FESTIVALS




In memory of Yissachar Dov Shmuel bar Yakov Yehuda Illoway

and Leah Ruth Illoway bat Natan Naso Jacobs



Shiur #13: The Laws of Chanuka

The Oils and Wicks for Neirot Chanuka

Deriving Benefit from the Chanuka Lights

Rav David Brofsky




Last week, we studied the berakhot recited upon fulfilling the mitzva of hadlakat neirot, the proper arrangement of the candles, and the order in which they should be lit.


This week, we will conclude* our study of the laws of Chanuka by discussing which oils and wicks may be used, the use of electric chanukiyot, and whether one may derive benefit from the Chanuka lights. 


The Proper Oils for Neirot Chanuka, and Electric Chanukiyot


The Talmud (Shabbat 21b) concludes that all wicks and oils, even those which may not be used for neirot Shabbat, may be used for neirot Chanuka.  The Gemara (23a) does, however, express a preference for olive oil:


R. Yehoshua b. Levi said: All oils are fit for the Chanuka lamp, but olive oil is the most preferred. Abayei said: At first the Master [Rabba] used to seek poppy-seed oil, saying, “The light of this lasts longer”; but when he heard this [dictum] of R. Yehoshua b. Levi, he was particular for olive oil, saying, “This yields a clearer light.”


Many Rishonim (Tosafot s.v. me-reish, Mordechai 278, and others) interpret this Gemara as referring to ner Chanukka, and expressing a preference for olive oil due to its clear flame. Others (Meiri, Kol Bo, and others) prefer olive oil because the miracle of the flask of oil occurred with olive oil. By contrast, some Rishonim (Rif, Rambam, Rosh, Tur, and others) don’t record any preference.


The Rema (673:1) writes that while it is preferable to light with olive oil, it is customary to light with wax candles, because they, like oil, produce a clear flame. The Acharonim discuss the question of whether it is nevertheless preferable to light with olive oil.

Interestingly, the Maharal of Prague (R. Yehuda Loew ben Betzalel, 1520 - 1609) prohibited lighting with wax candles. His grandson even records that he instituted a communal ban on lighting with wax, and even forced his synagogue to change their menorah to accommodate lighting with oil (Yemei Hallel Ve-hoda'a, p. 106, note 21). 

In recent years, poskim have addressed the question of whether one may use electric lights for neirot Chanuka. 


A minority of authorities have sanctioned using electric chanukiyot to fulfill one's obligation. For example, R. Yosef Mashash (1892-1974), former chief Rabbi of Haifa, rules that one may use electric lights (made with incandescent bulbs) for neirot Chanuka (Mayim Chayyim O"C 79).  He insists that that metal filament should fulfill the requirement for a "wick". Furthermore, he argues that just as Ashkenazic Jews reportedly use wax candles for hadlakat neirot, as the Rema records, then certainly there seems to be no requirement to use oil. Furthermore, the act of turning the light off and on should also satisfy the requirement of hadlaka.


Indeed, in his work on the laws of Chanuka, entitled Ner Mitzva (p. 15), he shockingly asserts:


And I say more, that it is simple and clear, that if the electrical light existed in the time of the Temple, certainly with it they would have lit the menorah, since it is impossible to be that we would fill our everyday homes with these great lights of the precious electrical light, that it is a kind of example from the heavens, and in the House of Our Holy Lord we would light with olive oil, that even the extremely poor are disgusted by it at this time, and it is simple that from it [i.e. electrical light] we will light in the last house [i.e. Temple] that will be built speedily in our days amen.


However, most authorities object to using electric lights for neirot Chanuka, for a number of reasons.


Some claim that the light produced by an electric light does not satisfy the halakhic requirement of "eish" (fire). Indeed, regarding the laws of Shabbat, many poskim agree, based upon the Rambam (Shabbat 12:1), that heating the filament of an incandescent light bulb, causing it to glow, violates the melakha of mav'ir (kindling a flame), as the hot, glowing metal is considered "eish." Florescent, neon and LED displays do NOT create light through the heating of a metal filament, and are thus not considered "eish" on Shabbat.


Regarding neirot Chanuka, assuming that this mitzva requires “eish,” one certainly cannot light a fluorescent light or LED display in order to fulfill the mitzva. As for an incandescent bulb, one might, at first glance, compare the requirement of "eish" for neirot Chanuka (assuming such a requirement exists) to the definition of "eish" on Shabbat.  Some authorities, however, nevertheless disqualify the use of an incandescent bulb, claiming that even if it contains "eish," it does not constitute a "ner." Similarly, R. Tzvi Pesach Frank, cites R. Yosef Rosen (the “Rogatchover Gaon,” 1858-1936) as permitting the use of an incandescent bulb for havdala, as it qualifies as "eish," but not for Shabbat candle lighting, as it does not qualify as a "ner" (Har Tzvi, O.C. 2,:114:2). Furthermore, some authorities claim that a bulb produces too much light, rendering it similar to a medura (a large fire).


Others contend that the use of a bulb differs too dramatically from the miracle which occurred in the Beit Ha-mikdash to fulfill the obligation (Kaf Ha-Chayyim 673:19). Additionally, some authorities argued that by definitionn, ner Chanuka requires a source of fuel (oil or wax) and a wick, both of which are absent from electric lights.


Some authorities disqualified the use of electric bulbs because of the requirement to light candles containing at least enough wax or oil to burn for a half-hour.  Since an electric bulb has no fuel, it cannot be used (though one could argue that the use of a battery suffices as an adequate source of “fuel” in this regard).


While most poskim do not accept the use of electric lights, some (Be'er Moshe 6:58, Yabi'a Omer O"C 3:35) suggest that under extenuating circumstances one should light an electric light without reciting a berakha, in order to satisfy the minority opinion


For more on this topic, see Rabbis Howard Jachter and Michael Broyde’s articles in the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society (volumes 21 and 25), and R. Feitel Levin's "Chanukiya Chashmalit" in Techumin (9).


Deriving Benefit from the Chanuka Lights


The Talmud (Shabbat 21a-b) teaches:


R. Huna said: With regard to the wicks and oils about which the Sages said, “One must not light therewith on Shabbat,” one may not light therewith on Chanuka, neither on Shabbat nor on weekdays. Rabba said, “What is R. Huna's reason? He holds that if it [the Chanuka lamp] goes out, one must attend thereto, AND ONE MAY MAKE USE OF ITS LIGHT…” R. Zera said in R. Mattenah's name — others state, R. Zera said in Rav's name: Regarding the wicks and oils about which the Sages said, “One must not light therewith on Shabbat,” one may light therewith on Chanuka, both on weekdays and on Shabbat. R. Yirmiyahu said, “What is Rav's reason? He holds, that if it goes out, it does not require attention, AND ONE MAY NOT MAKE USE OF ITS LIGHT.”


The Talmud teaches that wicks and oils which do not provide a steady flame may not be used for lighting the Shabbat lights, given the concern that one might adjust the flame, in violation of Shabbat. Regarding the Chanuka candles, the Talmud cites different opinions as to whether they may be lit with these types of oils and wicks.  The Talmud hinges this debate upon the question of whether one may derive benefit from the Chanuka lights. R. Huna and R. Chisda, according to the Gemara, permit one to derive benefit from the Chanuka lights, and therefore these inferior wicks and oils may NOT be used on Shabbat, as one might adjust the faltering flame. However, Rav maintains that one may not benefit from the flame, and therefore these wicks and oils may be used on Shabbat of Chanuka. The Gemara concludes that Halakha follows Rav’s position.


The Rishonim debate the question of why Rav prohibits deriving benefit from the Chanuka lights. Rashi (21a s.v. ve-assur) and the Rosh (2:6) explain that if one makes use of the lights it may not be noticeable that he lit them for the purpose of the mitzva. The Ba'al Ha-Ma'or (R. Zerachya Ha-Levi Gerondi, 1125-1186), in his comments to the Rif (9a), as well as the Ran (ibid.) and Rashba (Shabbat 21b), explain that the Rabbis modeled the mitzva of hadlakat neirot after the menorah of the Temple, through which the original miracle occurred.  Therefore, just as nobody derives personal benefit from the light of the menorah, which stands in the inner sanctuary of the Mikdash, similarly, one should not derive benefit from the light of the neirot Chanuka.


These Rishonim seem to argue as to whether the prohibition is rooted in the need to maximize pirsumei nisa, by not confusing lighting for one's personal needs with lighting for the sake of a mitzva, or in the inherent sanctity extended to the Chanuka lights, similar to the lights of the menorah in the Beit Ha-mikdash.


This debate may impact upon our understanding of the continuation of the Gemara:


R. Yehuda said in R. Assi's name:  One must not count money by the Chanuka light. When I stated this before Shmuel, he said to me, “Has then the lamp sanctity?”  R. Yosef demurred: “Does blood possess sanctity? For it was taught: He shall pour out [the blood thereof], and cover it [with dust]:  wherewith he pours out, he must cover, i.e., he must not cover it with his foot, so that precepts may not appear contemptible to him. So here, too, it is that precepts may not appear contemptible to him…"


What is the connection between Rav's statement, that one may not derive benefit from the Chanuka lights, and R. Assi's remark that one should not count money by the Chanuka light due to the concern of "bizuy mitzva" (showing contempt for the mitzvot)?


The Ba'al Ha-Ma'or suggests that Rav and R. Assi debate the reason and scope of this prohibition against deriving benefit from the light. Rav bases this halakha upon the absolute prohibition to benefit from the holy light of the menorah, and thus prohibits ALL benefit from the Chanuka lights. R. Assi, by contrast, who relates this prohibition to the more universal concern of "bizuy mitzva," only prohibits mundane uses of the neirot Chanuka, such as counting money. Therefore, one may, according to R. Assi, use the light of the neirot Chanuka for sacred purposes, as using the Chanuka lights for such purposes is not degrading to the mitzva. Indeed, the Tur (673) cites the Ittur as permitting using the Chanuka lights for a “sacred purpose,” and the Shibolei Ha-leket (185) likewise allows learning Torah by the light of the ner Chanuka.


Others explain that to the contrary, R. Assi is more STRINGENT than Rav.  The Rosh (2:6), for example, claims that Rav, as we explained above, prohibits benefitting from the Chanuka lights in order that one’s lighting should be clearly perceived as being for the sake of the mitzva. Therefore, Rav only prohibited “permanent” uses of the Chanuka lights.  R. Assi, however, adds that even a temporary use of the light, which may not create a misimpression regarding the person's intentions, still degrades the mitzva, and violates the universal principle of "bizuy mitzva."


Similarly, the Ramban (Milchamot Hashem, 9a) asserts that the Rif rules in accordance with BOTH Rav and R. Assi. He explains that R. Assi forbids even the minor benefit of counting money by the light of the neirot, which Rav would seemingly permit.


The Shulchan Arukh (673:1) rules:


It is prohibited to use the Chanuka light, both on Shabbat and on a weekday; even to examine coins or to count them by their light is prohibited; even a sacred use, such as to learn by its light, is prohibited. Some permit a sacred use.


The Magen Avraham (2) and Taz (3) testify that it was customary to refrain from using the Chanuka lights for any benefit.


Interestingly, the Ritva (21b s.v. amar) records that his teacher prohibited even speaking with one's friend by the light of the neirot Chanuka.  The Acharonim (Arukh Ha-shulchan 7, Mishna Berura 11) apparently disagree with this stringent position, ruling that one may sit in a room lit by the Chanuka lights, as this type of indirect benefit is not prohibited.


May one derive benefit from the light after the candles have burned for the minimum required duration?


The Shulchan Arukh (672:2) rules in accordance with those (including Rif 9a and Rambam) who permit one to benefit from the neirot Chanuka after the passage of the minimum required time (a half-hour). The Mishna Berura (8), however, cites the Maharshal as forbidding benefiting from the light while the candles are still lit, even after a half-hour has passed, as onlookers might suspect him of benefiting from the neirot Chanuka used to fulfill the mitzva.


The "Shamash"


The Talmud (Shabbat 21b) teaches:


The Rabbis taught: The Chanuka candle – the mitzva is to place it at the entrance of one's home, outside. If one lives in a loft, he places it in the window adjacent to the public domain. During times of danger, one places it on his table, and this suffices.

Rava said: One requires another candle to use its light. If there is a fire, he does not need [the extra candle]; if he is a prominent person, then even though there is a fire, he needs another candle.


The Gemara requires another light, in addition to those used to fulfill the mehadrin min ha-mehadrin requirement to add a candle each night, despite the confusion it might cause. Why does the Gemara juxtapose the requirement to light "another candle" to the different places in which one may light neirot Chanuka? And what is the reason for this extra light?


Rashi (s.v. ner and ve-i ika), the Ba'al Ha-Maor (9a) and the Meiri (21b) explain that one who lights on the table in his home due to "danger" must light an additional light in order to clarify that the neirot Chanuka were lit for the purpose of the mitzva, and not merely to provide light.  In other words, regardless of whether one rules in accordance with R. Huna or Rav regarding benefiting from the Chanuka lights, one who lights inside one's home must light an additional light in order to avoid misconceptions.


The Ritva (21b) and Rambam (4:8), however, explain that one must light an additional candle due to the prohibition to benefit from the Chanuka lights. Indeed, in times when the neirot Chanuka are the only lights in the house, one should provide another light, a shamash, from which one may derive benefit. If, however, there is another fire ('madura') in the room, one need not light a shamash,


While the halakha itself is clear, this reading gives rise to the question of why the Gemara introduced this requirement in the context of the case of one who lights inside the home.


The Ran (9b) addresses this question and offers an intriguing explanation:


It appears to me that although Rava agrees that one may not make use of its light, and thus one obviously needs another candle, this is what he means here: Even though at times of danger he places it on his table and then has no choice but to use its light, he nevertheless needs another candle to make a clear indication of the matter.


The Ran explained that since one who places his Chanuka lights on his table will most certainly benefit from their light, he must light an additional, non-mitzva candle.


What if one lit in a place where he will not likely make use of the light? Must he still light the shamash? The Meiri writes the following in the name of "miktzat rabbanim" ("a few rabbis"):


Nevertheless, it appears to me in light of the sugya that they required another candle ONLY when one places it on his table. But if he places it near his entrance, he does not need another candle, even though it stands there for him, since he will not come to use specifically its light for some purpose. Indeed, I have seen a few rabbis who had the practice of standing there and speaking to their colleagues without another candle.


However, he concludes:


But in practice I customarily light another candle [that is] not for the sake of the mitzva, and the custom of our forefathers is in our hands…


The Shulchan Arukh mentions the requirement to light an additional candle in two contexts:


1) O.C. 671:5:


The Chanuka candle is placed at the entrance near the public domain, outside… In times of danger… one places it on his table, and this suffices.

One must have an additional candle to make use of its light. If there is a fire, one does not need a different candle. If he is a prominent person, who does not customarily use the light of a fire, he requires a different candle.


2) O.C. 673:1:


It is forbidden to make use of the Chanuka candles… It is forbidden even to check or count money by their light… The custom is to light an additional candle so that if he makes use of its light, it will have been from the additional light, which was lit last. One places it somewhat distant from the other candles used for the mitzva.


The Shulchan Arukh apparently rules in accordance with BOTH interpretations, requiring an additional candle to help distinguish between the neirot Chanuka and other lights, and to prevent one from benefitting directly from the Chanuka lights.


Interestingly, the Rema adds:


In these countries, the practice is not to add [another candle], but rather to place next to them the shamash from which one lights the candles, and this is preferable.


According the Rema, it is preferable not to ADD a candle, but rather to place the light used to kindle the neirot Chanuka, known as the shamash, next to the chanukiya. Apparently, the candle that one used to kindle the others will not come to be confused with one of the mandatory Chanuka lights.


The Taz (671:4) and Magen Avraham (671:5) conclude that it is customary to light a shamash even if one lights in a place where he does not ordinarily light candles.


Lighting One Candle from Another


            It occasionally happens that one of the Chanukah lights is extinguished, and one wishes to rekindle it.  May he light it from the adjacent candle, which is still burning, or must he light it from an outside source?


The Gemara (22a-b) teaches:


"Rav said: One must not light from lamp to lamp; but Shmuel maintained: One may light from lamp to lamp…"


The Gemara concludes that even Rav prohibits lighting one candle from another only by means of a "kisam," meaning, a wooden chip, as it "denigrates" the mitzva. One may, however, light one Chanuka candle directly from another ("mi-sheraga le-sheraga"), even according to Rav. Shmuel, however, permits lighting one candle from another even through the use of a “kisam.”


The Tur (674) cites two opinions as to whether Halakha follows the lenient position of Shmuel, or the stricter opinion of Rav. Tosafot (23a s.v. shema) records that it is customary not to light one candle from another, even directly, despite the fact that this is, technically speaking, permissible.


The Shulchan Arukh (674:1) cites both opinions brought in the Tur. The Rema, citing Tosafot, records that it is customary not to light one candle from another, neither directly nor through the use of a “kisam.”




We now conclude our study of the laws of Chanuka. In addition to attaining a familiarity with the basic laws, their sources and practical applications, I believe a thorough study of the laws of Chanuka also leads us to recognize the tension between the desire to maximize the pirsum ha-nes, and defining clear and objective parameters for the mitzva of hadlakat neirot. Of course, this dialectic, between the objective and subjective, the formal and informal, and action and the experience, goes to the core of all religious expression, and therefore deserves much thought and examination. I leave this issue for the reader to contemplate.


Our next series shiurim will focus on the laws of Purim.


Chanuka Sameach! 





*I'd like to bring the following halachic compendiums to the reader's attention, which I made extensive use of during my research, as they summarize and discuss many of the modern scenarios and dilemmas, and cite the opinions of many contemporary authorities.


Chazon Ovadya, R. Ovadya Yosef; Halachos of Chanukah, R. Shimon D. Eider; Mitzvat Ner Ish U-veito, R. Eliyahu Schlesinger; Peninei Halakha (Zemanim), R. Eliezer Melamed; Piske Teshuvot (6), R. Simcha Rabinovitz;; Yalkut Yosef, R. Yitzchak Yosef; Yemei Halel Ve-hoda'a, R. Yosef Pak.