The Laws of Chanuka - The Proper Place to Light Neirot Chanuka

  • 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 10: The Laws of Chanuka

The Proper Place to Light Neirot Chanuka (1)

Rav David Brofsky





Last week, we discussed the proper time to light neirot Chanuka, noting the varying customs regarding lighting indoors or outdoors, and their potential impact upon the optimal time as well as the duration of the hadlakat neirot. 


This week’s shiur will be devoted to the question of where the neirot Chanuka should be kindled.


The Gemara (Shabbat 21b) discusses three places where one may, under different circumstances, light neirot Chanuka:


"The mitzva is to place the Chanuka lights at the entrance to one's house, outside.  If one lives in a loft, he should place [them] in a window adjacent to the public thoroughfare (reshut ha-rabim).  And in times of danger, he should place [them] on his table, and that suffices."


1- Lighting at the Entrance to One's House


The preference for lighting at the entrance to one's house appears in a later source (Masekhet Sofrim 20:5), as well:


"The mitzva is to place the Chanuka lights at the entrance ADJACENT TO THE PUBLIC THOROUGHFARE (reshut ha-rabim)."


Rashi (Shabbat 21b s.v. mi-be’chutz) explains that the lights should be placed at the entrance of the house in order to publicize the miracle (pirsumei nisa).  According to Rashi, the Gemara refers to a case where the house’s entrance faces outwards into the courtyard.  Even though the lights aren't visible to the passersby in the reshut ha-rabim, Rashi maintains that one should light at the entrance to one's house, rather than the entrance to the courtyard. 


Tosafot (s.v. mitzva) disagrees, explaining that the Gemara speaks of a case where the entrance to the house faces the reshut ha-rabim.  However, had the entrance faced the courtyard, then one should light at the entrance to the courtyard, facing the reshut ha-rabim.


At first glance, Tosafot’s view certainly appears more compelling.  Since the purpose of hadlakat neirot is, ultimately, to publicize the miracle, it stands to reason that one should light as close to the reshut ha-rabim as possible.  Rashi's insistence that one light at the entrance to the house (see Rashi Sukka 46a s.v. ha-roeh), even if it opens into the courtyard, requires clarification. As we noted in previous shiurim, some Rishonim understand the obligation to light neirot Chanuka as a "chovat bayit", an obligation upon the house. Indeed, the Rambam (Hilkhot Megila Ve-Chanuka 4:1) formulates the mitzva as such: "The mitzva is for each and every HOUSE to light…" Rashi's interpretation of this Gemara likely points to this unbreakable relationship between the hadlakat neirot and the house.


The Rif, Rambam (3:3) and Rosh cite the Gemara’s comments verbatim, implying that they, like Rashi, draw no distinction between an entrance which faces a courtyard and an entrance which faces a reshut ha-rabim.  The Shulchan Arukh (671:5), however, rules in accordance with Tosafot.


The Acharonim debate the applicability of this halakha to modern day courtyards.  Many cite the Chazon Ish (see, for example, Shu"t Az Nidberu 5:39) as distinguishing between modern-day chatzeirot and the courtyards of old, where most of the housework was performed.  The Chazon Ish thus contended that nowadays, even the Shulchan Arukh would require lighting at the entrance to one's house. 


Others, however, disagree; arguing that today’s courtyards are no different from ancient chatzeirot as far as this halakha is concerned.  Even among these authorities, however, we find different opinions as to whether one may light at an entrance to a courtyard which has no formal "doorway" which requires a mezuzah.  According to R. Yitzchak Ze'ev Soloveitchik (Teshuvot Ve-hanhagot 2, 342:2) one should not light at the entrance of a courtyard which does not have a lintel.  Others (see Yemei Hallel Ve-hodaya 8:5:2 and Mikraei Kodesh – Chanuka pp. 25-6) cite R. Shlomo Zalman Auerbach and R. Shalom Yosef Elyashiv as ruling that one should light at the entrance to one's courtyard, even if it has no doorway. 


Some suggest that if one's doorway is visible through a courtyard from the reshut ha-rabim, then according to all opinions he should light at the doorway, thereby fulfilling the views of both Rashi and Tosafot (Mikraei Kodesh 17).


2- Lighting in One's Window


The Gemara (21b) presents a second scenario:


“If one lives in a loft, he should place [the candles] in a window adjacent to the public thoroughfare (reshut ha-rabim)."


Rashi comments, "…because he has no place in the courtyard to place them." As we saw earlier, Rashi insists that one should always light at the entrance to the house.  He thus interprets this case as referring to one who has no entrance to the loft from the courtyard, and enters the loft through the house.  He cannot light by the entrance to the house, since the "house" is not his residence. Therefore, as lighting inside the house at the entrance to his loft doesn’t seem to be a desirable option, he lights by the window that opens to the reshut ha-rabim.


According to Tosafot, who maintain that one may light at the entrance to the courtyard from the reshut ha-rabim, why should one light at his window?


The Beit Yosef (O.C. 671) explains that the resident of a loft should light by his window so that observers will be able to identify his candles as belonging to him.  Were he to light at the entrance to the courtyard, or even at the entrance to the house, it would not be apparent that those lights belong to an inhabitant of the loft. Therefore, the resident should therefore light by his window, so observers will immediately recognize that he, the occupant of the loft, has lit Chanuka candles.  However, one's whose doorway faces the reshut ha-rabim should certainly light at the entrance. Interestingly, R. Yaakov Yishayahu Blau, in his compendium on the laws of Chanuka, Chovat Ha-dar (chapter 1 note 16), questions whether a resident of the loft whose doorway opens to a courtyard, or a stairwell, which cannot be seen from the reshut ha-rabim, should also light in one's window.


3- Lighting Inside One's House


May one light inside the house?


The Gemara (21b) teaches that "in times of danger, one places [the lights] on the table, and that suffices."  The Rishonim disagree in identifying the “danger” of which the Gemara speaks, whether this refers to a specific edict prohibiting lighting candles outside pagan houses of worship (Rashi 21b, Tosafot 45a), a general ban on mitzva observance, or a specific ban on neirot Chanuka (Rashi 21b, Tosafot 45a). Others explain that the Gemara refers to an environment of general animosity between Jews and non-Jews (Ritva 21b, "like in France…").  Some even extend this leniency to areas of inclement weather conditions (Ritva 21b).


Many Rishonim allude or even testify to a widespread custom to light indoors.  In fact, the Or Zarua (323) questions why it is not customary to light outdoors.  The Shibolei Ha-leket (185) suggests that once Jews had grown accustomed to lighting indoors because of danger, they continued doing so even in peaceful times. 


Many Acharonim (including Levush 671:8 and Chayei Adam 154:12) note the nearly universal practice in the Diaspora to light indoors, and attributed this practice to the Jews’ living amongst non-Jews, or to inclement winter weather (see Arukh Ha-shulchan 671:24).  Some maintain that one should still ideally light by one's window, facing the reshut ha-rabim (Iggerot Moshe, O.C. 4:125).  Others, however, still insist that one should try to light outdoors (see R. Yaakov Emden's She'elat Yaavetz 1:149), in glass boxes that protect the flames from the elements. 


In Israel, the majority of poskim strongly encourage lighting outdoors, and such was the practice of the great rabbinical figures of Jerusalem, since the students of the Vilna Gaon arrived in Israel. 


By contrast, R. Yitzchok Yaakov Weiss (1902-1989), in his Minchat Yitzchak (6:61), defends the widespread practice of lighting inside.  And R. Yehoshua Ehrenberg, in his "Dvar Yehoshua" (40), goes so far as to suggest that once the rabbis instituted lighting inside during times of danger, one who lights outside has not fulfilled his obligation!


Sephardic authorities (see R. Ovadya Hadaya, Shu"t Yaskil Avdi 8, 10:2; R. Ovadya Yosef, cited in Yalkut Yosef, pp. 231-2) also justify the widespread custom of lighting indoors, and condemn the authorities who censure those who light indoors. 


In Israel, it is customary among those who light outside to light in glass boxes, as described by Rabbi Yaakov Emden.  R. Tzvi Pesach Frank (former Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem, 1874-1960), in his Shu"t Har Tzevi (O.C. 2:114), records that this was the custom of the Jerusalemites of his time.  Interestingly enough, he relates that R. Yehoshua Yehuda Leib Diskin (the “Maharil Diskin,” 1818–1898) questioned whether one fulfills his obligation by lighting in a glass box.  At the moment when one lights the candles inside the box, they are in a position where they cannot possibly remain lit for an extended period, due to wind.  It is only once one closes the box, immediately after lighting, that the flames are secure.  Now as we saw in an earlier shiur, Halakha follows the view that "hadlaka osa mitzva" (one fulfills the mitzva through the act of lighting, and not by placing a lit candle in its proper location), and one must therefore ensure that the at the time of lighting the candles have the potential to remain lit for the minimum required duration.  Seemingly, then, one who lights in a glass box does not fulfill the obligation of neirot Chanuka, since at the moment of kindling the lights have virtually no chance of burning for a half-hour. To avoid this concern, R. Diskin prepared a special box with a hole in the bottom.  He lit the candles through that hole and left it open throughout the time the candles burned.


R. Frank, as well as R. Binyamin Zilber (Shu"t Az Nidberu 6, 12:2) and R. Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (Ma'adanei Shlomo, p. 109) defended the widespread custom to light in glass boxes.


As we noted last week, the issue of where one lights may impact upon the questions of when one lights and for how long the candles must burn.  Many Rishonim, and the Rema (672:2), assert that those accustomed to lighting inside may not have to light at sundown.  Since the lighting in this case is directed inward, toward the residents of the home, the presence of pedestrian traffic bears no relevance.  It might therefore be unnecessary to light at the time when people walk the streets.


Where should apartment building residents light Chanuka candles?


Theoretically, four possibilities present themselves: by one's window, anywhere in the apartment (such as on one's table), outside the door to the hallway, or at the entrance to the building.


Rashi, as mentioned earlier, requires lighting by the entrance to the home, and not the entrance to the courtyard, and thus he would certainly not sanction lighting at the entrance to one's apartment building.  Tosafot, on the other hand, might suggest lighting at the entrance to the stairwell, as the stairwell may be considered the "courtyard" in such a case. Indeed, as we saw, R. Shlomo Zalman Auerbach ruled that one may light at the entrance to his building, or even at the end of a path facing towards the reshut ha-rabim (in opposition to the view of the Chazon Ish – O.C. 65:52, 90:21).


Alternatively, one might argue that the case of an apartment building resembles the situation of loft discussed in the Gemara.  As we saw, the Beit Yosef explains that one who does not have a private entrance from the courtyard should light at his window so that his lighting will be clearly identifiable.  Similarly, perhaps, one who lives in an apartment building should light in his window, as the number of entrances to the individual apartments is not obvious to the public. 


Some light outside the door to the apartment, facing those who walk through the hallway.  The Chazon Ish, who, as we saw, did not consider the stairwell the modern equivalent to a chatzer, would likely not approve of this practice.  Other authorities, however, would view this practice as fulfilling the obligation to light at the "entrance of one's house facing the courtyard." 


Others prefer lighting at one's window.  One may also light on his balcony or porch.  If one's window is above twenty amot (9.5 – 11.5 meters) from the ground, then according to some authorities (Sha'ar Ha-Tziyun 671:42), he should light at the doorway, since lights at the window would not be noticeable to pedestrians below. Others suggest that one may light at the window even in such a case if it faces adjacent buildings. Moreover, the fact that the apartment’s residents can themselves see the lights may suffice, even if nobody outside can view them.


R. Moshe Feinstein (Iggerot Moshe O.C. 4:125) concludes that the guiding principle when choosing where to light should be the maximization of pirsumei nisa.  He attests that he personally lit at his window, which was visible to passersby, for this very reason. 


Placement and Height of the Neirot Chanuka


After establishing that the neirot Chanuka should ideally be lit at the entrance to one's house (or courtyard), the Gemara (22a) then describes in greater detail where the lights should be kindled:


"Rabba said: The Chanuka lamp should be placed within the tefach (a handbreadth; approximately 8 cm) nearest the door.  And where is it placed? R. Acha son of Raba said: On the right hand side. R. Shmuel of Difti said: On the left hand side.  And the law is, on the left, so that the Chanuka lamp shall be on the left and the mezuza on the right…"


The Rishonim (see, for example, Ritva 21b) explain that one should light within a tefach of the doorway in order to make it clear that the lights were placed there by the home's inhabitants.  The Shulchan Arukh (671:7) rules that one should preferably light within a handbreadth of the left side of the doorway, so that the mezuza is on the right side and the ner Chanuka on the left.


The Shulchan Arukh (671:7) also writes – following the view of most Rishonim – that when there is no mezuza, one should light on the right side of the doorway, as "regarding mitzvot the right side is preferable" (Mishna Berura 34). 


The Acharonim address the question of whether one who lights indoors should preferably light at his window, or within a tefach of the doorway.  Although many the Chassidic gedolim apparently lit at the doorway within a tefach of the entrance (see Yemei Hallel Ve-hoda'ah, p.  62), most poskim (Magen Avraham 671:8, Arukh Ha-shulchan 24, Iggerot Moshe Y.D. 4:125) recommend lighting at the window when possible.


The Talmud (Shabbat 21b-22a) also discusses the optimal and maximum height of the neirot Chanuka. 


Regarding the optimal height, the Talmud writes:


"If a camel laden with flax passes through a street, and the flax overflows into a shop, catches fire at the shopkeeper's lamp, and sets the building alight, the camel owner is liable; but if the shopkeeper placed the light outside, the shopkeeper is liable.  R. Yehuda said: In the case of a Chanuka lamp, he is exempt. 

Ravina said in Rava's name: This proves that the Chanuka lamp should [optimally] be placed within ten tefachim [of the ground].  For should you think, above ten, let him say to him, 'You ought to have placed it higher than a camel and his rider.' [The Gemara then refutes this claim:] 'Perhaps if he is put to too much trouble, he may refrain from the [observance of the] precept'…"


According to Ravina, the Chanuka lights should be placed within ten tefachim (approximately 80 cm) from the ground.  The Rosh (Shabbat 2:5) explains that lights kindled below ten tefachim provide greater pirsumei nisa, as one who needs to use the light for personal needs would certainly light a lamp much higher. 


The Gemara, however, refutes Ravina’s inference, and the Rishonim disagree as to whether the halakha nevertheless follows Ravina.  Many, including the Rif and the Rambam, omit this height requirement entirely.  Rabbi Menachem Meiri (Provence; 1249 –1310) goes even further, claiming that one should actually light the Chanuka candles higher than ten tefachim, in order to maximize the pirsumei nisa.  Furthermore, the Ritva (21b) observes the common practice to light above ten tefachim, possibly because people generally lit inside, and therefore the halakhic details intended to increase pirsumei nisa are not applicable (see also Mordechai, Shabbat 266).  Others, however, cite Ravina’s ruling, and hold that preferably the lights should be situated below the height of ten tefachim.


The Shulchan Arukh (671:6) rules in accordance with Ravina, that it is a 'mitzva' to light one's candles within ten tefachim of the ground.  R. Eliyahu b. R. Binyamin Wolf Shapiro (1660 – 1712), in his Eliya Rabba (11), reports the custom in his day to light above ten tefachim.  He also infers from the observation of the Beit Yosef and Darkhei Moshe that those who were "meticulous" (ha-medakdekim) kindled their lights between three to ten tefachim above the ground, that the popular custom was to light higher than ten tefachim. 


Regarding the lowest acceptable height for lighting, the Mordechai (268) relates that his teacher, R.  Meir of Rothenburg (1215 –  1293), would light his neirot at least three tefachim (approximately 24 cm) above the ground, and below ten tefachim.  The Shulchan Arukh (671:6) rules in accordance with this view. 


The Mishna Berura (26) cites the Peri Chadash (6) who rules that one who lights below three tefachim has nevertheless fulfilled his obligation, and need not light again.


The Talmud (Shabbat 22a) also discusses the maximum height allowed for Chanuka candles:


"R. Kahana said: R. Natan b. Minyomi expounded in R. Tanchum's name: If a Chanuka lamp is placed above twenty cubits [from the ground] it is unfit…"


The Shulchan Arukh rules in accordance with the passage.  However, as noted above, some Acharonim allow apartment building residents to light at a window in the apartment, even above the height of twenty amot from the ground. 


Next week, we will discuss the laws of neirot Chanuka as they apply to travelers, students who eat and sleep in different buildings, and those who have no house, such as soldiers sleeping outside.  Finally, we will address the custom to light in synagogues and the widespread practice to light at public events held during Chanuka.