Lighting Ner Chanuka in the Synagogue

  • Rav Moshe Taragin

The gemara formulates the mitzva of lighting ner Chanuka as "ner ish u'beito" (a candle per person in his house).  The gemara takes this concept so literally that the menora cannot be distanced from the threshold of the house more than a handbreadth (for those who light at the entrance to the house, as per the original custom).  An additional indication of the relationship between the menora and the house appears in Shabbat 24, which states that a guest in another's house might be excused from performing the mitzva of lighting ner Chanuka.  (See methodology shiur 5760 no. 6) for a fuller development of this principle.) This association between the house and the menora renders the practice of lighting the menora in the synagogue somewhat questionable.  If the synagogue does not serve as a lodging, how and why are nerot Chanuka lit? Nonetheless, the lighting of ner Chanuka in the synagogue has a long tradition: The earliest mention of it appears in the medieval period (see, for example, the Ba'al Ha-ittur in Hilkhot Chanuka).  This shiur will develop several approaches toward solving this issue. 


     The Orchot Chayim in Hilkhot Chanuka suggests that the menora was lit in the synagogue for those who couldn't or would not light on their own.  It is indeed fascinating that in this instance a measure was instituted to "cover" those who might not perform the mitzva properly.  The Orchot Chayim does not address the obvious question, namely: How can a lighting which occurs in a non-residential area be considered a halakhically legitimate form of lighting?


The Manhig (a twelfth century posek) attributed the lighting of the menora in synagogue to the desire to invoke the actual menora of the Mikdash in addition to the miracle of Chanuka which occurred with that menora.  The Manhig underscores an important concept regarding hadlakat ner Chanuka: We do not merely light a menora to recall the miracle of the menora of the Mikdash.  Our actual menorot have halakhic qualities which resemble those of the menora of the Mikdash.  The most powerful and famous application of this principle can be found in the commentary of the Ba'al Hama'or to Shabbat 22a.  The gemara mentions that a person cannot derive benefit from the light of the menora.  Several Rishonim offer different explanations for this odd law.  Why should the menora light be forbidden? (see, for example, Rashi, who bases it upon the need to publicize the miracle through the candles, and the Ramban, who develops a global rule about the status of an object used for a mitzva during the performance of that mitzva).  The Ba'al Hama'or claims that as the menora is reminiscent of the menora of the Mikdash, one cannot derive pleasure from its light, similar to the prohibition of deriving pleasure from consecrated objects.  According to the Ba'al Hama'or the actual candles or oil is invested with the same sanctity as that of the Mikdash and as a result is forbidden for private use


This association may also be discerned in the position of the Ra'avad in his comments to the Rambam's discussion in Hilkhot Berakhot 11:15 of the syntax of the berakha recited before the lighting of nerot Chanuka.  Though some berakhot take the form "al" as in "al achilat matza," "al netillat yadayim"), this berakha is recited as "lehadlik ner," according to the Ra'avad, since that is the berakha which was recited in Beit ha-Mikdash before the lighting of the menora.  Though the Ra'avad offers no proof to this basis, the linkage between the lighting in Mikdash and our own lighting is unmistakable.  According to the Manhig, lighting candles in the synagogue is meant to further invoke the menora of the Mikdash.  Even though our personal candles lit at home are also reminiscent of the lighting in the Mikdash, the lightig in the synagogue more directly captures or symbolizes that ritual.


After suggesting this first approach, the Manhig poses a different method toward understanding the lighting in the synagogue.  Since an integral aspect of the Chanuka candles is their ability to publicize the miracle, we light them in the synagogue in the presence of a halakhic minyan, which constitutes a "tzibbur" (community).  The Vilna Gaon, in his comments to Shulchan Arukh, likens this to the public reading of hallel on Pesach night in the synagogue.  As Pesach is also a time of publicizing miracles (most directly through the four cups of wine), we schedule one component of the seder ceremony for the place where the tzibbur normally gathers. 


This view of lighting might dictate the stage during tefilla at which we light candles.  If indeed the lighting were intended to be performed before a halakhic minyan and not merely in a public place, we might choose to light at a stage at which the minyan has already been formed.  This might explain the practice in many synagogues to light after mincha (even on Erev Shabbat, when time is winding down until sunset), since after this tefilla (and prior to maariv) the minyan has already been established and can witness the lighting.  In a similar vein, it might also explain the custom to light in the synagogue on Motzaei Shabbat before reciting havadala (even though at home havdala is recited earlier).  Once havdala is recited, the minyan might already be considered as legally disbanded; in order to light in the presence of a halakhically extant minyan, the lighting must be performed before havdala.  In fact, it is recorded that in Brisk the lighting would occur even before reciting "Vihi No'am" since at this stage (prior to the obligatory kaddish, requiring a minyan, that follows "Vi-hi No'am") the halakhic presence of the ten-person minyan is even more palpable. 


The Rivash (responsa no. 111) suggests a slightly related view of lighting the synagogue.  He attributes it to a tradition established after Jews were no longer allowed to light in public (see Shabbat 21b) and had to relegate the menora entirely to their homes (and publicize the miracle to their own families, rather than to the public).  In order to maintain some public facet of the lighting, the tradition developed to light in the synagogue as well.  According to the second position in the Manhig, the synagogue lighting achieves an element of publicity even under ideal conditions.  According to the Rivash on the other hand, it was adopted only after the optimal form of lighting was no longer viable. 



The major issue with the Rivash's position (one which he himself addresses) concerns the recitation of a berakha before something which evolved as a minhag.  He cites the famous discussion of this issue surrounding the position of Rabbenu Tam about reciting a berakha before beating the arava on the eigth day of Sukkot, which also evolved as a minhag (see Tosafot Sukka 44b).  As this issue doesn't pertain specifically to ner Chanuka, its discussion will be left for a different context.