Publicizing the Miracle of Chanuka in Times of Danger

  • Rav Yossi Slotnick

The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Special Holiday Shiur by the Roshei Yeshiva
Yeshivat Har Etzion




Publicizing the Miracle of Chanuka in Times of Danger

by Rav Yossi Slotnik

translated by Rav Eliezer Kwass


The main goal of lighting Chanuka candles is clearly publicizing the miracle of Chanuka, "pirsum ha-nes," and this theme dominates the laws of candle lighting. Candles are to be lit outside the house where passersby can see them, and at a time when there is traffic outside. Because of the importance of publicizing the miracle, Chanuka candles take precedence even over kiddush if a person is too poor to afford both. For the same reason, even one who is so poor that he does not have enough money to buy candles must borrow from others and light.

It is, therefore, natural that when the gemara tells us where to light candles in different situations, we assume that the rules are based on the same issue: how to maximize the publicity of the miracle.

"The Sages learn: The mitzva of Chanuka candles requires that they be placed on the outside of the door to one's house. One who lives above the ground floor should place them in a window facing the public thoroughfare. In times of danger it suffices to place them on the table." (Shabbat 21b)

Apparently, the beraita is presenting three levels of publicizing the miracle:

1. The ideal is to place them outside the door, where anyone passing by can see them;
2. if one has no door opening to the public thoroughfare, they should be placed in the window where, even though fewer people can see them, they are still visible to the public;
3. in times of danger, the mitzva should be publicized at least to the people inside the house.

We will focus on the specific situation of lighting indoors in times of danger. It would seem from the beraita that a person can fulfill the mitzva in its entirety by lighting indoors and publicizing it only to the people inside the house.


Though this is a plausible approach, certain comments made by Rishonim seem to indicate that the element of pirsumei nisa may be lacking when one lights inside the house:

1. The gemara (Shabbat 21b) rules: "The mitzva [of candle-lighting] is from sunset until the last people leave the marketplace." The gemara offers two possible explanations:
a. one can still light until this time; OR
b. one should light a quantity of oil that can last this long.

According to Tosafot (s.v. De-i), the first approach limits the time for candle lighting - one may light ONLY within this period but not afterwards. (However, this does not apply to those lighting in the house where it is not visible to outsiders. Since one is lighting only for his household, it follows that the time for lighting is determined by when they see the candles, not when the public does.) This is somewhat difficult to understand - if the goal is to MAXIMIZE publicizing the miracle, why should someone who missed the crucial time (in normal, non-dangerous circumstances) be completely exempt from the mitzva of neirot Chanuka? Surely he should be obligated to light later for his household! This seems to indicate that even the basic level of pirsumei nisa is lacking when one lights in the house.

[The Ritva quotes the Tosafot and adds that "after this time one should only light inside," since "not being able to publicize to outsiders does not absolve him from publicizing to himself and the people of his household." Our Tosafot, however, do not mention this and, apparently, argue.]

2. According to the second approach of the gemara, the statement "until the last people leave the marketplace" refers to the AMOUNT of oil (Rashi) one must kindle. There should be enough to last from sunset until the last people leave the marketplace. Should this apply to those lighting indoors in times of danger? Two possibilities present themselves:
a. this quantity is the standard amount for all candle lighting, even in times of danger; OR
b. the amount of required oil corresponds to those who will view the candles, and in times of danger this relates to the members of the household.

The Hagahot Maimoniot (Hilkhot Chanuka 4:2) takes the second approach and says that if the members of the household are to be up all night, one must put in enough oil for the chanukia to stay lit until morning. In contrast, the Mordekhai's opinion (Shabbat 266) is very striking and, ostensibly, problematic. He writes that the need for a minimum amount of oil applied only to earlier generations (who lit for passersby) and needed a great recognizable sign. However, we have no need to worry about this. In other words, those who light inside for the household need not light any particular amount of oil! [Since the publicity is only for the members of the household, a moment's lighting might be sufficient - after all, all those who must see the lights do.]

3. According to the approach we originally presented, there is always a need to publicize the miracle - in a way that is appropriate to the audience. Intuitively, though, the height at which the candles are placed should not be affected in times of danger.

The candles are to be placed within ten tefachim (handbreadths) of the ground (Shabbat 21b), apparently so it should be clear that they are Chanuka candles and not being used for some other purpose. Thus the prescribed height is a direct outcome of the need for pirsumei nisa. Once more, the Mordekhai (Shabbat 266) says something puzzling: "Now that people are accustomed to light inside, there is no problem with placing them any higher than ten tefachim because there is still publicity." If publicity is still attained above ten tefachim, why it so crucial to place the chanukia lower ten handbreadths when it is lit in public? Why should the height of the candles be connected to who the objects of publicity are - the members of the household or passersby on the street?

4. According to the gemara (Shabbat 22a), the candles are to be placed within a handbreadth of the door in order to indicate (as Rashi explains) that the owner of the house placed them there. Rav Meir Ha-ashkenazi (quoted by the Ritva) applies this halakha even to candles lit inside. However, the Ritva himself argues that now there is no need to light near the door. What is the Ritva's objection? Is there no longer any need to make it clear that the candles are Chanuka candles and, thereby, insure that the miracle will be publicized, if only to the members of the household?


We might simply explain that in times of danger, when the sages shifted candle lighting to inside the home, the object of publicizing the miracle changed from the people on the street to the members of the household. All of the seeming lapses in publicizing the miracle are connected to the ease with which one can publicize the miracle to those in the home. There is no need to light the candles under ten handbreadths or within one handbreadth of the door, and the candles need not be lit a long time in order for those present to acknowledge the miracle. The Tosafot seem to indicate this also: "Nowadays we only have to show it to the people in the home because we light inside."


A slightly more radical approach, in line with a comment of the Rashba, would enable us to avoid speculating about subjective distinctions about how publicizing the miracle gets accomplished. Perhaps in times of danger the nature of the mitzva changes drastically. Maybe there is no longer a mitzva to publicize the miracle (just to a different audience, as we assumed earlier). Maybe the mitzva in times of danger is reduced to a bare requirement to LIGHT CANDLES, regardless of whether the miracle will be publicized or not.

The Rashba argues with the Tosafot (quoted earlier) about lighting candles in non-dangerous times after traffic on the street has stopped for the day. Tosafot say that after that point, there is no longer a mitzva to light candles. The Rashba (Shabbat 21a) argues:

"... It does not mean that after this time one should no longer light, for we learn that nocturnal mitzvot can be performed all night. Rather, he did not perform the mitzva in its proper fashion, for there is not so much publicity of the mitzva. However, afterwards, if he did not yet light he does not lose out on the mitzva; he just did not perform it in its entirety."

The Rashba seems to acknowledge that a level of the mitzva exists even when there is no publicity of the miracle. Mere lighting is a mitzva. Even if one might raise some doubts about whether the Rashba really goes that far, there is no other way to understand the Ra'avia (843). He holds that if one did not light at night, he should light during the day. During the day there is surely no publicity, because, "A candle accomplishes nothing in midday." There might be, then, a group of Rishonim who believe that there is a basic level of the mitzva that involves merely lighting. This would offer us a sweeping answer to all of our question - all requirements related to publicizing the miracle are waived in times of danger. Its placement, height, and proximity to the door are irrelevant, as is its duration - it may be lit and put out right away.

We have seen two basic approaches in understanding the role pirsumei nisa plays "in times of danger" when lighting is done indoors. The first approach understands that there is still an element of pirsumei nisa - but focused only on the household.

On the opposite extreme, the Rashba seems to hold that in times requiring indoor lighting, there is no aspect of pirsumei nisa at all.

In conclusion, we might offer a third understanding, a bit less radical than assuming that there is no pirsumei nisa at all.


The need to publicize a miracle also plays a central role in the mitzva of reading megillat Esther on Purim and drinking the four cups of wine on Pesach. Concerning both of them, the need to communicate the miracle to others is not emphasized as much as one might have imagined. Rav (Megilla 5a) rules that one does not need a minyan to read the megilla on Purim day itself (but he does need a minyan if he reads it earlier than Purim). Rashi explains that on the fourteenth, because all individuals are obligated on that day, it can be read without a minyan, for all are reading it and there is publicity. Mere reading itself publicizes the miracle, even if no one else hear, because it is known that all are reading the megilla on that day.

The same goes for drinking the four cups. The publicity of the miracle is accomplished simply through all those who are obligated individually drinking their cups of wine. There is no need to drink publicly.

Perhaps the mitzva of Chanuka candles is similar. In times of danger there is still a need to publicize the miracle, but it is a different type of publicity. In normal times, everyone publicizes the miracle to the people on the street. In times of danger, since all are obligated to light candles, the mere lighting publicizes the miracle, regardless of who sees the candles.



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