Students' Obligation to Light Chanuka Candles

  • Rav Shlomo Levy

Translated and adapted by Rav Eliezer Kwass


            Must a student living away from his parents light Chanuka candles even though his parents light at home?  The common practice for many yeshiva and college students is to light and make a berakha over their own chanukia.  Is this proper?  Should they perhaps fulfill the mitzva through their parents' lighting?  Ha-rav Ovadia Yosef, for instance, ruled that Sefaradi yeshiva students should NOT light in their yeshiva dormitory rooms.  What is behind his decision for Sefaradim?

            [For Ashkenazim, the problem of students does not exist, because Ashkenazim follow the opinion that each family member should light for himself. M.F.]

            To begin to answer this question one must understand the dispute between Tosafot and the Rambam about the ideal way to light Chanuka candles.  The gemara (Shabbat 21b) describes the three levels of fulfilling the mitzva: 

the basic mitzva - each family lights one candle;

the mehadrin - a candle is lit for each person;

the mehadrin min ha-mehadrin (those that do it in the ideal way) - an additional candle is lit on each additional night of Chanuka.

            According to the Tosafot, the third level of the mitzva involves lighting the amount of candles corresponding only to which night of Chanuka it is.  For example, a family of ten would still only light THREE candles on the third night of Chanuka.  The Rambam argues and rules that such a family would light THIRTY candles on the third night of Chanuka.  The mehadrin min ha-mehadrin builds on the mehadrin, not only lighting according to the amount of people in the household but ALSO corresponding to which night of Chanuka it is.

            [The Shulchan Arukh follows Tosafot, while the Rema quotes a practice similar to the Rambam, but with each member responsible for lighting for himself.  This article deals with the Shulchan Arukh's ruling.]

            According to the Tosafot, individual members of the household should not light by themselves - they have already fulfilled their obligation through the family lighting.  Any additional lighting they do is superfluous and would involve a berakha le-vatala, a wasted blessing.  This opinion appears to be the basis for Rav Ovadia Yosef's ruling.  What would those who follow Rambam's opinion (i.e. the Rama) say about yeshiva or college students lighting by themselves?  Is their lighting a requirement or just an extra element that is not essential?

            There are two conceptual issues we have to relate to in order to answer our question:

1.  Is a student defined as part of his parents' household to the degree that he is included in "ner ish u-VEITO," "a candle for a man and his HOUSE?"  This is a vital question since, according to the Tosafot, the ideal way of fulfilling both the basic mitzva and the mehadrin min ha-mehadrin are based on the size of the household as a unit.

2.  Even if a child is defined as part of his father's household, he still might be obligated to light separately.  Furthermore, it is possible that a child can be included in his family's lighting, only when he is at home.  If this is the case, what is the mechanism whereby the whole family fulfills their mitzva through one lighting?  Is the one lighting a MESSENGER for all of them to actively fulfill their individual obligations (and the child away from home would not need to light separately)?  Or are all members of the household present at the time of the lighting EXEMPT from any obligation to light when the father lights (but the child away from home would need to light by himself)?


            The first question that we have raised was dealt with by Ha-rav Lichtenstein, in an article addressing whether soldiers on duty must light at their army base.  He claimed that the key issue that determines whether a child living away from home must light separately is if he falls under the category of an "akhsenai," a lodger.  The gemara tells us that an "akhsenai" is not obligated to light Chanuka candles if his wife lights for him.  Rav Lichtenstein claimed that through the context and use of the term "akhsenai," we can assume that one who resides in a place away from home for less than thirty days (a cutoff for temporary dwelling, for example, in the laws of mezuza).  Being part of a household does not merely involve a family connection; there is a residence requirement.  Therefore, a student who lives away from home for an extended period of time cannot be defined as an "akhsenai," and his father is not able to light for him.

            It is my opinion that we can not decisively conclude the definition of one's residence based on the term "akhsenai."  The main point the gemara makes is that even one who is not at home must still fulfill the mitzva of candle lighting.  He can fulfill the mitzva if his wife lights for him, or he can do it through participating in his host's lighting by contributing some money towards the candle.  But who says that akhsenaim are the ONLY people who can fulfill through the home lighting?  Maybe not only an akhsenai but even a child living away from home but still under his father's wings can fulfill his obligation through the home lighting?  The gemara gives halakhic advice to the "akhsenai," but does not exclude lighting on behalf of one who is not considered an "akhsenai."

            It seems to me that the key element involved in defining one as an akhsenai is not his relationship to the place he is staying (staying there for under thirty days), but his relationship to the home to which we want to attach him.  How can we define "beito" (his house)?  If we determine that he is connected enough to his parents' home to call it "his house," it does not matter that he sets up a permanent dwelling place outside his parents' home.  He is simply considered a person with two houses!

            In the eyes of the Rishonim ONLY one who is DEPENDENT on his father ("samukh al shulchan aviv") can fulfill the mitzva through his father's lighting.  I find it difficult to consider yeshiva students as dependent on their father.  Most of the time they eat the yeshiva's food and sleep in the yeshiva's beds; how can they be considered dependent on their father?  Therefore, they cannot fulfill the mitzva through his lighting.  [Editor's note: Private donations and government funding make up most of the budget of hesder yeshivot.  Tuition, usually paid by the students' parents, covers a much smaller fraction of the total costs.  In private yeshivot and universities where room and board are mostly covered by tuition, students might still be considered dependent.]

            A proof that dependents can fulfill candle lighting through their father's lighting comes from the comments of the Maharshal (quoted as authoritative by the Magen Avraham and later by the Mishna Berura in OC 677:1), who says that "Even students (bachurim) must contribute to the cost of the candles, [with their hosts for the candles], ... But if they are dependent on their hosts they are considered part of his household ("benei veito") and, consequently, are not obligated to light according to the basic level of the mitzva."  The defining factor of where a person resides is based on who he is dependent on.  If he is no longer supported by his parents he must himself contribute toward the cost of the candles, and if he eats of the hosts food and sleeps on his bed he can fulfill his mitzva through the host's lighting.  [It is difficult to limit the Maharshal's comments to students who no longer have any connections with their parents.]  [See Bava Metzia 12a for a discussion of how to define a dependent according to the halakha.]  Based on the above, it is doubtful whether students living away from home who are NOT supported by their parents can fulfill this mitzva through their parents' Chanuka candle lighting.


            To understand this issue fully, we must investigate one of the unique aspects of this mitzva, "ner ish u-veito."  The obligation for this mitzva does not fall on every individual, but on "ish u-veito" (a man and his house).  It is difficult to try and maintain that the mitzva really applies to every individual and that through the mechanism of shlichut (agency), everyone fulfills their personal obligation through the collective household's lighting.  One can fulfill many mitzvot through shlichut, and Chanuka candle lighting should have been no different.  There should have been no need for the gemara to explain that this mitzva is fulfilled by "each man and his house" if all it was trying to say was that one person can fulfill the mitzva for another (just as one person can make kiddush for a whole family or light Shabbat candles for a whole family).  Why speak about such an accepted practice (shlichut) in a way that makes it sound unique?  Rather, the most plausible explanation is that Chanuka candle lighting is unique because it obligates "a man and his house."  Furthermore, why should an akhsenai suffice with the peruta he contributes to the candles of his host?  Why shouldn't he have to light candles himself?

            The Rambam (Hilkhot Chanuka 4:1) also makes it clear that the mitzva does not obligate every individual, but "the house:"

"The mitzva is that every house ('kol bayit va-vayit') should light ... and one who fulfills the mitzva on a higher level ('ve-hamedeir') lights an amount of candles that corresponds to the amount of people in the house."

            According to the Rambam (as explained by the Griz and other Acharonim), the second level of the mitzva does not involve each person in the house lighting individually; rather, the head of the house lights one set of candles for each member of the household.  Again, if at the basic level of the mitzva, the head of the house was functioning as a messenger for everyone in his family, why not at least have everyone light individually on the level of mehadrin?

            Even those who argue with the Rambam and hold that everyone should light individually, would still maintain that if they would choose to fulfill the mitzva on the basic level, if would not entail the use of a shaliach (messenger).  For these reasons, it is clear that "ner ish u-veito" is an obligation of the family as a unit to light - only one family member must light.  [The act of Chanuka lighting is not considered a case of classical "shlichut" (agency) (where one person fulfills another's obligation for him, because the members of the household are not all individually obligated.  However, they might all have to PARTICIPATE in the mitzva, and one member of the household might act as low level "shaliach"  by lighting for all of them.]


            A further issue must be resolved.  First, does the household obligation hinge upon being DEPENDENTS of the head of the household ("semukhim al shulchano") or, are RESIDENTS of his house included in the household obligation even if he does not support them?  In other words, does the mitzva relate to a family or to a house?  The Rambam's choice of language supports this second approach; "every HOUSE lights."  He implies that the place determines who is included in the obligation.

            There is additional evidence that the family lighting only includes all of the residents of the house.

A.  If the lighting includes all dependents of the head of the household, why should the akhsenai be able to fulfill his obligation by chipping in with his host?  He is a clear example of a non-dependent resident who is nevertheless included in the mitzva.

B.  A second question discussed by the Acharonim asks - is one without any home obligated to light candles at all?  One would think that such a person is not obligated because of an understanding that the obligation falls on residents of a house.

C.  Some of the Rishonim understand that the Sages decreed that only one candle per house should be lit.  One candle is enough to publicize the miracle to the whole family.  Many groups of candles at the door of a house would be superfluous or confusing.  This presumes that "ner ish u-veito" means one candle for a man and his house. 

            Acharonim argue about whether two families that live in the same house but eat separately should light together or not.  This issue exposes what is at the core of this dispute.  If the mitzva falls upon the residents of a house, the two families can light together, but if it applies to a man and all of his family, the two families should light separately.

- In Sefer Ha-pardes and in the Ma'aseh Ha-geonim (p. 44):

"Two families lived together in one house and Rav David Halevi ruled that both of them must light, each one at a different door, but our rabbis said that they only need to light together at one door."

            [The Meiri (quoting the Tosafot) maintains that two families living in the same house and eating on the same table, should light together - one might try to learn that had they been eating separately they would light separately.  However, in context it seems that the two families did not share expenses.]

            The Bi'ur Halakha concludes that two families living in the same house can light together.  It follows that the house and not the table unites a group for candle lighting, therefore the residents of a house can all fulfill their mitzva together, even though they are not all supported by the same source.  In our case, a student living in a dormitory must light separately, even if he is supported by his father.  The mitzva relates to a house, not a family.

            The gemara's ruling that an akhsenai's wife can light for him even though he is away from home seems to negate the previous conclusion.  It seems that a family unit can fulfill the mitzva together even if they are in different houses.  However, the distinction between that case and ours is very pronounced - shlichut seems to be at work here.  In this case, the candles are bought with his money and furthermore, in some instances a wife is considered "as the husband himself" ("ishto ke-gufo").  This is a case of a man who has two houses and is lighting by himself (through a messenger, his wife) in one of them.

            On the contrary, that gemara might actually support the "house not family" approach.  Why should an unmarried akhsenai need to contribute money to his host for the cost of the candles?  Why should he not be able to fulfill his mitzva through his father's lighting?  Because the case of an unmarried akhsenai supported by his father is blatantly omitted from the gemara, we can conclude that he cannot, because he is not dwelling in the same house with his father.

            The Maharshal goes a step further.  His opinion states that an akhsenai whose wife is lighting for him does not light for himself even according to the Rama's minhag of mehadrin min ha-mehadrin that would have each member light when at home.  Through his wife's lighting, he has fulfilled the mitzva and he does not have to light at his lodgings.  [Even though the Maharshal's opinion is not accepted as authoritative by later generations, their rejection of his approach might not be a rejection of his basic approach to the mitzva but an alternate understanding of how to fulfill the highest level of the mitzva.]



            We have just presented two reasons why a student might not be able to fulfill the mitzva of candle lighting through his parents' lighting at home.  First, the concept of "ner ish u-veito" only includes those who are residents of a particular house; and even if it includes all of those supported by the head of the household, a student (a hesder yeshiva student, at least) might not be considered a dependent of his father.  An additional reason for students to light is "chashad" (suspicion).  A house where one lives that does not have Chanuka candles outside of it arouses the suspicion that the person living inside does not observe the mitzva of candle lighting.  There are those that rule that because of "chashad" an akhsenai who has a separate entrance to the street must light and he cannot only participate in his host's candle lighting.


            One question remains, whether the student is able to light with a berakha.  We have only proven that it is doubtful whether he fulfills his obligation through his father's lighting.  But, "We are lenient and do not make a blessing when its obligation is doubtful."  If he INTENDS NOT to fulfill his mitzva through his parents' lighting, the Mishna Berura (OC 677:16) writes that one does not have the prerogative to say "I do not want to fulfill my mitzva through this lighting," if he in fact does.  So maybe it is preferable for students living away from home to light without making a berakha?

            It seems to me that a number of factors combine to allow making a blessing in this case.  In addition to the indications we have brought above that the student living away from home is really obligated to light, there are those who permit making a berakha over a lighting whose sole aim is to fulfill higher levels of the mitzva.  There is also a method to avoid any doubts - the student can make sure that he lights BEFORE his parents light at home.  That way he is certainly still obligated to light.  There are technical difficulties involved in accomplishing this, but he can either request that they light slightly later than they would otherwise, or he can light a couple minutes before nightfall.  I remember that in Chanuka 5732 I mentioned this suggestion to Ha-rav Amital and he agreed.