When do we fast and why? What is the level of obligation on each fast day? Who is obligated?
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By Laurie Novick
Rav Ezra Bick, Ilana Elzufon, and Shayna Goldberg, eds.
Using the Candles
In contrast to the Shabbat candles, which were originally meant primarily to ensure that the household would be lit up on Shabbat night,
the Chanuka candle's role is purely ritual, and not functional. Benefiting from the Chanuka candles, as in using their light to do work, would make it difficult for others to recognize that the Chanuka lights are there to commemorate and publicize a miracle.
Rashi Shabbat 21b
It is prohibited to make use of its light. In order that it be recognizable that it is a mitzva candle…
Additionally, performing a mundane task like counting money by the light of the candles would show disrespect to the candle as a mitzva article. As we sing in ha-nerot halallu
, the candles might even be said to have sanctity reminiscent of the Menora in the Beit Ha-mikdash
We also place an extra candle – the shamash
– next to the other candles, so that if we do come to candle-light, we can assume we used its light and not the mitzva candles'.
Shulchan Aruch summarizes these points:
Shulchan Aruch OC 673:1
For it is prohibited to use the Chanuka candle, whether on Shabbat or a weekday, even to check coins or to count them by its light is prohibited, even a sacred use, like learning by its light, is prohibited. There are those who permit using them for sacred purpose. Our practice is to kindle an additional candle, so that, if he uses its light it, [the usage] will be through the extra light which was lit last. And he should place it a little distance away from the other mitzva candles.
If the prohibition of using the Chanuka candles derives from recognition of and respect for the mitzva, then it can be waived if the candles remain lit after the mitzva has been fulfilled. Shulchan Aruch specifies that it is permissible to make use of the candles after fulfilling the mitzva, from half an hour after lighting them.
Shulchan Aruch OC 672:2
…About a half hour, for during that time people come and go, and the publicizing of the miracle is accomplished. Therefore…one can use its light after this time.
Work on Chanuka
According to the Talmud, our sages enacted Chanuka as "yamim tovim
," festive days.
Rashi specifies that we should not take the term "yom tov
" to mean that labor is prohibited on Chanuka:
Rashi Shabbat 21b
"They [the sages] made them [the days of Chanuka] yamim tovim [festive days] through giving praise and thanks." Not that they would be prohibited in performing labor…
Even so, a custom developed in medieval Rhineland not to perform labor on Chanuka when the candles were lit, or on the first and last day:
Maharil Minhagim Chanuka
Gloss: It is a received tradition in our hands that a person should not perform labor when the candles are lit on Chanuka. There are those who say that also on the first and last days [of Chanuka], the custom of our deceased Rabbis was to prohibit labor.
It sounds as though this custom was an attempt to treat Chanuka as more of a yom tov. Although Maharil suggests that this custom was kept by all community members, it was retained and became widespread specifically among women.
Shulchan Aruch OC 670
…The eight days of Chanuka, in eulogizing and fasting are prohibited, but performing labor is permissible. Women have the custom not to perform labor as long as the candles are lit, and there are those who say not to be lenient with them [to allow performing labor].
Why did the narrower custom of refraining from labor when the candles are lit gain traction among women? We find two main explanations for it in classic texts:
I. Not using the candles We've seen that the Chanuka candles are not for use. A woman, who traditionally would do housework at night by candlelight, is liable to find herself inadvertently using them (even though the shamash is meant as a safeguard against this). Beit Yosef explains that by refraining from labor when the candles are lit, a woman makes it clear to her household that no one can use them.
Beit Yosef OC 670
Their rationale is that it should serve as a reminder that it is prohibited to use their [the Chanuka candles'] light:
On this understanding of the custom, it should be limited to the first half hour after lighting, since afterwards, as we saw above, the candles may be used.
Mishna Berura OC 670:1
"As long as the candles are lit"- In his home, in order to recognize that it is prohibited to use the light, and this is about a half hour.
We would assume, then, that a woman should also refrain from cooking for the half hour after lighting. This is customary in Yerushalayim, but otherwise not common practice.
II. Recognizing the Miracle Levush writes that this is akin to the prohibition of performing labor on Yom Tov, in order that we really take time to recognize the miracle:
Levush OC 6701
In order that they not distract their minds from remembering the miracle, they make at least that hour like a Yom Tov.
On this view, a woman should feel free to cook or perform other labors permissible on Yom Tov.
Neither rationale we've seen for this custom would seem to be restricted to women. Magen Avraham explains that women take special care to observe it because of women's role in bringing about the miracle:
Magen Avraham 670:1
Specifically women [refrain from labor] because the miracle came about through them.
This is reminiscent of women's connection to Rosh Chodesh,
and fits in with a series of women’s traditions to refrain from performing housework of the sort prohibited on chol ha-mo'ed
as a way of recognizing a special day. Current custom is to refrain from labor for the first half hour after the candles are lit. For these purposes, labor is typically defined as it is on Chol Ha-mo'ed
, which does allow for cooking.
Another Yom Tov practice partially adopted on Chanuka is the festive meal. Rema teaches that having a festive meal on Chanuka at which we publicize the miracle is praiseworthy.
Rema OC 670:2
We are accustomed to recite songs of praise at the festive meals that we multiply [on Chanuka], and then they become mitzva meals. There are those who say one should eat cheese on Chanuka because the miracle was performed with the milk that Yehudit fed to the enemy.
Rema adds that we should eat dairy products in commemoration of the Yehudit story. Bach takes this a step further, suggesting that women have extra reason to eat festive meals on Chanuka, because of women's role in the miracle.
Bach even suggests that, for women, there is an extra value in rejoicing at a festive Chanuka meal, also as a nod to Yehudit:
Bach OC 670
They are accustomed to multiply meals [on Chanuka], especially the women, for the miracle was performed by a woman.
The best example of a community following this practice might be the North African id el-benaat
, "holiday of the girls," on Rosh Chodesh Tevet. Israeli scholar Dr. Yael Levine describes some of the ways it was celebrated, and urges us to consider embracing it in our day:
Dr. Yael Levine, 'Rosh Chodesh Tevet: Rosh Chodesh of the Girls'
After lighting the seventh candle of Chanuka, the girls and women would gather for a special celebration. They would eat dairy foods, drink wine, and dance…In Tunisia the housewife would bake honey cakes and confections in honor of this day. They even had the custom of sending mishloach manot and giving gifts to the girls. In every home they would make a festive meal in memory of Yehudit's heroic act. In Libya the young women would visit each other on the day of Rosh Chodesh Tevet and make festive parties…In Tunisia and Libya it was known that the women had the practice of not performing labor on Rosh Chodesh Tevet…It seems that marking “Rosh Chodesh of the Girls,” on the assumption that it was founded in memory of Yehudit's heroic act, is worth adopting in our day and renewing among all Jewish communities. This is a beautiful custom that gives validity to the act of a heroic feminine personality. Granted, it seems that one should breathe new life into it and find suitable ways to grant it a fitting Torah character and to imbue it with spiritual content, especially in light of the increase in women’s Torah study in our time.
Hallel on Chanuka
A last mitzva of Chanuka of particular interest to women is the recitation of Hallel. Our sages "established them [the days of Chanuka] for hallel [giving praise] and thanks. On Chanuka, we recite a full Hallel each day:
Rabi Yochanan said in the name of Rabbi Shimon son of Yehotzadak: There are eighteen days on which an individual recites full Hallel: The eight days of Sukkot, the eight days of Chanuka….But Chanuka…[we recite a full Hallel] because of the miracle.
In other words, the recitation of Hallel
on Chanuka serves to publicize the miracle.
Ordinarily, women are exempt from reciting Hallel because it is a positive time-bound commandment. This means, for example, that a man who hears Hallel from a woman cannot satisfy his mitzva obligation by simply listening, and needs to repeat what she says word for word:
Mishna Sukka 3:10
One for whom a bondsman or a woman or a minor reads [Hallel] repeats after them what they say.
Tosafot write on this Mishna that women are nevertheless obligated in reciting Hallel on seder night, because of af hen hayu be-oto ha-nes:
Tosafot Sukka 38a s.v. Mi she-haya
This indicates that a woman is exempt from Hallel of Sukkot and so, too, of Shavuot. The reason is because it is a [positive] time-bound commandment. Although regarding Hallel on seder night, it is indicated in Chapter 10 of Pesachim that women are obligated in the four cups, and they only enacted the cups in order to recite Hallel and the haggada over them. Hallel on Pesach is different, because it comes because of the miracle and af hen hayu be-oto ha-nes. But here, [Sukkot] it is not recited over the miracle.
Based on this ruling, it would seem that women should also be obligated in reciting Hallel on Chanuka, because that Hallel is also recited because of a miracle and the principle of af hen applies to the miracles of Chanuka.
Rambam, however, rules in accordance with the Mishna that a woman cannot discharge a man's obligation in Hallel, without exception.
Rambam, Laws of Megilla and Chanuka 3:6, 14
And not only the Hallel on Chanuka is rabbinic but reciting Hallel is always rabbinic on every day on which we recite the full Hallel…If the person calling out the Hallel is a minor or bondsman or woman, [a man] repeats after them what they say word for word, for the entire Hallel.
Rambam makes no exception for Hallel on Chanuka even though he recognizes that women are obligated in candle-lighting because of af hen. Why should this be the case?
Rav Ovadya Yosef suggests an explanation:
Yechaveh Da'at I 78
…Thus our sages did not obligate women in reciting it on Chanuka, in order to keep their law of saying Hallel consistent for women, For just as they are exempt from saying Hallel on every holiday, so, too, are they exempt from saying it on Chanuka. For whatever the sages enacted, they enacted on the model of Torah law (Pesachim 116b). And only in an exceptional way did our sages obligate women in Hallel on Pesach night, because of mitzva of the four cups…
Rambam considers the mitzva of Hallel to be unified. Even though Hallel on Chanuka has a special relationship to the miracle, it is not a unique mitzva. Once it has been enacted as an annual recitation, we do not differentiate halachically between Hallel of Chanuka and Hallel recited on other festive days, so women's general exemption from Hallel remains in place.
Sedei Chemed suggests that women should only be obligated in reciting a single chapter of Hallel
or praise, a position which was not widely embraced.
Other halachic authorities, including Rav Rephael of Volozhin, disagree, and write that women are obligated to recite Hallel
Torat Refa’el 75
And so on Chanuka [women] are also obligated, because it is for the reason of the miracle.
More recent halachic authorities remain split on this issue. Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach wrote that women are exempt,
and Rav Ovadya Yosef follows Rambam. But Rav Shmuel Ha-levi Wosner wrote that women should be considered obligated to recite Hallel
As we've seen, whether women are obligated in reciting Hallel on Chanuka is a matter of debate. For this reason, a woman should make an effort to recite it, in order to comply with all opinions, but if necessary may rely on the opinion that women are exempt. Women who do not usually recite a beracha on voluntary mitzva observance should not recite one here. Women who do recite berachot on voluntary mitzva performance may recite a beracha here, whether or not Hallel is in fact an obligation. Reciting Hallel on Chanuka is an additional opportunity to reflect on the Chanuka miracle and women's role within it.
See our discussion in Three Mitzvot I.
The Talmud raises both possibilities that the prohibition connects to sanctity or to disrespecting the mitzva.
Rav Yehuda said in the name of Rav Assi: It is prohibited to count money opposite a Chanuka candle. When I said this before Shemuel, he said to me: Does a candle have sanctity? Rav Yosef attacked his viewpoint… [The prohibition of use] is so that he should not feel contempt for mitzvot.
Rava said: One needs another candle to make use of its light.
They [the sages] established them [the eight days of Chanuka] and made them yamim tovim [festive days] through giving praise and thanks.
Magen Avraham also writes that women should refrain from labor for longer, perhaps as long as the synagogue candles are lit:
Magen Avraham 670:1
It is written in Me’il Tzedaka that this means for the entire time that the candles in the synagogue are lit, which is until about midnight.
It seems to me that one can compare it to Rosh Chodesh (beginning of Siman 417), when it is halachically permissible to perform labor, and even so, since the women have this custom not to perform labor, it is a good custom and it is a reward for them for not giving their nose-rings for the [Golden] Calf … This is also the case with Chanuka, because the miracle came about through the women, it is good that they are accustomed not to perform labor. But this custom certainly does not apply to men.
14a describes Hallel
as “publicizing the miracle.” Rav Ovadya Yosef explains this idea further, see footnote 20.
He also suggests a reason for why Rambam wouldn't consider Hallel
on Chanuka an exception:
Yechaveh Da'at I 78
One can explain the opinion of Rambam, and distinguish between saying Hallel on Chanuka, in which women are not at all obligated, and lighting Chanuka candles, where women too are obligated, for the reason that af hen hayu be-oto ha-nes. Because the essence of the mitzva of lighting candles on Chanuka is in order to publicize the miracle to the masses, to the passersby, and to the members of the household, who see the lit Chanuka candles and thus remember the miracles of God and His wonders…Therefore, also women who were part of that miracle are obligated to publicize the miracle. But saying Hallel, even though it too is said for the sake of publicizing the miracle (as is explained in Berachot 14a), but this is only between him and his Creator.
Sedei Chemed 9 Chanuka 9:2.
See also here:
Hitorerut Teshuva 51
Since [women] are obligated in the Chanuka candle, they are obligated in Hallel
Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach suggests that Hallel
on Chanuka is like Hallel
of the festivals, and no longer closely tied to the Chanuka miracle, which it does not even mention:
Responsa Minchat Shlomo Tinyana 58
…Just as women are exempt from Hallel of Sukkot and Shavuot, so, too, of Chanuka, since this is just time-bound. I.e., [the sages] made this time a day on which we are obligated to recite Hallel…Since the lighting is gratitude for the salvation, our sages chose to obligate women in this act of gratitude, since it recalls the miracle of Chanuka more than saying Hallel, in which the matter of Chanuka is not mentioned.
 Responsa Shevet Ha-Levi I:205
If women are obligated [in Hallel] as in lighting…In my humble opinion there is room to obligate them in accordance with the words of the Tosafot.