Skip to main content

Lighting Chanuka Candles in the Synagogue

Harav Aharon Lichtenstein
Text file
Based on a shiur by Harav Aharon Lichtenstein
Translated and adapted by Rav Eliezer Kwass
     The gemara (Shabbat 21b) determines that Chanuka candles should be lit directly outside the opening of one's house or, in times of danger, inside one's home.  The option to light anywhere else besides one's home is not raised.  Nevertheless, it is a common custom to light Chanuka candles in the synagogue as well.  Two questions arise:
1. What is the nature of this custom?
2. Should a blessing be recited over lighting in the synagogue?
     The Ba'al Ha-ittur (Chanuka 114) is the first to mention the custom.  He notes that, in fact, two different customs existed at his time: one to light in the middle of the synagogue, and another to light at its entrance.
     The Sefer Ha-manhig (148) also relates to this custom, yet claims that it is not binding.  He assumes that an analogy exists between the mitzva of mezuza and that of lighting Chanuka candles: only houses that are obligated in mezuza are obligated in candle lighting (he alone makes this assertion).  He therefore says that because there is no obligation to affix a mezuza to a synagogue (based on a gemara in Yoma, either because it is not a dwelling place or because of its holiness - Tosafot vs. Rambam), one is also not obligated to light Chanuka candles there.  He suggests that the custom emerged in order to publicize the miracle in a place similar to the Temple in Jerusalem; the synagogue is called a "mikdash me'at" - a minor Temple.  Since the miracle took place in the Temple, we commemorate it in the synagogue modeled after it.
     The Shibolei Ha-leket (185) views the minhag to light in the synagogue as being problematic on two counts: 1) it is superfluous; 2) the blessing is unnecessary.
     A close look at the literature of the Rishonim reveals four approaches to the nature of lighting Chanuka candles in the synagogue.
  1. It publicizes the miracle in a public place (Ritva).
  1. It publicizes the miracle in a place modeled after the Temple in Jerusalem (Sefer Ha-manhig).
     The practical difference between these two is whether to light in other public places, like a public dining hall.  According to the Ritva, one should; according to the Manhig, the custom is restricted to synagogues. 
     A similar approach might also explain the two customs quoted by the Ba'al Ha-ittur above.  If the synagogue is the prototype of a public place, one would light in its doorway, in order to maximize publicizing the miracle.  If, on the other hand, lighting in the synagogue is modeled after lighting in the Temple, it follows that it should be done in the middle of the synagogue just as the menora was located in the midst of the Temple.  Some, in fact, have a custom to position the Chanuka candles in the synagogue in a manner similar to the positioning of the Temple's menora.
There is another possible explanation of the dispute, though.  It is possible that both opinions are working with the Ritva's approach, namely to publicize the miracle in public places, but they disagree about how to publicize the miracle.  Should we, in the synagogue, follow the rules of lighting in one's home and light near the door?  Or does the uniqueness of the synagogue, already a public place, demand that we light in its center?
3.  In the synagogue we perform the mitzva for the sake of those who are not able to fulfill it by themselves, either because of lack of knowledge or initiative (Orchot Chayim 14).  Candle lighting in the synagogue is similar in this respect to the repetition of the Shemoneh Esrei.
4.  When non-Jewish persecution prevents fulfilling the mitzva and publicizing the miracle properly at home, it is to be done in the synagogue (Rivash, Responsa #111).
     The Shibolei Ha-leket and the Rivash mention that candles should be lit in the synagogue with a blessing.  At first glance, this is difficult, because the gemara (Sukka 44b), in discussing the taking of the arava in hand on Hoshana Rabba, says that we do not recite a blessing over customs.  The Rivash explains this difficulty by drawing an analogy to the question of making a blessing over the recitation of Hallel on Rosh Chodesh (which is only a custom, not a rabbinic mitzva).  Because saying Hallel is an "important custom" (Rabbenu Tam), a blessing is said.  Similarly, lighting candles in the synagogue is an important custom.  Based on this analogy, those who rule that a blessing should not be said over Hallel on Rosh Chodesh (Rashi, Sukka 44b, and Rambam, Hilkhot Berakhot 11:16) would also rule that we should not make a blessing over lighting Chanuka candles in the synagogue.
     Rabbenu Tam, who rules that a blessing can be made over customs, perhaps distinguishes between the levels of importance of different customs.  The Brisker Rov (Griz on Hilkhot Berakhot) explains Rabbenu Tam to mean that when a custom involves performing a commonplace activity (e.g. taking an arava in hand), it does not mandate a blessing.  When, however, it involves doing a mitzva-like action - such as saying Hallel - it is considered an important custom and we do recite a blessing. 
     The Shulchan Arukh (OC 671:7) rules that a blessing should be made over lighting Chanuka candles in the synagogue.  On the other hand, he rules that a blessing should not be said over saying Hallel on Rosh Chodesh (OC 422) because it is a custom!  The Chakham Tzvi (88) points out this apparent contradiction.  
     The Shulchan Arukh's rulings, however, can be explained as follows.  Rabbenu Tam's opinion that we say a blessing over Hallel on Rosh Chodesh assumes two things:
A.  that a blessing is recited over "special customs;" and
B.  that reciting Hallel on Rosh Chodesh is a special custom.
One who rules that a blessing is not to be said over Hallel can argue on either one of these two assumptions.  He can say that blessings are not to be made over any customs, or he can assert that Hallel on Rosh Chodesh is not one of the special customs that warrants a blessing.  The Shulchan Arukh may take the second approach: Rosh Chodesh is not a special custom warranting a blessing, but lighting Chanuka candles in the synagogue is.  Thus, Rabbenu Tam's general approach to blessings over customs is maintained while his application is rejected.
     The reason behind lighting candles in the synagogue might also be a determining factor in ruling whether to make a blessing or not.  According to the Rivash and Orchot Chayim quoted above - that candle lighting in the synagogue is an extension of the basic mitzva, and is performed either to help the unlearned keep the mitzva (Orchot Chayim) or to maintain the practice even under extreme situations (Rivash) - it would make sense to recite the blessing.  According to those who see it as a way of remembering the menora in the Temple, it might not.
     The Bi'ur Ha-gra explains the Shulchan Arukh's ruling by drawing an analogy to the recitation of Hallel in the synagogue on Pesach night.  Here is another example of a mitzva which is essentially done in the home, but is also kept in a public context. 
     The Bi'ur Halakha (OC 671 s.v. Ve-yesh Nohagim) quotes a responsum of the Mor U-ketziya who rules not to light in the synagogue unless ten people are present.  The Bi'ur Halakha himself disagrees, claiming that the lighting itself publicizes the miracle.  The publicizing can be done by individuals and does not require the presence of a minyan, and therefore it does not matter how many people are present.  Apparently, the Mor U-ketziya saw lighting in the synagogue as essentially different than that done in the home.  It is by nature a congregational lighting.
     It is possible that the different explanations for lighting in the synagogue might lead to different positions regarding how many people should be present.  If, as the Rivash and the Orchot Chayim say, lighting in the synagogue fills in for what is not done at home - either because of neglect or coercion - the Bi'ur Halakha's position is plausible and there is no need for a minyan.  If, however, public lighting in the synagogue is designed to maximize publicity of the miracle, as the Ritva says, then the custom might only exist where there is a public entity, namely a minyan, present.
[Adapted from Daf Kesher 578.  The original Hebrew article is a student summary of a shiur Harav Lichtenstein gave on Motzaei Shabbat, Parashat Vayishlach 5757.  Both this article and the original were not reviewed by Harav Lichtenstein.]

This website is constantly being improved. We would appreciate hearing from you. Questions and comments on the classes are welcome, as is help in tagging, categorizing, and creating brief summaries of the classes. Thank you for being part of the Torat Har Etzion community!