It has become a common custom to light Chanukah candles in public places.
This is true of the workplace, of Chanukah parties and public gatherings, and even of the town square. Indeed, even non-Jews often participate in these gatherings, and are sometimes invited to light the candles.
The question we will address in the present article is the halachic status and significance of such public Chanukah ceremonies. Is lighting a Chanukah menorah in the public domain a mitzvah? Can berachos be recited over the lighting of such a menorah, or might these be berachos in vain?
These questions are closely related to the custom of lighting a menorah in shul, which is done every night of Chanukah, usually between Mincha and Maariv. Can the lighting of a menorah in the public domain be equated with the customary lighting in Shul? What are the reasons why a berachah is recited over lighting in Shul, and do they apply to other public gatherings?
We will discuss these questions and issues below.
Reasons for Lighting in Shul
In formulating the mitzvah to light candles on Chanukah, the Gemara (Shabbos 21b) uses the term ner ish u’beiso. This means that the basic requirement of Chanukah candles is to light one candle per home or household (see also Rambam, Chanukah 4:1). The mehadrin customs increase the number of candles that are lit, but the mitzvah still applies specifically to the home or household.
This principle seems to imply that there is no point in lighting Chanukah candles in Shul since the mitzvah applies to the home, and not to public areas outside the home. Indeed, we do not find a custom of doing so dating back to Talmudic times or even to times of early Rishonim.
Nonetheless, we find in the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 671:7) that aside from lighting at home, Chanukah candles are also lit in Shul, and a beracha is moreover recited over their lighting. Three basic reasons are given for this practice, all of which emerge from commentaries cited by the Beis Yosef (671).
The Shibolei HaLekket (185) notes the custom to light Chanukah candles in Shul, but questions its validity, asking why it is necessary to light in Shul when the people light in their homes anyway. He justifies the practice only if there are guests who sleep in the Shul, who would then have to light there because the Shul becomes like their home. This rationale is similar to the reasoning given for the custom of making Kiddush in Shul on Friday night.
In this context it is noteworthy that the Sedei Chemed (Asifas Dinim, Chanukah 24) concludes that the primary reason to light candles in Shul is for the benefit of those less observant Jews who may not fulfill the mitzvah at their homes. (This extends the rationale, because these non-observant Jews do not live in Shul. See below, concerning the issue of publicizing the miracle.)
Publicizing the Miracle
The Kol Bo (44), however, writes that in addition to benefiting those who are not able to light candles at home, the public lighting serves the function of publicizing the miracle (pirsumei nisa), and this is the basic reason for its enactment.
The same idea is found in the Rivash (111), who states that the concept of lighting in Shul is an ancient custom and mentions the purpose of publicizing the miracle. He also adds that since in his days, the Jews were living under the strong control of non-Jews and thus could not fulfill the mitzvah at home in the proper fashion – by lighting candles outside their houses – the practice became to light the candles indoors.
In order to have a more encompassing and demonstrative expression of publicizing the miracle, the custom was instituted to light in Shul, too.
Note that although the Rivash noted that the custom receives special significance where the Jews were unable to light outdoors, it is clear from the Shulchan Aruch that the custom applies universally. Indeed, the Mishnah Berurah (Biur Halacha 671 s.v. uvebeis haknesses) rules explicitly that this is the case.
As the Temple
Finally, the Tur notes that the Menorah is lit on the southern side of the Shul, commemorating the lighting of the Menorah in the Mikdash. This idea is found in the Sefer HaManhig (Hilchos Chanukah 148), who writes that there is a custom to light in Shul because a Shul is a Mikdash Me’at (a microcosm of the Temple; see Megillah 29a).
It is not clear, however, if this can be cited as an independent reason for the custom, and most authorities only mention it in connection with the location of the Menorah in Shul. Another halachah mentioned in connection with this rationale is that just as the lighting in the Temple was during the day, so the custom is generally to light the Menorah in Shul just before sunset (Shut Binyan Shlomo Vol. 1, no. 53).
Berachah over Lighting in Shul
As noted, a berachah is made over lighting Chanukah candles in Shul. The justification for this, however, is far from simple.
The first rationale noted above for lighting candles in Shul is not apparently sufficient to justify making a berachah. With regard to the custom of making Kiddush on Friday night, the Shulchan Aruch rules that in places where people do not eat their Friday night meals in Shul, it is “better not to make Kiddush in Shul, and this is the custom in the Land of Israel” (Orach Chaim 269).
Although some communities continue to make Kiddush in Shul because the custom was already enacted, even though its purpose is no longer applicable, this will not explain how the Shulchan Aruch himself rules that one recites a berachah over lighting Chanukah candles in Shul. The Peri Chadash 671:7 actually makes a distinction between Kiddush on Friday night and lighting candles on Chanukah, but the question remains pertinent.
Another important reason why the berachos are recited is mentioned by the Rivash. He explains that although the Shul lighting is only a custom and not a mitzvah, it is nonetheless proper to recite a berachah over this important custom, which involves publicizing a miracle of Hashem in the presence of the community in Shul. This is similar to the custom of reciting Hallel on Rosh Chodesh, for which a berachah is recited, although it is only a custom.
Berachos over a Custom
In the context of reciting a blessing over a custom, the Chacham Tzvi (88) raises a question on the ruling of the Shulchan Aruch. As mentioned above, the Rivash explains that although lighting in Shul is only a custom, a berachah is still recited, just as we recite a berachah over Hallel on Rosh Chodesh. Yet we find that the Shulchan Aruch (422:2) rules that a berachah is not recited before the recitation of Hallel on Rosh Chodesh. Why then may a berachah be recited before lighting Chanukah candles in Shul?
The Chacham Tzvi suggests that perhaps the Shulchan Aruch accepts the above view of the Kol Bo whereby lighting candles in Shul constitutes a kind of public sanctification of Hashem’s name, and therefore a berachah is warranted.
Indeed, the wording of the Shulchan Aruch is that Chanukah candles must be lit in the Shul, and the appropriate berachos recited, “in order to publicize the miracle.” The Beis Yosef expands on the theme, explaining that the recitation of the berachos itself is a sanctification of Hashem’s Name, and the blessings over the lighting are a part of publicizing the miracle.
Yet, the Chacham Tzvi notes, this approach is strained, in view of the fact that there is no mention of this idea in the Gemara. He then proposes that perhaps the Shulchan Aruch accepts a combination of the reasons suggested by the Rivash and the Kol Bo, as presented above, but he leaves the matter in some doubt.
The Vilna Gaon (Biur Ha-Gra 671:7) specifically compares lighting candles in Shul to reciting Hallel in Shul on Pesach night, for which the Shulchan Aruch (487:4) agrees that a berachah is recited. It is possible that lighting candles has something in common with Hallel on Pesach, because both customs are an extension of an already existing mitzvah. This is unlike reciting Hallel on Rosh Chodesh, which is not a mitzvah anywhere (this reasoning is suggested by Rabbi Ovadyah Yosef, zt”l (Yabia Omer Vol. 7, Orach Chaim 57:4).
Lighting Again at Home
The Rema stresses (citing the Rivash) that one cannot fulfill his personal obligation in lighting Chanukah candles by lighting in Shul. As noted at the outset, the mitzvah of lighting Chanukah candles obligates us to light at home, and not in Shul. Thus, even the person who lights in Shul and recites berachos over the lighting must light again at home, with the appropriate berachos.
This ruling is given by the Mishnah Berurah (671:45), who notes that the halachah applies even to the Chazzan who actually recites the berachah in Shul, but asserts that on the first night, one should not repeat the berachah of Shehecheyanu at home if it was recited in Shul. The berachah is only repeated if the person in question is reciting it on behalf of other members of his household (see, however, Iggros Moshe, Orach Chaim 1:190).
Sefer Shalmei Todah (no. 26) adds a discussion concerning the berachah of she’asah nissim. In practice, this berachah is recited again at home, even after its recitation in Shul.
Lighting in Public Places
We come now to the contemporary question of public Chanukah gatherings. What is the halachah concerning lighting the Chanukah Menorah in public places and public gatherings other than Shul?
The simple answer to this question appears to be that although the idea of lighting a Chanukah Menorah might be nice, there is no room to recite a berachah over such a ceremony. As we have seen, it is hard enough to justify the custom of lighting with a berachah in Shul – to the degree that the Chasam Sofer would avoid lighting the Menorah in Shul, so as not to have to recite the berachah (see Maharm Schick, Yoreh De’ah no. 374). Thus, although it is custom to light and recite a berachah in Shul, there does not appear to be room to expand this to other public gatherings.
This, indeed, is the ruling given by a number of prominent contemporary authorities: See Minchas Yitzchak (Vol. 6, no. 66, sec. 3); Tzitz Eliezer (Vol. 15, no. 30); Shevet Ha’Levi (Vol. 4, no. 65; though he notes that there are places in which this was common custom), Teshuvos VeHanhagos (1:398) – among others (the halachah is also cited in the name of Rabbi Shlomoh Zalman Auerbach zt”l).
Rabbi Moshe Sternbuch (in the above-mentioned Teshuvos Ve-Hanhagos) goes a step further, ruling that even where the Maariv (or Mincha) prayer is recited communally, a berachah should not be made outside an actual Shul.
Lenient Aspects in Public Lightings
At the same time, there are also minority opinions who rule that a berachah may be recited, or at least that a berachah might not be le’vatalah.
In his Shut Az Nidberu (5:37; 6:75), Rabbi Binyamin Zilber suggests that it is permitted to recite a berachah over lighting Chanukah candles in the town square. He cites as the reason for this the fact that the principle enactment of Chanukah candles was to publicize the miracle (in line with the Kol Bo and Rivash above concerning lighting in Shul).
However, he elsewhere limits his ruling to a town square, explaining that for other public places he “has not found the strength of heart to rule that a berachah should be recited, and the ruling applies only to a town square” (11:32).
At the same time, based on the rationale of publicizing the miracle, it remains possible that a berachah made over a public lighting is not in vain. Rabbi Ovadyah Yosef zt”l (Yabia Omer Vol. 7, no. 57, sec. 6) actually cites the Mishnas Yaakov (Chanukah p. 260) that a berachah should be recited in public gatherings, “because the publicizing of the miracle is often very great, even greater than that of the Shul.”
Rabbi Yosef concludes that those who light with a berachah in public gatherings have whom to rely upon, adding that it is preferable hold a davening service as part of the public gathering.
We have seen that there is a clear custom of lighting Chanukah candles in Shul, and that this should be done with a berachah – though the reason for the lighting, as well as the justification for reciting a berachah, are matters of debate and discussion. At the same time, most halachic authorities rule that this custom is limited to a Shul, and one should not recite a berachah over lighting Chanukah candles in public places other than in Shul – even if such communal lighting has the benefit of publicizing the miracle of Chanukah. A minority opinion maintains that a berachah may be recited, and perhaps one can rely on this opinion under extenuating circumstances.