Saturday, December 08, 2007

Lighting at a Chanukah Party - With a Bracha?

This week, I spent some time researching an interesting Chanukah question. It is a question that I have had for some time. I received the question - via Facebook – from a student of mine that read something like this:

"I want to try to organise a Chanukah party in my university this Thursday, but no one will be sleeping there … but the thing that's worrying me, is can we light if no one will be sleeping there? Otherwise, I really don't know if my fellow campus Jews will have any form of candle lighting over Chanukah... once again any suggestions??"

This question is a common one, especially in Israel where there are lots of office Channukah parties. Many religious people don't quite know how to act. In the office they say to them:

"You're religious, why don't you light for us?"

And they, nervous about Bracha Levatalla (making a non-mandated blessing, and hence uttering God's name without sanction) pass on the honour to someone less religious.

So, what does a person do?


Let me highlight the problem. The Talmud states that Chanukah lights be lit in the home – נר איש וביתו – and that ideally they be lit at the portal of the home[1]. If one lives in an apartment, they should be lit in the window facing the street. In times of danger – anti-Semitism in the streets – the Channukiah may be lit indoors. It is quite clear that the home is the arena for lighting. Moreover the Talmud specifies that a guest – a person in transit who lacks a fixed abode - must find a technique of enjoining the household. It would appear as clear that there is no Chanukah lighting in the absence of a home[2].

In order to relate to our problem we have to find a model of Chanukah lighting that transpires OUTSIDE the home.


The poskim (Religious legal experts) look towards the Minhag (custom) of lighting Chanukah lights at Shul (The synagogue.) In every shul, between Mincha and Maariv, Chanukah candles are lit with all the berachot. Now, the Halakhic literature is puzzled by this Custom because it post-dates the Talmud. What is the basis of this custom?

Various reasons are suggested:
· That there were times in which the synagogue was used as a place for wayfaring Jews to stay. Hence this WAS a "home" of sorts for some Jews.
· That the Custom was instituted during times of oppression when Jews were forced to abandon the public street oriented lighting, and lit indoors. Seeking an outlet for a public lighting, communities began to light indoors.
· Independently of any historic circumstances, the Beit Halevi stresses the two advantages of this approach: 1) The Pirsumei Nisa – publicity of the Chanukah miracle; and 2) To educate the public about the appropriate blessing and lighting of the Chanukah lights.

The Shulchan Aruch[3] tells us to light at shul WITH brachot but that an individual does NOT fulfill his mitzvah there and must light on his return home!

In our given situation of a Student Chanukah party, what factor applies? Generally, students are not sleeping in the University building, but although if they are – if the party takes place at one of the dorms - then there is NO problem! Regarding the argument that there is NO public lighting, in today's world many Jews DO light in public places. Nonetheless, there is no doubt that lighting at Chanukah parties educates and adds a focus of the Chanukah miracle to a gathering that would otherwise be secular in nature.


The modern Authorities are divided on the issue. Some say that the Custom of lighting at shul is SPECIFICALLY at a synagogue which constitutes a "Mikdash Me'at" (a mini Temple) and resembles the ancient Chanukah miracle (of the Menorah in the Temple.) Others say that we have to look primarily at the potential for spreading the miracle and wherever this can be fulfilled.

Many heavy-weight poskim (Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, Rav Wosner, Rav Yitzchak Weiss, Tzitz Eliezer) all say that at a Chanukah party , brachot may NOT be recited. On the other hand, many poskim like Rav Ovadia Yosef, the Rabbis of Chabad-Lubavich, and many Religious Zionist authorities (Rav Rosenthal, Rav Melamed, Rav Sherlo) ALLOW brachot to be recited with an audience that is not religious and who will not otherwise light candles.

(Of course this is contingent on the party being held in the evening after sunset!)

And of course, here is an educational dilemma. Are we educating more by demonstrating Chanukah lighting? Or possibly we should be stressing that the Mitzva is connected to the home?

(Of course there is a deep message in connecting the Mitzva of candle lighting to our homes. We are somehow stating that the true resilience of Judaism against Hellenism is in the Jewish home. What gives a Jewish person the wherewithal to resists the culture that surrounds him and to continue with pride, his Jewish practices? It is the Jewish education that he carries from his family, from his being raised in a home filled with Jewish enthusiasm, practice, knowledge and joy.)

In the end, I told the student concerned that if she could be pretty certain that various participants of the party would not otherwise be lighting, then she should happily light at the Chanukah party with brachot.

Afterwards, I thought that maybe there is another basis to allow the brachot here. In an educational setting, like an explanatory minyan, one is allowed to pronounce God's name in order to TEACH a bracha. To an audience which one is educating as to the elementary practice of Chanukah lighting, one may be allowed to light purely on the basis of the Mitzva of Chincuh and our responsibility to teach other Jews about their traditions.

[1] תלמוד בבלי מסכת שבת דף כא עמוד ב
תנו רבנן: מצות חנוכה נר איש וביתו... תנו רבנן: נר חנוכה מצוה להניחה על פתח ביתו מבחוץ. אם היה דר בעלייה - מניחה בחלון הסמוכה לרשות הרבים. ובשעת הסכנה - מניחה על שלחנו, ודיו.
[2] By home, we usually define the place that one is sleeping and eating.

[3] . שולחן ערוך אורח חיים סימן תרעא סעיף ז
ובבה"כ מניחו (מ) בכותל דרום ((מא) או בדרום המנורה, (מב) ומסדרן ט ממזרח (מג) למערב) (ת"ה סי' ק"ד ב"י), (מד)
... ומדליקין [י] ומברכין (בבית הכנסת) משום פרסומי ניסא. הגה: ואין אדם יוצא בנרות של בהכ"נ, (מה) וצריך לחזור ולהדליק [יא] בביתו (ריב"ש סימן קי"א)


Daniel said...

To 'add fuel to the fire', there are often cases where the lighting is taking place before nightfall, and the candles are unlikely to remain lit after the party... in such cases, it seems that you have to rely on the "Chinuch" aspect, which may be problematic if the participants are there only to eat the doughnuts...

Anonymous said...

Awesome - I was just asked to light at my company's lighting ceremony and was worried about your exact point. This was very helpful and well written. Thanks