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Chanukah – An Overview

 By Rabbi Yair Hoffman –


Chanukah occurred during the time of the Second Beis HaMikdash approximately in the year 3596/165 B.C.E. The Seleucid Greeks (or Syrian Greeks) ruled and enacted decrees against Klal Yisrael, outlawing the Jewish religion. The Greeks forbade Torah study and the observance of mitzvos. Ironically, they knew what many Jews do not know: what makes Klal Yisrael unique is Torah and mitzvos. Without these, our spiritual existence would gradually disappear and we would no longer be the Am Hashem.

The Greeks took our money and violated our bnos Yisrael. They entered the Mikdash and desecrated it. They polluted that which was pure and caused Klal Yisrael much anguish. The Greeks placed such stress on Klal Yisrael that Hashem finally had compassion upon us and rescued us. The Chashmona’im, the family of the Kohain Gadol and those who joined them, were victorious in battle against the Greeks and saved Klal Yisrael from their hands.

The Chashmona’im installed a king from among the Kohanim, thereby restoring the monarchy to Klal Yisrael for more than 200 years, until the destruction of the Second Beis HaMikdash (3829/70 C.E.).


The date on which Klal Yisrael was victorious over the Greeks and destroyed them was the 25th of Kislev.  That day, they entered the Heichal and only found one flask of pure oil in the Beis HaMikdash with the seal of the Kohen Gadol.

That flask contained enough oil to burn only one day. They used it to light the lamps of the Menorah and it lasted for eight days — long enough for them to crush olives and extract pure oil.

Because of this neis (miracle), the next year, the Chachamim of that generation decreed that these eight days, beginning with the 25th of Kislev, should be days of simchah and Hallel.

These days are called Chanukah because “chanu” — they rested from their enemies — on “kah” — the 25th. Kah in gematria is 25.

The neis that we celebrate is about the oil and not about the military victories. The reason for this is that the Chachamim of the time were concerned that people would think the victory was because of the military tactics of the Chashmona’im and not because of Hashem’s Divine intervention. The Chashmona’im ultimately ended up assuming too much power. Because of this error, some of their descendants did not follow in the ways of Torah, and the country was divided by civil war. This is another reason why it is the oil that is commemorated.

Also, the miracle of the flask of oil hints to the continued existence of the Jewish people throughout the darkness of the Galus, a miracle in and of itself. No other nation in the world ever existed in exile for so long and eventually returned to its land.

This miracle is attested to in the first Rashi of sefer Bereishis, in which Rashi states that Hashem started the Torah with “Bereishis bara” so that in the future, when the gentiles accuse us of stealing their land, we can say that Hashem created the world and gave the land to us. This Rashi was written over 900 years ago. The continued existence of Klal Yisrael — particularly in the land of Eretz Yisrael, where the gentiles are now accusing us of stealing their land — is truly remarkable. This Rashi is an inspiring neis.

The Beis Yosef, Rabbi Yosef Karo, asks a famous question about Chanukah: Why do we celebrate Chanukah for eight days instead of seven? The miraculous extra burning was only for seven days! This question is known throughout the Torah world as “The Beis Yosef’s Question.” There is a book that has over 500 answers to this question!

One answer is that even though technically the miracle of the oil lasted for only seven days (since the flask contained enough oil for one day), we still celebrate Chanukah for eight days because the victory itself is deserving of its own special day, just like Purim has a day. It was also the day that they found the oil — so Chazal decreed that the Menorah be lit on that first day too.

Another interesting question that is often asked about Chanukah is: Why did the Chashmona’im wait until they got pure oil? There is a halachic concept called “tumah hutrah b’tzibbur” — if needed for the tzibbur, impure oil may also be used! They could have used the impure oil as well. Why didn’t they?

One answer that is often given is that the Chashmona’im were setting things up for the first time after a long period of disuse. In such circumstances, everyone is looking and observing. The Chashmona’im taught us not to settle for things that are impure, but to do mitzvos in the best possible manner. This is a lesson in chinuch, too, to teach that one should always strive for the highest level.

It is also quite curious why there is no mention of the obligation to light the Chanukah Menorah anywhere in the Mishnah. Indeed, the only mention of Chanukah in Chazal is in Megillas Taanis, which predates the Mishnah, and in the Gemara in Shabbos 21a. The Chasam Sofer explains that since Rabi Yehudah HaNasi, the compiler of the Mishnah (about 1800 years ago), was a descendant of David HaMelech, he left out the miracle involving the Chashmona’im since they should not have taken the malchus for themselves but should have left it for the descendants of David HaMelech. Indeed, the Ramban writes that Hashem punished the Chashmona’im for this act. We had a civil war amongst ourselves and eventually the Beis HaMikdash was destroyed.


There is a very ancient book in Torah sheb’al peh that was written even before the Mishnayos were written down. It is called “Megillas Taanis” and was written when the Beis HaMikdash was still in existence. This book listed many lesser holidays, both joyous days and sad days that we Jews celebrated. After the Second Beis HaMikdash was destroyed, we stopped observing all of these other days because, Chazal teach, “there was no more joy.” The Talmud Yerushalmi (2:12) tells us that all the special holidays were set aside except two holidays: Chanukah and Purim.

On these days we may not give a hesped (eulogy at a funeral). Eulogies make people sadder and we may not do that on Chanukah. An exception is made for eulogizing a talmid chacham if the aron of the deceased is present at the funeral.

We are also not permitted to fast on these days. Fasting makes one sadder, too, and this is not permitted on Chanukah. We may not fast, even if it is for the yahrtzeit of a parent. However, we are permitted to work and perform melachah.

Women have the special custom not to do work while the menorah is still lit. Although some write that this is for the entire time that the candles remain burning, the Mishna Brurah rules that this is only until 30 minutes after nightfall – Tzeis HaKochavim.  The reason why women have this custom is because a woman — Yehudis, the daughter of Yochanan the Kohen Gadol — brought about a miracle. She was very attractive and told the persecuting king that she would be intimate with him. She fed him dairy products so that he would be thirsty. He drank wine and got sleepy. She was able to kill him and cut off his head. This caused the army general and his soldiers to all run away.


Since the miracle of Yehudis’ victory occurred by means of dairy foods, we have the minhag to eat dairy foods on Chanukah. When eating dairy, we should have in mind the miracles that Hashem did for us.

There is a minhag to eat latkes on Chanukah. This is because they are fried in oil in order to commemorate the miracle that happened with oil. This custom is mentioned by the Rambam’s father. In Eretz Yisrael, doughnuts are eaten for the same reason.chanukahcandles

There is also a minhag to play with a dreidel on Chanukah. This commemorates the mesirus nefesh of the children for Torah study. The Greeks forbade the study of Torah. When they checked up on the young students who continued to study Torah despite the decree, the children pretended to be playing games. The dreidel also signifies that during the time of Chanukah, help came from Hashem Above; therefore, the spinner is on top. On Purim, the move toward teshuvah came from Klal Yisrael down below, which is why we use the grogger, whose handle is on bottom.


It is customary to distribute Chanukah gelt (money; today, coin-shaped chocolates are also used) to family members and children. This is to create the joy that will enhance the appreciation of the nissim Hashem did for us.


Many poskim (including the Vilna Gaon) are of the opinion that there is a slight mitzvah to increase feasting on Chanukah —because on these days the work for the Mishkan in the midbar was also completed. If we add zemiros to these meals they would be considered a seudas mitzvah. If there are no zemiros, they are not considered a seudas mitzvah.


The Ramban in Bamidbar (8:2) quotes a Midrash on the passuk “When you kindle the lamps”: The Torah here is hinting to the events of Chanukah. When the Levi’im saw that the Nesi’im of each tribe were bringing dedication offerings and the shevet of Levi did not [and were sad), Hashem said, “There will be another Chanukah [dedication] where there will be a lighting of lamps when I will perform miracles.. for Israel.. The sacrifices are brought only as long as the Beis HaMikdash will exist..but the lamps [Chanukah] give light forever..”


Chanukah is a time in which we give greater tzedakah (Magen Avraham) because it is a time of geulah — redemption.




On the eight days of Chanukah, during the evening, we light Chanukah menorahs to publicize the miracle of the oil. These may be lit in the doorway to our homes, but nowadays most people light by the window because there is more pirsumei nissa, publicizing of the mitzvah, when the flames are visible in the window rather than at the doorway. All this points to the idea that a small measure of light can push away much darkness.


One must be very careful in regard to lighting the Chanukah menorah. If one is careful, the reward is children who are talmidei chachamim. According to the Shulchan Aruch, even a poor person supported through charity should collect money or even sell his clothing in order to light. This is the only Rabbinic mitzvah that has such a requirement. Indeed, even many Torah mitzvos do not have such a requirement!

Why is this so necessary? Because the Chanukah menorah does two things:


1)   It publicizes the great miracle that occurred.

2)   It serves to increase praise and gratitude to Hashem for the miracles He has done for us.


With the lighting of the menorah we reinforce the concept that all of Creation, and the life force of every living thing, exists because of Hashem’s Will. We state that Hashem will, at times, intervene with His laws of nature. We acknowledge that Hashem is the true source of salvation and we express our sincere gratitude for the miracles He performed on our behalf in the time of the Chashmona’im.


Since the Chanukah menorah acts in such a capacity, it is important to focus on increasing our praise and gratitude toward Hashem. The gratitude extends to our own lives as well, not just during the time of the Chashmona’im.


One can fulfill a Torah obligation when lighting the Chanukah menorah. The Torah mitzvah one fulfills is “V’nishmartem me’od l’nafshoseichem” (Devarim 4:15) which stipulates that one must take safety precautions and protect oneself and others. Fire is extremely dangerous and many people have been injured or killed, R”l, when proper safety measures were not taken regarding Chanukah flames. The other mitzvos of Chanukah are d’Rabbanan.


The obligation to light is called “chovas habayis”; the obligation is upon the house, not the individual. Homeless people not staying in a house are technically exempt. Even though the obligation to light is on the house, the main obligation falls upon the baal habayis.

A person should attempt to be home during the time of the lighting and to light the candles himself. This is because of the concept of “mitzvah bo yoser mi’b’shlucho” — it is better to perform a mitzvah oneself than through a messenger.


If the wife knows that the husband will be coming home, she should not light for him until midnight, because he is the main householder and the mitzvah is greater for him than for her. Once midnight has arrived, however, she should light the candles. It is also appropriate to gather the entire family around to light the menorah, even if in waiting for them there will be somewhat of a delay in lighting. If most family members are home, then one or two children who arrive later should light on their own and not delay the rest of the family.




It is forbidden to derive any benefit (hanaah) from the Chanukah lamps or candles. One cannot read next to them or use the light for any other purpose. There are two reasons for this prohibition of hanaah.


1) Rashi explains that everyone must see that these lights are only for one purpose — to publicize the miracle.


2)   The Ran explains that since these lights commemorate the Menorah that was in the Beis HaMikdash, the same halachos which pertain to the items of the Beis HaMikdash still apply: no benefit may be derived from these items.


It is for this reason that we make sure to also light a shamash in addition to the candles or oil lamps. If one did inadvertently use the menorah’s light for any other purpose, we assume halachically that the light came from the shamash. The shamash should be placed in a different area than the regular Chanukah lights so that it is not confused with the Chanukah lights themselves.


The candles or the oil placed in the lamps must be enough to last ½ hour. If someone lit a menorah that did not have enough oil in it, he or she should relight the menorah, but without a new blessing. Most authorities hold that there is no extra hiddur—beautifica- of the mitzvah — in putting a lot of oil in the lamp. However, some say that nowadays, since people are out until very late at night, there is an extra beuatification in having more oil in the lamp.


There is a debate in the Gemara as to whether the placing of the menorah does the mitzvah (hanachah osah mitzvah) or the lighting does the mitzvah (hadlakah osah mitzvah). We rule that hadlakah does the mitzvah. Therefore, if one lit the menorah in a place that one would not have fulfilled the mitzvah (such as above twenty amos) and then moved the menorah later, the mitzvah has not been fulfilled and he must relight.




The basic obligation of Chanukah is just to light one lamp for the entire household each night of Chanukah. The mehadrin — those that go above the basic obligation — have everyone in the household light one lamp each night of Chanukah. The mehadrin min hamehadrin — those that go above and beyond — have everyone in the household light two lamps on the second night, three on the third night, four on the fourth, etc. The custom all over is to light like the mehadrin min hamehadrin.


How do we actually light? The Chanukah menorah is set up in the place that provides maximum pirsumei nissa, publicizing of the miracle, but is still safe. The entire family gathers around for the lighting so that there is more pirsumei nissa. The candles or lamps are arranged from right to left on each night, but they are lit from left to right.


There is a debate between Beis Shammai and Beis Hillel as to how we light. According to Beis Hillel we light one candle on the first night, two candles on the second night, three on the third, etc. According to Beis Shammai, we light eight candles on the first night, seven on the second night, six on the third night, etc. Even though we conduct ourselves like Beis Hillel, when Mashiach comes the halachah will be in accordance with Beis Shammai and we will light eight on the first night.






The Gemara tells us that we light the candles “from the time the sun sets.” There is a debate as to whether this means the beginning of what we call sundown or whether it means when three medium stars appear. Practically speaking, Rav Moshe Feinstein, zt”l, held that we light 13–18 minutes after sunset. Rav Aharon Kotler held that we light 25–30 minutes after sundown.


When one will be unable to light later, one may light as early as plag Minchah which is 1 ¼ halachic hours before sunset. Generally, in New York City, this is sometime between 3:30 PM and 3:37 PM.




In the time of Chazal, the minhag was to light the menorah outside by the entranceway facing the street. However, when Jews started living among the gentiles, the minhag changed to light in the house on account of danger. Now the main pirsumei nissa is for the family members. The question arises as to why we do not go back to the original custom in situations where, baruch Hashem, there is no longer danger. The Aruch HaShulchan answers that the wind or rain would extinguish the menorah and Chazal did not go so far as to demand that we enclose the menorah in glass. In Eretz Yisrael today many people do light outside in a glass-enclosed case.


One may not light the menorah above twenty amos (28 feet 4 inches according to Rav Feinstein, zt”l). If a person lives on the first, second or third floor of an apartment building, it is ideal to place the menorah by the window because there is still pirsumei nissa for passersby on the street.


If one lives on the fourth floor or above, it is preferable to place the menorah next to the entrance of the apartment.


Remember, for people who live below the fourth floor, including in a house, it is preferable to place the menorah next to the window, rather than next to the entrance. When we do place the menorah next to the entrance, we place it on the side opposite the mezuzah so that we are surrounded by mitzvos. It is placed next to the doorway so that people will realize that the owner purposefully placed it there.


Ideally, the menorah should be at least three tefachim (handbreadths) above the ground and below ten handbreadths. The reason it should be above three tefachim is because some people place things on the floor and it may not be recognizable that it was done for pirsumei nissa.


The reason it should be below ten handbreadths is that lights used for seeing purposes are usually placed above three feet high.


Three handbreadths amount to 10.62 inches and ten handbreadths are 35.4 inches. The ten tefachim requirement is measured from the flame, not the menorah. The three handbreadth requirement is from the base, not the flame.


If there are any safety issues involved in placing it below or above these recommended heights, safety precautions should be followed first. If there are little children (including grandchildren!) in the house, access to the menorahs should be blocked. Couches and or other things that are easily flammable should be placed at a far distance from the menorah.




Everyone is obligated in lighting: men, women, and children who have reached the age of instruction. Women are obligated because they, too, were involved in the miracle. Unless they have a minhag otherwise, however, married women and single girls should preferably fulfill their mitzvah with the lighting of the baal habayis. The Chasam Sofer explains that in previous times everyone lit outside. Back then it would have been a breach in tznius for women to go outside and light. Even though nowadays we light indoors, most women still maintain the original practice and rely upon the lighting of the baal habayis.


If, for some reason, the man cannot light, a woman may light for him and be motzi him thus be his agent in fulfilling the Mitzvah.


What is considered the age of instruction? The Pri Megadim writes in his preface that for most mitzvos other than Krias Shema and tefillah, the age of instruction is 5 or 6, depending upon the sharpness of the child. If the child understands things earlier, then he should be given a menorah to light.


The Mishnah Berurah notes that one does not have to give a child more than one candle to light on any given night. Common custom nowadays is to let the child light the full amount of candles.




The ideal method of lighting is with olive oil — even though one may light with any type of oil or candles.


Olive oil is ideal because the miracle actually happened with olive oil. If at first someone did not have olive oil and set up the menorah with wax candles, and then the olive oil arrived, one should use the wax candles and not the olive oil.


One may reuse the wicks used during the previous night. This is not a bizayon to the mitzvah at all; it actually makes it easier to light the menorah.


It is important to beautify our mitzvos because of the passukZeh Keili v’Anveihu — This is my L-rd and I shall glorify him.” This applies to Rabbinic mitzvos as well. One should therefore try to purchase a nice menorah. Many people use a silver menorah for this reason.


It is proper to make sure that the flames of each of the Chanukah candles are the same height.


A metal or glass menorah is preferable to other types of menorah because of hiddur mitzvah — beautifying the mitzvah. Many poskim write that metal is preferable to glass. A candelabra, although technically permitted for Chanukah menorah use, is not considered a hiddur mitzvah for Chanukah.


An electric menorah has neither a wick nor oil and may not be used as a Chanukah menorah. If a person is a patient in a hospital and cannot light any other way, some poskim hold that the patient should not light with an electric menorah.  Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef writes that in such circumstances one should use an electric menorah but should not recite a blessing.




On the first night of Chanukah, three blessings are recited immediately prior to the lighting:


1)   L’hadlik ner shel Chanukah

2)   She’asah nissim l’Avoseinu

3)   Shehecheyanu. The third berachah is not recited on the other nights. However, if one forgot to recite Shehecheyanu on the first night, s/he should recite it on the next night that it is remembered.


There are three versions of the blessing of L’hadlik. Some say, “L’hadlik ner Chanukah.” Others say, “L’hadlik ner shel Chanukah.” The third option, which is the one recommended by the Mishnah Berurah, is that “shelchanukah” is one word.  After the lighting the Minhag is to recite haneiros hallalu and then to sing maoz tzur.



On Erev Shabbos we light the Chanukah candles before the Shabbos candles. Enough oil must be placed in the menorah to ensure that the lights last ½ hour into the night. Regular Chanukah candles will not work unless they are frozen for at least 4 hours beforehand.

It is preferable to daven Minchah before lighting the Chanukah candles but a man should not miss minyan on this account.

The candles cannot be lit before plag Minchah which, at its earliest, is 3:30 PM in New York and may go until 3:37 PM.

On Motzaei Shabbos, the general minhag in our homes is to say Havdalah first and then light the Chanukah candles. The reason is that Havdalah is more tadir — common — than Chanukah candles. In shul, however, the Chanukah candles are lit first and then Havdalah is recited. The person who lights in shul does not fulfill his obligation to light at home, neither on Motzaei Shabbos nor during the week.


Sometimes the halachos of where one lights can get very complex and a Rav should be consulted when a person is not at home. The issue revolves around one’s kvius. The rule of thumb is that if one will return home that evening, one lights when one gets home. If one had spent the night before at that place, then one may light there even if one will return home later. Lighting at a bar mitzvah or wedding is not acceptable and is considered a berachah l’vatalah.


We add the special tefillah of Al HaNissim to every Shemoneh Esreh of Chanukah. We also add it to our bentching throughout Chanukah. If it was left out, however, it is not repeated; neither in Shemoneh Esreh nor in bentching.

We recite the complete Hallel each day of Chanukah because a miracle occurred each and every day of Chanukah.

Since the Mishkan was completed on the 25th of Kislev, we read the parashah of the gifts of the Nesi’im each day of Chanukah from the Torah during Shacharis. This also alludes to the promise that Hashem made to Aharon and the Levi’im about the Chanukah lights lasting forever.



Chanukah comes out on the following days this year:


2013: November 27–December 5

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