By Rabbi Yair Hoffman
Last week, Mr. Larry Gordon had the honor of meeting with Rav Chaim Kanievsky, shlita, and presented a few halachic questions to the revered rav. The following question was posed by an esteemed member of Kollel Avreichim, Rabbi Shmuel Lichtenstein.
What is the source for the custom of Sephardim, who place the menorah on the darom (south side) of the shul, and when they light, they also face south, whereas the Ashkenazim face north? Rav Chaim Kanievsky answered that both customs are kosher and either way it is performed is valid.
In this short analysis, we would like to both give an overview of the development of lighting in the synagogue and try to provide a source for the Sephardic custom.
Two Reasons For Lighting In Shul
The Chayei Odom (154:17) explains that we light and recite the blessing in the synagogue because of pirsumei nisah, publicizing the miracle. The Levush (#8) gives a different reason. He says that it is done so that guests who have no place to stay can also see the Chanukah lights. Dayan Weiss (Minchas Yitzchok Vol. VI 65:1) explains that, according to the first reason, a child who has reached the age of chinuch may light in the synagogue; while, according to the Levush’s reason, he may not. Rav Elyashiv (as cited in Yashiv Moshe, p.86) states that according to either reason a child may not light in shul.
Not Mentioned Until Late 1300s
It is interesting to note that neither the Rambam, the Rif, the Rosh, the Ohr Zaruah, the Eshkol, Rashi, nor the Machzor Vitri mentions the custom of lighting in shul. The earliest authority to mention the custom is the Baal HaIttur. Indeed, the first to mention that a blessing is recited is Rav Yitzchok Perfet, the Rivash (1326-1408). The Maharam Shick (YD) stated that the Chasam Sofer actually did not recite a blessing when lighting in shul.
The Shulchan Aruch And The Ashkenazic Custom
The Shulchan Aruch 675:7 explains that in the shul the menorah should be placed on the south side. The Hagah explains that this is akin to the menorah itself and that it should be arranged from east to west. The Mishnah Berurah adds that the person lighting should be in the south and face north. This is based upon the responsa of the Chasam Sofer (OC 186) who explains that the main candle should be adjacent to the Aron Kodesh, so that it would best fit into the idea of “Before Hashem.” Since our Chanukah menorah is based upon the original one in the Beis HaMikdash, it should be done this way in our shuls as well.
Sephardic Source May Be Combination
This author would like to suggest that the Sephardic source lies in the combination of the view of the Chasam Sofer with that of the Vilna Gaon in OC 676. The question there is upon which candles is the blessing recited—the newer candles added each night or the first candle? The Vilna Gaon believes that it is the first one. This is so that one can fulfill the idea of adjacent to the doorway in the most ideal manner possible.
By the same token, being adjacent to the Aron Kodesh is an ideal that even trumps the notion of being next to the doorway. It would seem that the only way to fulfill this ideal of lighting the candle closest to the Aron, yet at the same time lighting from east to west is by facing south not north!
But, to reiterate, Rav Chaim Kanievsky responded to Rabbi Lichtenstein’s question that either method is acceptable. v
The author can be reached at Yairhoffman2@gmail.com.