By Rebbetzin Lisa Septimus
There is a discussion in Masheches Shabbos (21b) about how to kindle the Chanukah lights. The basic requirement of the mitzvah is that each household lights one flame for each of the eight nights. The mehadrin, those who beautify (or chase after) mitzvos, have each member of the household light one flame. The mehadrin min ha’mehadrin—the über mitzvah-beautifiers (or über mitzvah-chasers)—light one flame the first night and add another flame each night (according to the view of Beis Hillel).
Medieval commentators and halachic authorities dispute the Gemara’s intent in describing the mehadrin min ha’mehadrin. Rav Yosef Karo, the author of the Shulchan Aruch, rules (O.C., 671:2) that this highest level performance of the mitzvah entails a single family member lighting for the entire household—one flame the first day, two the second, and so on. However, the Rema rules that every household member must have his or her own menorah and light one flame the first day, two the second, and so on.
Practically speaking, in most Sephardic homes (where Rav Yosef Karo is the ultimate authority) the head of the household lights for everyone, whereas in Ashkenazic homes (where the Rema’s rulings take precedence over those of the Rav Yosef Karo), each family member lights his or her own chanukiah. It might seem curious, then, that in many Ashkenazic homes, women do not light. However, the reason is clear: the Mishnah Berurah rules (O.C. 671:9) that a married woman can fulfill her mitzvah through her husband’s performance.
Following the Pri Megadim, he applies the Gemara’s concept of ishto k’gufo, the concept of a wife being an extension of her husband (see, for example, Berachos 24a and Bechoros 35b). Interestingly, this principle is applied in the Gemara to situations of personal status (whether one spouse can fulfill a vow made by the other). The application of the principle to fulfillment of mitzvos represents a step beyond the Gemara’s use of it.
In a recent article (see page 44 of this issue), Five Towns Jewish Times contributing editor Rabbi Yair Hoffman cites a correspondence in which Rav Chaim Kanievsky is asked regarding the Mishnah Berurah: Why does he first suggest that a woman fulfill her obligation in neiros Chanukah through her husband but then later (675:9) state that a married woman can light on her own and should, in that case, even make her own berachos? Rav Kanievsky responds that the woman may choose whether to be represented by her husband—whether to make use of the principle of ishto k’gufo in this scenario.
The tension in the Mishnah Berurah, and Rav Kanievsky’s resolution—that a woman can choose, in this specific circumstance, whether or not she should be considered an extension of her husband—should motivate us to examine the significance of the application of ishto k’gufo, not only to the performance of mitzvos but more broadly as well.
As women, should we embrace the moments of our own personal obligations? (When it comes to Chanukah lights, the Gemara states quite clearly that women are obligated; the question here is simply whether a married woman fulfills her obligation through her husband.) Should we be finding our own individual paths toward fulfillment in life? Or does such seeking threaten the ultimate bond between husband and wife—the bond expressed in principles like that of ishto k’gufo?
When people unite for any type of goal, a certain level of personal autonomy is always sacrificed. The group must find and emphasize commonalities and formulate a vision based on those common goals. In the case of the ideal marriage, a couple works toward formulating a shared set of values that they communicate, with much help from G‑d, to their children.
When couples differ over any number of those values, compromise sometimes requires the sacrifice of one’s individual inclinations for the greater good of the family. Nevertheless, as in any true collaboration, each member of a couple should be seen as an individual.
Each distinct personality must be celebrated. The strengths of each member must have room to flourish. And the dreams and interests of each individual should be recognized. Not just because every human being deserves this, but because the partnership, the family unit, and the marriage benefit from it.
The concept of pirsumei nisa applies not only to the lighting of Chanukah lights but also to the reading of Megillah and to the four cups of wine on the Seder night as well. With regard to all of those mitzvos, not only are men obligated, but so are women and children. Pirsumei nisa is about increasing and “publicizing” the miracle by having everyone in the community participate in the mitzvah. In order for the miracle to be experienced to the fullest, every person—man, woman, and child—must be a part of it. This is partially because for any partnership to flourish, alongside the development of a united voice, the individual voices must be preserved and appreciated.
Even women who choose to follow the simple reading of the Mishnah Berurah and to fulfill their mitzvah through the principle of ishto k’gufo must not forget that they, too, are obligated in the mitzvah. That for some the mitzvah is fulfilled most ideally when husband and wife fulfill the mitzvah as a unit cannot negate each individual’s obligation. And regardless of whether in a given scenario husband and wife function separately or as a unit, both are important. A couple thrives when two thriving individuals are able to thrive additionally as a combined unit.
I recently came across an item at TheYeshivaWorld.com claiming that, in the last years of her life, Rebbetzin Kanievsky began lighting her own Chanukah lights. She lit the chanukiah that had been in her husband’s family for many years, since her husband now uses one that was given to him as a gift. Rav Kanievsky didn’t want to give up lighting his family chanukiah, so his wife did it for him. What a fascinating and inspiring application of ishto k’gufo. She performed the mitzvah on her own rather than through her husband, and yet through that act they were united as couple—helping each other fulfill the mitzvah in the most ideal fashion.
Every human being is created in G‑d’s image. And every human being—man or woman—realizes that image partially through self-fulfillment, through taking his or her God-given talents and maximizing them as an individual. When each member of a couple finds individual self-fulfillment, they are then better positioned to thrive as extensions of one another.
Lisa Septimus is a yoetzet halachah for the Five Towns. She lectures widely and is available for phone or e‑mail consultation on all matters of taharat mishpachah and women’s health. She can be reached at 516-900-2109 or firstname.lastname@example.org.