Laws & Customs of Chanukah

 

"What is Chanukah?" ("Mai Chanukah?")

Chanukah begins on the 25th of Kislev, which this year corresponds to Tuesday night, December 12th. The last night of Chanukah is the 2nd of Tevet, beginning Tuesday night, December 19th. These are days of hallel ve-hoda'ah, praise and thanksgiving, and of contemplating the role of miracles in our lives. We commemorate Jewish resistance and military strength as well as the miracle of long-lasting oil in rededicating the Temple, events which took place in the 2nd century BCE. We also celebrate retaining our Jewish identity against powerful forces of assimilation in those times.

Chanukah Candles and Setting up the Chanukiah

While there are a few customs regarding who lights and how many candles, our widespread custom is to have every member of the household light, and light as many candles as the night of Chanukah that it is. If this poses a hardship, one may even have one household member light one candle per night.

 

Candles or oil may be used for the lighting of Chanukah candles (an electric chanukiah should not be used unless there is no other choice. In that case, most agree that a blessing should not be said). Olive oil is recommended because the miracle of the oil occurred with olive oil. There is an element of hiddur mitzvah, beautifying the commandment, with using nice, tall candles that burn smoothly. The chanukiah is set up by adding each new night's candle to the left of the previous (ie. inserting candles from right to left), and lighting from left to right. A chanukiah is simply anything which can hold the candles – even a series of candle holders will do, although there is an element of hiddur mitzvah in having a beautiful chanukiah. The chanukiah should be arranged so that a viewer can see each light distinctly from the next. In addition, multiple chanukiot in a row should be separated so that they can be seen as individual ones.

One may not derive functional benefit from the Chanukah candles. Therefore, a shamash (helper candle) is lit as well.

 

Location of Chanukiah

In Rabbinic times, the chanukiah was placed in the doorway (on the left side, opposite the mezuzah) facing the public domain in order to publicize the miracle to passersby. In those times, one who did not have direct access to the public domain lit in a window facing that area. If it were not possible to light in those places for reasons of danger, one simply brought the chanukiah to the table inside. Nowadays, for those who have houses, lighting in the doorway is still a desirable option if it is safe and can be guarded from wind. Most people with houses or who live within 20 amot (~30 feet) of the ground, though, follow a widespread custom to light in a window and fulfill the mitzvah of publicizing the miracle to those in their own home, and additionally to passersby. Because the rabbis estimate that people tend not to look up above 20 amot, those who live on higher floors of an apartment fulfill their obligation of publicizing the miracle by lighting in the presence of members of their household. As such, there is no need to light in the window. Nonetheless, the prevailing custom is still to do so. This also makes the lights visible to neighbors on higher floors who can see from their windows, which fulfills publicizing the miracle to them according to some opinions.

 

Time and Duration of Lighting

There are many opinions about the preferred lighting time. Our custom is to light candles at nightfall, which ranges from 5:06m (Tuesday 12/12) to 5:08pm (Tuesday 12/19) this year. The candles should remain lit for at least half an hour. If one cannot light at nightfall, one should light as soon after as possible. While technically, one may light until daybreak, it is strongly preferred to be sure to light only while people are still awake in the house in which one is lighting in order to perform pirsumei nisa to those household members.

 

On Friday afternoon, the Chanukah candles should be lit right before the Shabbat candles. Since this lighting is performed earlier in the day than usual and the candles need to burn past nightfall, we use candles or oil that will last about an hour and a half. (You can buy larger candles at any Judaica shop or you can use tea lights.)

 

On Saturday night after Shabbat there are differing customs; there are those that recite Havdalah and then light Chanukah candles (preferencing the common thing – Havdalah), and those that do the opposite (preferencing pirsumei nisa). At home, one who lights Chanukah candles first should be careful that if one has not said Maariv and included the Atah Chonantanu (Havdalah formula) in the Shemoneh Esrei, one needs to say the Havdalah phrase “Barukh Hamavdil bein kodesh le-chol” before lighting. In synagogues, the custom is to light the Chanukah candles first.

 

Each night of Chanukah, when the time has come for lighting, one should refrain from other activities (business, study, eating, and the like) until one has lit. In general, one should try to come home to light candles. For many working people, this is very difficult. One should therefore be cautious to light as soon as possible upon arriving home (leaving a reminder of some kind (a note, an alarm, or the like) is a way to show sensitivity to this concern). One may also wait until the whole family has gathered if there is a designated way to remember to light and not forget.

 

Safety is a major concern on Chanukah. Please do not leave your home with candles unattended (unless they are protected in a way where there is no chance of fire). The candles need only burn for a half an hour, therefore if one needs to leave their home they may blow out the candles after half an hour.

 

It is customary for women to refrain from work for the half hour after the lights have been lit in commemoration of their role in the miracles of Chanukah.

 

Travelers/Guests/Dormitories

The situations of one who is not in one's own home at night are diverse and complicated. A few brief guidelines are given here; don't hesitate to ask if you have more questions. If one will not return to one's home until after everyone has gone to sleep, one should have a representative light for him/her at home. One may then light when returning home, but should do so without a blessing. One staying in a motel/hotel should try to light there. Where one cannot light in one's place, one should strive to have a representative light for him/her in his/her home. A guest in someone else's home should strive to light in the host's home or to acquire a share in host's lighting with a minimal financial contribution. One who lives in a dormitory should light in one's room where possible and safe. Otherwise, if there is a common dining hall, one may light there.

 

The Blessings

Before lighting on the first night (but after the shamash has been lit) we recite three blessings, found on page 782 in the ArtScroll siddur: 1) Lehadlik ner shel Chanukah (to light the light of Chanukah) 2) She’asah nissim la'avoteinu (Who performed miracles for our ancestors), and 3) Shehechiyanu (Who gave us life). On all subsequent nights we only recite the first 2 blessings. Once the blessings are recited we light the candles and it is customary to sing the songs Hanerot Hallalu and Maoz Tzur found in the siddur. Some are careful to begin saying Hanerot Hallalu as soon as the first candle is lit, since that is the basic fulfillment of the commandment to light, and others say it after all lights have been lit.

 

Liturgy

Full Hallel is recited all eight days of Chanukah in recognition of each day representing a unique miracle. Al Hanisim (for the miracles) is recited in the Modim (Thanksgiving) blessing of the Amidah and the Nodeh (Thanksgiving) blessing of Birkat Hamazon all eight days. If forgotten, it need not be repeated. However, if one remembers that one did not recite it before saying God's name in the conclusion of the blessing, one can return to the insertion point, insert it, and complete the blessing. After that point, one can insert it in the concluding supplication paragraph of the Amidah or in the Harahaman section of Birkat Hamazon. There is no mention of Chanukah in the Al Hamichya after-blessing. As with many other joyous occasions, Tahanun is omitted along with other small changes to the prayer service. The Torah portions of the tribal princes’ Tabernacle gifts are read daily.

Thu, December 14 2017 26 Kislev 5778