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What is Chanukah?

"What is Chanukah?" ("Mai Chanukah?")
 
Chanukah begins on the 25th of Kislev (this year it is Thursday night, December 7th). The eighth and last night of Chanukah is on the 3rd of Tevet (this year Thursday night, December 14th). 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
There are a few customs regarding who should light a Chanukiah and how many candles one should light each night.  Our widespread custom is for every member of the household to light his or her own chanukiah and to light the number of candles corresponding to the number of the night of Chanukah. If this poses a financial hardship or a safety concern, one may 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), by 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 night’s (ie. inserting candles from right to left), and then lighting from left to right. A chanukiah can be anything that can hold 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 each light can be seen as distinct 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 to light each chanukah candle .
 
Safety
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, such as being left in the sink). The candles need only burn for half an hour, therefore if one needs to leave their home, one may blow out the candles after half an hour.
 
Location of Chanukiah
In Rabbinic times, the chanukiah was placed in the doorway (on the left side, opposite the mezuzah) facing the public domain to do pirsumei nisa (publicize the miracle) to passersby. One who did not have direct access to the public domain lit in a window facing the public domain. If it were dangerous to light in those places, one 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 the chanukiah be guarded from wind. Most people with houses or those who live within 20 amot (~30 feet) of the ground follow a widespread custom to light in a window to fulfill the mitzvah of pirsumei nisa to those outside, passing by. They also fulfill the mitzvah by making the chanukia visible to people in their own home. 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 pirsumei nisa only by lighting in the presence of members of their household. In that case, there is no need to light the chanukiah 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 pirsumei nisa 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 this year is after 4:51 pm for the week of Chanukah. 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 while people are still awake in the house to perform pirsumei nisa to those household members.
 
On Friday afternoon the Chanukah candles should be lit right before the Shabbat candles (not after 3:59 pm). Since this lighting is performed earlier in the day than usual, the candles need to burn past nightfall so we must 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.)
 
The halachic preference is that one lights Chanukah candles in their own home, even if one eats dinner elsewhere.  During the week one can eat dinner and then light candles later when they return home.  However on Shabbat, this presents a difficulty since one must light before shabbat begins. If you plan to leave your home (for shul or dinner), please do not leave with candles unattended (unless they are protected in a way where there is no chance of fire, such as being left in the sink). There are a few alternatives to consider:
 
-If one will be home for 62 minutes (5:03), but not 90 minutes (5:30) (required minimum time as noted above), they can rely on the opinion of the Vilna Gaon that nightfall begins 14 minutes after sunset. Please note the candles need to go out on their own after 5:03 and can’t be blown out.   
 
-However, if you are planning to attend shul or the shul dinner, it is not possible to wait even 62 minutes.  In that case, one may use electric tea lights whose batteries will last for the required 62 - 90 minutes.  
 
-It is also permissible to recite the bracha of “She’asa Nisim” when looking at the chanukah candles that were lit at shul or your hosts’ home. 
 
On Saturday night after Shabbat there are differing customs; One can recite Havdalah and then light Chanukah candles (giving preferencing the more common occurrence of Havdalah) or the opposite, lighting first Chanukah candles and then reciting Havdalah (giving preference to the act of 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 minimal phrase to make havdallah “Barukh Hamavdil bein kodesh le-chol” before lighting. In synagogues, the custom is to light the Chanukah candles first. The candles should not be lit before 5:02 regardless of order. 
 
Each night of Chanukah, when the time has come for lighting, one should refrain from other activities (business, study, eating, etc) until one has lit candles. In general, one should try to light candles at home. For many working people this is very difficult. One should be sure to light as soon as possible upon arriving home (leaving a reminder of some kind (a note, an alarm, etc) 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 the chanukiah.
 
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 but 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 the place one is sleeping, 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 the host's lighting through 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 the Chanukah candles on the first night (after the shamash has been lit) we recite three blessings, found in the ArtScroll siddur (page 782): 
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 recite only the first two 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 chanukah candles. Others begin singing after all candles 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 (A different selection from the book of Bamidbar is read each day).
Mon, March 4 2024 24 Adar I 5784