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The Torah Learning Library of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah

Less Fire, More Light – Lighting Hanukkah Candles Without Burning Your House Down

by Rabbi Dov Linzer (Posted on December 7, 2017)
Topics: Torah, Sefer Breishit, Vayeishev, Chanuka

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The story of Yosef and his brothers has, on the face of it, nothing to do with Hanukkah. But as it is often read right around Hanukkah time, it is not surprising that attempts have been made to find connections to Hanukkah. Perhaps the most famous one is based on the gemara in Shabbat (22a). Immediately preceding the discussion of the mitzvah of lighting the Hanukkah lights, the gemara references a verse from our parashah: “‘And the pit was empty; there was no water in it’ (Bereishit 37:24) – there was no water in it, but there were snakes and scorpions in it.” Torah Temimah comments that this passage is connected to Hanukkah lighting in the following way: Yosef’s brothers would not have thrown him into the pit had they known it contained snakes and scorpions; but because the pit was so deep (20 amot, according to one source), the snakes and scorpions were not visible. This becomes the basis for lighting Hanukkah lights within 20 amot of street level. If something is too high or too deep, people will not be able to see it properly.

Other connections may also be made. Yosef is as a model for resisting the temptations of assimilation when he resists the advances of Potiphar’s wife by invoking God’s name and putting his own life at risk. And then, of course, there is Yehudah’s signet ring (hotemet) and his cord (petilim) which evoke the flask of oil that was found with the seal (hotem) of the Kohen Gadol, and the Hanukkah lights which are lit with oil and wicks (petilim). And, in that story, Tamar’s presentation of Yehudah’s signet ring and cord saves her from death by fire.

The lights of Hanukkah carry dangers as well. There are too many stories of people whose houses have burned down because they left Hanukkah candles burning unattended. This happens most frequently on Shabbat, when a family goes out to have their Friday night meal at the house of friends or at shul. Since it is Shabbat, the candles can’t be blown out after they have burned the requisite amount of time, and people usually do not opt to stay behind to watch them until they burn down. But to leave the candles burning is not just a risk to property, it is often a risk to life as well, and the Torah teaches us that safety must always be our first priority.

So what – other than never going out on Friday night Hanukkah – can a family do in such a situation?

First, there are some obvious practical precautions they can take. Since the core mitzvah is fulfilled by one candle per household, they should light one candle, place it in the sink, in a bowl surrounded by water. This reduces the risk considerably, although it does not fully eliminate it.

Another option is to light candles that will last only a half hour. In general, on Friday we make sure that at least one of our candles will burn until 30 minutes after tzeit hakokhavim, approximately 1 hour, 15 minutes after sunset (see Mishneh Brurah, 679:2). However, in this case, one can rely on the rule that 30 minutes suffices, especially given that nowadays we are primarily lighting for those in the house, which alleviates some of the need to ensure that the lights are burning when passersby will be on the street (SA OH 672:2). A person could then stay at home until all the lights have burned out without having to be late for dinner.

Two other solutions are possible:

(1) to go to their friends’ house or shul before Shabbat and light there and

(2) to light at home with electric candles

Lighting at one’s friends’ house is probably impractical in most cases, since the family will usually not arrive there before Shabbat begins. However, when one’s shul is hosting a dinner on Friday night, it is possible to go to shul for mincha and light at shul. Does this count according to halakhah?

The prime obligation of lighting rests on the household, and one must light in one’s house, or by one’s front door, or by the opening to the courtyard leading to one’s house. There are cases where a person can light in a place that is not his house, but that is only because he is living there, at least to some degree (SA OH 677:1). If a person is a guest sleeping in someone’s house, or staying at a hotel, or a patient in a hospital, then that becomes the person’s domicile, and he lights where he is (see Piskei Teshuvot 677:1). A guest can also contribute to the cost of the candles of his host. This is an alternative to lighting himself and allows him to fulfill his obligation through his host’s lighting. But either way, this only applies when he is living – that is, sleeping – there. Students living in a dorm will often light in their cafeteria, but that is because they are living on campus, so even the cafeteria is a place connected to their “home” (see SA OH 667:1). For a person who lives at home and is only at shul for the Friday night meal, lighting in the shul would not be an option.

That being said, there are some poskim who would allow a family to light in shul before sunset, provided that they were all present at the time of the lighting. This is based on the fact that nowadays we light primarily for the members of the household, and not for the passersby in the street. Thus, these poskim argue, if the entire family is not at home, there is no longer an obligation to light there and one can light where the family is currently (Shut Kinyan Torah 5:72; see Piskei Teshuvot 677:4, fn. 29). This solution would not work if one parent went to shul for mincha, and the other arrived with the kids after the sun had already set. When the mitzvah could be done – before sunset on Friday – some of the family was still at home and the obligation would be to light there and not at shul.

Which brings us to our second solution: lighting with electric lights. There are no halakhic requirements regarding which wicks and fuels can be used for the Hanukkah lights. What is stressed is that it is preferable to use candles that will give off a clean light (SA OH 673:1). Based on this, it would seem that electric lights should be fine. Nevertheless, and perhaps not surprisingly, the use of electric lights for Hanukkah is debated by the poskim. Perhaps the strongest objection is that the “fuel” is not present at the time of lighting, and when the necessary fuel is added after the candles are lit, the act of lighting is not valid. This can easily be addressed, however, by using battery-powered lights.

Are electric lights fire? When it comes to Shabbat, there is almost total consensus that incandescent lights are fire: they generate heat, give off light, and burn something (the filament) in the process. Thus, while using electric lights for Hanukkah remains a debate between the poskim, it would seem to me that, when necessary, battery-powered incandescent lights can be used and a brakhah can be recited (see Yabia Omer, OH 3:35, who surveys the poskim on both sides of this debate. In that teshuvah, Rav Ovadia Yosef concludes that because the matter is debated one should not make a brakhah, but it is reported that in practice he advised people to make a brakhah). That being said, when there are no concerns regarding fire safety, it would be preferable, even on the eighth night, to use a single candle over an electric menorah.

Another convenient option would be to use electric tea lights, which are LEDs and not incandescent. We do not consider LEDs to be fire – they don’t burn anything, and they give off only a very trivial amount of heat. But they are light. There is a preference to use oil and make the lights similar to those of the menorah, which were of course lit with fire (SA OH 673:1). But this preference does not translate into a requirement to use fire. It is hard to see why, as a matter of halakhah, the lights must be defined as fire; any light should, in theory, be fine.

In my opinion it would be acceptable, when there are no other options, to use LEDs. I believe that a brakhah can be made in this case as well, although a person might want to “play it safe” and light without a brakhah when using LEDs.

A person should not use a flashlight. When a flashlight is on, the light it gives off can be seen, but the bulb, that is, the “flame,” is not visible. I do not believe that one could use a Hanukkah light which gives off visible light but which is not itself visible. One also should not use the standard lights in the home, or even a lamp purchased for this purpose. Not only are these lights not battery-powered, but they will also not accomplish pirsumei nissa, publicizing of the miracle, since there will be nothing to distinguish them as Hanukkah lights.

The use of electric lights for Hanukkah is quite important for those who are in hospitals, dorms, or elsewhere where they cannot light with an open flame. It also solves our problem of how to eliminate any fire risk when leaving one’s home for a Friday night dinner elsewhere. Just use electric Hanukkah lights.

As a midrashic conclusion to this halakhic discussion, we note that Rav Shlomo Yosef Zeven, in LaTorah u’la’Moadim, explains that the debate of Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai whether we go up or down in the number of candles we light, is a debate whether the Hanukkah candles represent fire or light. As fire, they symbolize destroying the evil in the world, which we wish to decrease with each passing day. As light, they symbolize spreading holiness and good, which we want to increase in the world. We rule like Beit Hillel both religiously – we should focus on increasing the good in this world – and halakhically, we start with one candle and go up to eight. For Rav Zevin, Hanukkah is about light, not about fire. This Hanukkah, let us all take special care when it comes to fire safety, and do everything we can to spread Torah and light throughout the world.