The Ner Mitzvah and the Shamash
Oil Lamps or Candles?
Do Sephardim Really Light the Shamash Last?
Do We Need A Menorah?
The Mystical 36 Lights of Chanukah
One’s Minhag: Is it Something to be Dogmatic About?
Lighting an oil Chanukah menorah (chanukiah) on top of the classic Sixth Street Bridge in Boyle Heights, East Los Angeles.
Today I want us to explore some lessons in Jewish tradition regarding the Chanukah lights. We are going to be looking at our texts with a special eye on the Sephardic tradition. All the while explaining the development of shared Jewish tradition as we know it today. In order to be able appreciate the diversity of Jewish minhag (tradition) and the progression of halacha (Jewish law).
As we come upon the holidays one naturally finds their mind considering all the rituals and customs associated with the celebrations. I find myself going over the liturgy and preparing the mitzvah items to make sure everything is in order.
The liturgy, aside from additional prayers added to our daily davening, is pretty minimal; we have prayers for lighting of the Chanukah lights. There are three blessings, halalu (“these lights we kindle…”), some Sephardim and Chassidim add Yichud (a kabbalistic unification meditation) first and a song of praise such as Psalm 30 (a Psalm for the Dedication for the Temple) last, while most Ashkenazim add the liturgical poem Ma’oz Tzor (“Rock of Ages”). That’s it!
The instructional commentary is also just as minimalistic in siddurim. Both Ashkenenazi and Sephardi prayerbooks tend to contain little more than a few lines related to the blessings, and in which order to light the ner mitzvah (the one commanded candle that was added to the menorah for the current festival day) and the additional candles that might have been added in previous nights. A typical example can be found in the Siddur of the Baal haTanya:
יברך בכל לילה |
להדליק נר חנוכה |
ושעשה נסים |
ולילה הראשון יברך |
להדליק עד שיגמור |
כל הברכות |
המנהג הנכון |
לדבק הנרות |
או לתלות |
בעובי המזוזה בחלל הפתח |
ויתחיל להדליק |
בליל ראשון נר הימין |
ומליל שני |
ואילך יברך |
על הנוסף וילך |
משמאל לימין: |
“One blesses on all nights
“lehadlik ner Chanukah”
(the kindling blessing),
and “she’asa nissim.”
(“for the miracles”)
On the first evening one blesses
with three blessings,
(“who has granted us life”)
[thereafter] is excluded.
Kindle only after you have recited
all the blessings.”
“It is the proper custom
to affix the lights
or to hang
opposite the mezuzah of the door-post
and then begin to kindle;
on the first night the light to the [far] right;
and then on the second evening
go ahead and bless,
for the additional ones work your way
from left to right”
The Baal Ha-Tanya, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, Russia;
Siddur Ha-Rav, Late 18th Century
Though there are striking differences between the minhagim of Askenazim and Sephardim, the commentary is generally the same for both communities. This is appropriate because these are the points with which both traditions agree. However, the finer details of the order of lighting the Chanukah lights is curiously not mentioned. It is these unique and often obscure customs that one would hope to have explained to them, not the points that are universally known.
Because most religious people know how to light the Chanukah lights according to their community’s custom, people often tend to overlook the obvious here; it does not tell us what we should be using as a Chanukah light, what it should be lit with, or even who should do the lighting. It is in these specifics that the various communities make departure from one another. Understanding these details in necessary for functional reasons, a person who is unfamiliar with them might find themselves unable to actually perform this mitzvah.
Most of us know the laws and the customs from being taught by our parents or community. Many are familiar with the way to perform the mitzvah through practice, yet very few through actual learning from the halachic sources. The instructions of the siddurim are not as barren to the observant person because they understand the terms and elements in light of their minhag; the words are loaded. Though one my be able to explain the ritual through interpreting the terms for someone as they understand them, implicit meanings do not provide a true reason nor a methodology. Furthermore, as these terms also hold different implied meaning by other communities this type of explanation cannot suffice. We need to provide a textual source, preferably a principal source so that the meaning is clear and free of jargon; then work from there.
We will be exploring some of the halachic works, both Ashkenazi and Sephardi sources, from preferred texts that are widely accepted by their respective communities. Of course, we will start with the Shulchan Aruch (popularly known as The Code of Jewish Law). Not only is this the chiefest source in halacha (Jewish Law), it also has the benefit of presenting both Ashkenazi and Sephardi traditions. The Maran, Rabbi Yosef Karo hailing from the holy land begins by presenting the halacha, his views accepted by the Sephardi and Middle-Eastern communities. This is commented upon by the Rema, Rabbi Moshe Isserlis of Poland; whose glosses represent the Ashkenazi tradition. All these other sources will be examining thereafter will be be interpreting these laws for their own community as well, working our way from the 16th century to present day. All of our text will center around one specific chapter of the Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim, Chapter 673. Of course as the material coalesces the chapters mix together a bit, but ill try to keep on target. I will be translating these works, most of them for the first time into English, to help us along.
Do we light a Menorah of oil or candles?
Before we can even begin to discuss the mitzvah of the Chanukah lights we must begin with defining what a ner (a light) actually is. This might seem silly, because it is a common everyday word used in Jewish culture and the Hebrew language; its simply a candle in the vernacular. Though this meaning is correct, it is not actually appropriate for the age and region in which the Shulchan Aruch was written; from ancient times until the relatively recent times a ner meant an oil-lamp, a lantern. Only by starting from this understanding can we begin to make sense of the first clause.
כל השמנים והפתילות כשרי |
לנר חנוכה |
ואע“פ שאין השמנים נמשכים אחר הפתילה ואין |
האור נתלה יפה באותם הפתילות |
“All fats ( or “oils”) are appropriate
to light the Chanukah lamp
even if the oil is not drawn up by the wick
and the light is not held nicely by the wick.”
Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 673:1;
Maran; Rabbi Yosef Karo, Tzfat, Israel in 1563
In an oil-lamp the oil is drawn up by a wick, the wick holds a flame while consuming the oil that is held in the reservoir of the lamp. However, we must understand that though “fats” implies oil, this is a generic term used for any liquid fuel. Though this may also refer to other forms of fats such as tallow, which can also be solidified around a wick to hold a flame in order to produce light as it is consumed.
Logically, as we are lighting the mitzvah lights in order to commemorate and publicize the miracle of the lights Menorah of the Holy Temple which was sustained for eight days with one day’s supply of olive oil, it would seem appropriate for us to light with oil lamps. The Menorah only utilized oil-lamps, and the miracle concerned oil. For this reason we go out of our way to emphasize the significance of the oil, through eating oily foods and similar customs we regard the miracle of the Menorah oil.
It has been the custom since the ancient world for Jews stretching from the near-east to Iberia (Spain) to light oil-lamps of fine olive oil. This is the assumed tradition of the Maran in the 16th century and is sustained as the Sephardic custom.
The fact that this is the most fitting way of fulfilling the mitzvah and remembering the miracle of oil is attested to the by the Rema in his gloss to the Maran’s above statement.
ומיהו שמן זית |
מצוה מן המובחר |
“However, using olive oil is the
choicest way of performing the mitzvah”
Rema; Rabbi Moshe Isserlis of Kraków, Poland;
However, we need to take a careful look at the Maran’s statement again in order to understand on what basis is it appropriate for some to light candles. Though lighting an oil-lamp is the best way, the Maran tells us we can use any type of oil or wick to light as a Chanukah light even if it isn’t the choicest method.
In order to make good use of an oil-lamp one must use fine oil, as a unrefined and dirty oil will separate, resulting in it smoking and smoldering; thus failing to produce a steady and sustaining light. Likewise, for a wick to hold a flame well it must be of fine quality and material; the choicest is fine, new cotton wicks.
The Maran seems to be telling us that if the choicest type of oil or wick isn’t available to us then we can use one that is of lesser quality. Whatever we have at our disposal is appropriate. Based on this the Rema also provides the following statement:
ואם אין שמן זית מצוי |
מצוה בשמנים |
שאורן זך ונקי |
ונוהגין במדינות אלו |
להדליק בנרות של שעוה |
כי אורן צלול כמו שמן. |
“And if there is not olive oil available
it is a mitzvah with [other] oils
that burns pure and clean.
It is the custom in those countries
to kindle the lights of wax
as they burn clean like oil.”
From this Askenazim derive their tradition of lighting candles as Chanukah lights. One is permitted to use any type of oil that will produce a steady and clean light according to the Rema. As olive oil, or even other types of liquid oils, are not available in some regions, there some people have become accustomed to light the lamps utilizing wax candles
The Rema appears to be of the opinion that we should use what ever we have at our disposable that is of the finest hidur (quality). If that means another type of oil, it will suffice; do your best. As oil is just not available in some places wax candles has had to suffice, but they do in-fact produce clean and steady light, though this is consequential.
The Maran continues, stating:
ואפילו בליל שבת |
שבתוך ימי |
מותר להדליק |
בנר חנוכה |
השמנים והפתילות |
שאסור להדליק בהם נר שבת |
“Even on the eve of Shabbat
which is in the middle of the days
it is permissible to kindle
the Chanukah lights
with oils and wicks
that are forbidden to use as Shabbat lights.”
What do the Chaunkuah lights have to do with the Shabbath candles? They appear very similar because as candles were virtual unknown to Sephardim, the custom was also to light oil lamps also on Shabbat, not just Chanukah. Askenazim generally utilize wax candles on Shabbat and Chanukah. [See: “Shabbat Lights: The Tradition of Great Scholars to Light with Olive Oil.“]
But this is where the similarities end, the mitzvot are not the same.
On Shabbat we utilize only the best we have in honor of the sabbath. The finest of all things are normally set aside for the sabbath use, such as oil; and we do not make ordinary re-use items but instead use fresh materials, like wicks. However, this is not true for the Chanukah lights. We can reuse old wicks, there is no requirement that they be replaced everyday. And the oils used for the Chanukah lights does not need to be of the finest quality, we can even use left over oil from the nights before if some remains to light the next night. Though ordinarily on the sabbath we want the best wicks and cleanest oil for a practical purpose. We need a light that we will stay lit so that we can do our sabbath activities that night and maybe even the next day, we want a wick that will last and a oil that gives us more than just smoke before going out. We need a fine wick that will work, one we will not be tempted to adjust on Shabbat because it tends to extinguish itself. Keep in mind we are in an age where this is the primary source of light, lanterns of candles or oil.
The Rema agrees this is true, but introjects:
אם אינו נותן בנר רק |
כדי שיעור מצותו |
“[Thats is] If one puts in enough [oil] in lamp
to fulfill the mitzvah”
The only real concern we should have is that we supply enough fuel in order for the lights to stay lit for the required amount of time to fulfill the mitzvah. The ideal burning time is one-and-half hours.
Why do we not use longer lasting lights, or utilize oil that provides the best amount of light? The Maran explains it is of no consequence to us because we are not even allowed to make use of the illumination of the Chanukah lights, this is in complete contrast to Shabbat where the sabbath lights are essential for functional purposes of illuminating our home. The Maran explains:
לפי שאסור להשתמש |
בנר חנוכה |
בין בשבת בין בחול |
ואפילו לבדוק מעות |
או למנותן לאורה |
אסור אפילו תשמיש |
של קדושה |
כגון ללמוד לאורה |
ויש מי שמתיר בתשמיש |
של קדושה |
ונוהגים להדליק נר נוסף |
כדי שאם ישתמש לאורה |
יהיה לאור הנוסף שהוא אותו |
שהודלק אחרון |
ויניחנו מרחוק קצת |
משאר נרות מצוה.|
“For it is forbidden to make use
of the Chanukah lights
both during Shabbat and weekdays;
even if to see if [the wicks] are twisted
or to examine [the intensity] the light.
It is forbidden to use them for even
such as learning [Torah] by its illumination;
it is forbidden.
There are those who permit this
for sacred use.
But the proper custom is to light an additional light
so that if the light is utilized
it is from the light of the additional one that
was lit last;
it should be placed a small distance
away from the mitzvah lights.”
Shulchan Aruch, O.C., Perek 673:1; Maran
We cannot make any use of the Chanukah lights, we should not even examine the elements of the Chanukah rituals by means of it’s light to see if it is crooked, distorted or twisted (ma’ot); or as others more simple suggest, we cannot check or count money, as ma’ot (ma’ah singular) are small coins in Talmudic terminology. Either way, we are not allowed to make personal nor sacred use of the Chanukah lights for any reason. Not even for the most lofty of purpose of such as studying Torah. As we will come to see, the difference between Shabbat lights and Chanukah lights is that whereas we use the light to enable us to do our Shabbat mitzvot (we use the light to make Shabbat in our home), during this holiday the lights are the mitzvah (our only requirement is to kindle, nothing more).
The Ner Nosef and the Shamash: The Customs Regarding the Additional Light
In paragraph one of the Shulchan Aruch the Maran acknowledges that there are others who do not hold by this opinion, being lenient concerning sacred use (though he doesn’t identify anyone). However, he goes on to express that it is not the custom of his community to be lenient in this matter, stating that the “proper minhag” (presumably meaning that of the Sephardic community) is to instead light a ner nosef; an additional light. He states the purpose of this additional light is so that one does not make use of the Chanukah lights, instead providing them another light. And by being set apart from the Chanukah lights, one is not prone to make use of the sacred lights but instead use this light. He then says this additional light is lit last.
The Rema continues on to presents the minhag of his community, stating:
ובמדינות אלו אין נוהגים |
להוסיף רק מניח |
אצלן השמש |
שבו מדליק הנרות |
הוא עדיף טפי |
“In these countries it tends not to be the custom
to add an additional [candle]
but to delegates the Shamash
with which he kindles the lights;
this is preferable.”
The Rema takes a personal tone, saying that in region from which he is writing (he is in Poland) it is the custom not to add an additional light. Instead one uses the Shamash for this purpose of providing light. The Shamash is also used to kindle the Chanukah lights. Logically, if you light the festival lights with the Shamash then it must be lit first and not last. By virtue the word shamash means “the servant,” suggesting that it is used in service of kindling the other lights. This is our first mention of the Shamash, it’s purpose is suggested by the name that is ascribed to it. Though the idea that it is lit first is not yet explicitly stated here.
In this line the custom of Ashkenazim to light the Chanukah lights with the Shamash is documented for us here in the 16th century by the Rema. It also provides us from where the custom of placing the Shamash light right next to the Chanukah lights is derived. The word preceding is also generally understood figuratively, according in its literary form as “azal” meaning to place close by or near to something, instead of “eh’zel” (same spelling, different pronunciation) which means to delegate and utilize. Whereas, the Maran says a light should be a bit away, this figurative understanding of the Rema’s words suggests “close by” instead.
So now not only do we have two varying minhagim relating to the type of lights, Askenazim lighing candles and Sephardim lighting oil lamps, but we also have two different types of auxiliary lights. Askenazim lighting it first and the Sephardim lighting it last.
PM Netenyahu and Defense Minister Barak at army base lighting for the first night
The Rema will also go on to tell us that this auxiliary light should be longer than (יותר ארוך) than the rest of the lights so that one makes use of it. Though this explicitly means longer-lasting, not taller or higher, it is the custom of many Askenazim to also place this light above the mitzvah lights, on a single candelabrum with one branch rising higher for this auxiliary light to be placed upon. For practical reason this is helpful, to make better use of the light we should place it higher. It is the universal custom to not place the mitzvah lights too high so that we are not tempted to make ordinary use of them, but any additional lamps in the home are placed at a good and sufficient height to better illuminate the room. Though this does not need to apply to the Shamash, it is still appropriate and helpful.
All of this might seem confusing to some, virtually then entire Jewish world only knows the custom one way. Even the gentile world knows the symbol of the menorah through the lighting of the chanukiah – the 9 branched (8 arms, 1 Shamash) candelabrum that is lit for Chanukah. From the White House to your local shopping center you will find menorah lighting ceremonies to celebrate the holiday. We think of candles being lit. It seems self explanatory, you get a candle and you light the rest of them with it. If you had to pick which one was gonna to single out, it’s obviously going to be the Shamash.
Now lets try considering the Sephardic custom to light the Shamash last, and try to work through the mechanics of that with candles. And here we have a really big problem. That extra-candle is all good and well for extra light, but now it’s really close to the rest of the mitzvah lights so we are now prone to use them by using it. But is something that should be more drastically obvious to us to struggle with. This extra light is not even used for lighting the other candles so its superfluous; it doesn’t serve any real purpose. It doesn’t make any sense. Furthermore, it would seem frustrating because now we don’t know what we are supposed to be lighting the rest of the candles with.
As most of American Jewry is Eastern European (Ashkenazi) their custom is the most prevalent in our society. We understand this method. Being in America, it is true that olive oil in this day and age is not hard to acquire. And it is relatively affordable, though not necessarily inexpensive. However, candles are very inexpensive and we all know how to use them. If olive oil was as common to America as it is in the Mediterranean and middle-east, we would most likely make use of oil lamps for economical reasons instead.
The Chanukiah Candelabrum is not a Menorah
We do not need the finest olive oil to light. Nor need to have a special menorah to light Chanukah lights upon. All that is required is that we light the right amount of lights for the day and the Shamash. In the east it is the custom to use individual oil-lamps without placing them on a candelabrum. One does not even need separate lamps, one can use a single reservoir lamp with one wick for each night. Likewise, it is permissible for us to just light the right amount candles without use of a menorah. All that is required is we keep the ner mitzvot at the same height. This is true in any community.
We are not commemorating the Menorah, we are keeping the mitzvah of the miracle of the lights. We fulfill our obligation by lighting the lights, not by lighting a menorah. The two are very distinct from one another. This is expressed to us by the first words of the next paragraph in the words of the Maran:
| הדלקה עושה מצוה
“The kindling is the mitzvah.”
Shulchan Aruch, O.C., Perek 673:2; Maran
Sure there are some Askenazim that do make use of olive oil for Chanukah lights. Sometimes the oil-lamps are placed in the form of a menorah, but one needs to be careful not to confuse the two. In relations to what we have already discussed, we cannot make use of the lights for any purpose; whereas the Menorah of the Tabernacle and the Second Temple period was utilized explicitly for lighting inside the sanctuary. The Menorah of the Temple had seven branches for oil-lamps and were regularly refilled with oil. At the center was an offset ner meharav (the western light) thats was perpetually kept lit, and it was utilized to relight the other lamps.
Though it is the stringent custom of some to relight Chanukah candles that are accidentally extinguished, it is also the stringency of such communities to not allow kindling one light off another: This is the sustained Ashkenazi opinion, despite being allowed by the Maran (674:1). The opinions of the Rema and subsequent Ashekenazi poskim are blatantly presented as stringencies. Naturally if one was using candles this would be reasonable as you want to use as much of the candle as possible and not waste it, and relighting is easy as one has an available Shamash with which to do so.
This opinion would be presented to us clearly in the mid-19th century by Rabbi Shlomo Ganzfried of Hungary in his widely celebrated Kitzur Shulchan Aruch (also popularly known as The Abridged Code of Jewish Law). This work of Ashkenazi scholarship is the single most well known reference for Jewish law and is considered the most accessible of all the halachic works. He would also reaffirm the points also established by the Rema. But notice he is going to add one extra statement before he explains to us the placement and the usage of the Shamash as an auxiliary light:
יג) ונוהגין להחמיר
שלא להדליק מנר לנר,
אלא מדליקן מן השמש
או מנר אחר.
יד) כל זמן
דהיינו חצי שעה,
אסור ליהנות מאורן.
ולכן נוהגין להניח
אצלן את השַמָש
כדי שאם ישתמש אצלן
ישתמש לאור השַמָש.
קצת למעלה מן הנרות,
שיהא ניכר שאינו
“It is our custom to be stringent |
not to kindle from lamp to lamp, |
but to kindle it with the Shamash |
or another light. |
“During the time of |
fulfilling the mitzvah, |
for an hour and a half long, |
it is forbidden to make use of it’s light. |
For this reason it is our custom to place |
near it the Shamash |
with which you kindle it, |
so that if one uses the light |
one is utilizing the light of the Shamash. |
You must place it |
a little higher than the [other] lights |
so that it is not considered among |
the count |
of the [mitzvah] lights.” |
Rabbi Shlomo Ganzfied (1804 to1886), of Hungary
Kitzur Shulchan Aruch, Chapter 139:13-14
Now for a moment I need us to step back and consider this for a second. All the commentaries up until now have relayed the information related the laws of Chanukah lights in a specific order. Naturally since all these works are themselves are commentaries and pretty much the “Cliff’s Notes” of the Shulchan Aruch, we expect the information to flow in accordance with that. The Rema who first comments on the Shulchan Aruch even keeps in complete step with the order of the Maran. In fact the Maran himself is following an order and line of thought already set up by the Tur (in the late 13th to early 14th century). But here Rabbi Ganzfried gets ahead of himself and starts interpreting the text broadly. Surely he knows whats coming up in the next chapter by the Maran so he has to make a pre-emptive statement; be stringent, do not light one light off of another light, but instead use the Shamash or another light. Though this should only really apply to relighting candles (which the verses immediately before this concern themselves with), he is making a blanket statement about lighting and relighting in one solid swoop.
I say “pre-emptively” because the next whole chapter of the Shulchan Aruch is going to be the Maran explicitly telling us that we are permitted to light one light from another. He says that we are actually even allowed to light one light right from the other without having a candle in between them to light with. However, he admonishes us that one is not allowed to light with an ordinary light; an ordinary candle (ner shel chol) / a weekday light. Though he admits some permit this, as long as there is not the fear that the light will go out in between lighting the Chanukah light with the ordinary candle (ha-ner shel chol).
The Rema and Ashkenazi tradition will disagree with this. The reason that is given to us by the Rema is based on a true assumption; only one of the candles is actually a mitzvah light, the one light for that specific night. The rest to the right of the light are to aggrandize the mitzvah, but in reality only one of the candles is necessary. We all know the story of how we came up with the lighting in this fashion, it was a debate of lighting one candle, or changing the order to correspond to 8 days in either by adding or subtracting lighting. In the end the tradition implemented by the Rabbis of the Talmud was that of adding lights so that we would come to an honored climax. (Talmud Shabbat 21b) On account of this it is felt that the other lights are less holy, because in essence we only really need one candle per day. If we were to light the first light then light the additional lights off of it, we are using the light of the mitzvah for something that is not necessary for a mitzvah, we are cheapening the mitzvah light by using it for a lesser act.
But like I said, I want to deal with only one chapter of the Code (though the text and translation for the section cited will be listed in the footnotes below), so I cannot go into more detail at this time for the sake of time. But there are some details we have to cover in order to understand why the next work also jumps the gun as well as.
First off, the reason that the Maran seems concerned that we do not take any ordinary object and take fire for the Chanukah lights for it is also in order to not appear to cheapen the mitzvah as well. He thinks its better practice to light one Chanukah light directly from another if necessary. First off there is a subtle assumption made, that by lighting up another candle from a sacred light in order to light another one thereby designates that item for sacred use and it should not be treated like an ordinary item from that point on. The other cause for concern seems to be that if one uses an intermediary candle, then one must be sure that the light is not likely to go out before completing the process of transferring the flame. If there is such a risk (like heavy wind for instance) attempting a transferring of the light for kindling is not permissible. We want it to be clear we only use the flame for a mitzvah and not for personal use in the interim of lighting, which would appear to be the case if the light went out before we actually lit another candle. Nachon, are we following along so far? It seems the Maran is making a stringency saying we shouldn’t use an intermediary candle, though some permit this.
The Sacred 36 Lights
Though a reason is provided above by the Rema, concerning the lesser “importance” of the other lights aside from the single light intended for that day; this will not be the final halacha for even Ashkenazim. In the end it is going to be tempered by generations of rabbis who are going to attest to the fact that because the other lights of the Chanukah count are set aside for a sacred use, they also have holiness imparted to them. They must be treated sacredly. By the time of Rabbi Ganzfied with his Kitzur the halacha is going to be established as such, and signified by us keeping all the mitzvah lights at the same height to signify they are for the mitzvah, and the Shamash we raise a little bit higher. This is the custom in all communities.
In the minds of many people the halachic process ends at this point. The halachic reasons presented up to now are sensible to us. Here we see the evolution of a halachic processes taking place in how we perform this mitzvah, it is natural for many to think that we should follow the rulings that is most contemporary; in this case the urgings of our Ashkenazi rabbis such as the honorable Rabbi Ganzfried. Some also see this as keeping in step with progress, we are moving from oil lamps to standard candles so the halacha shifts. However, Rabbi Ganzfried’s positions represent the Ashkenazi tradition in as much as he follows the ruling of the Rema. And furthermore, there is a voices even more contemporary that shares the Sephardi position.
We will find our Sephardi/Mizrahi position provided to us by the Ben Ish Chai, Rabbi Yosef Chaim of Baghdad. The Ben Ish Chai, one of the highest regarded “oriental” rabbis:
“Do not light some oil lamps and some wax
so that it can not be said
two people have lit [sets of lights]
therefore this is not
a completed [also. elegant] mitzvah.
Therefore it is good that the entire set
of lights are equal;
in size, appearance and kind.
As one complete mitzvah.
It is good that this additional light,
called the Shamash,
be made distinct (Lit. strange)
from the Chanukah Lights
so that it is evident
that it is not part of the Chanukah lights.
And this is my custom.”
It is forbidden to light
from a sacred item
for [lighting] an ordinary item.
But from the additional light
it is permissible.
And there are the stringent
who also allow with an additional candle.”
יג) אין להדליק קצת נרות משמן וקצת משעוה, |
כדי שלא יאמרו |
שני אנשים הדליקו |
ועוד אין בזה |
הידור מצוה, |
ולכן טוב שגם גוף |
הנרות יהיו שוין |
בגודלן ומראיהם ומינם |
משום הידור מצוה, |
וטוב שזה נר הנוסף |
שקורין שמש |
יעשהו משונה |
מנרות חנוכה, |
כדי שיהא ניכר |
שאין זה בכלל נ“ח |
וכן אני נוהג: |
יד) אסור להשתמש לאורה |
בין תשמיש קדושה |
בין תשמיש חול, |
אבל לנר הנוסף |
ויש מחמירין |
גם בנר הנוסף… |
The Ben Ish Chai, Rabbi Yosef Chaim (1832 – 1909) of Baghdad
Shana Rishon, Halachot Chanukah
First off, before I get any further I must note that in the paragraph before this one (paragraph 12) the Ben Ish Chai who is a only 25 years the junior to Rabbi Ganzfried attests that we in the “orient” and near-eastern lands still use olive oil, he says of both Chanukah and Shabbat lights; only differences really is the quality of the wicks. He begins this by quoting the already discussed words of the Rema himself, “shemen zait mitzvah min ha’muvchar / olive oil is the mitzvah done to perfection.” But this shouldn’t be anything shocking to us, because this is also agreed upon in the Kitzur (139:4).
But instead of immediately going into making the argument and mechanics for using wax like the Kitzur does, here the Ben Ish Chai is going to say that its okay to use candles without making an argument for it. But he will present us with certain guidelines concerning this advancement. If we are going to use oil, then we use all the lights oil. If we use wax then all of the lights should be wax. This is because the lighting is one complete mitzvah. We need to keep the candles not only level with each other, but of the same kind so that it is obvious and apparent we are completing one whole mitzvah with these lights.
Now the Shamash should be distinct so it can be different from the rest of the lights. It seems to be suggested that it can not just be set aside, but be a strange candle or light that is different from the rest. We should raise it a little bit higher, or set it aside from the rest.
But what about lighting and relighting? He says we should not light weekday or ordinary lights from the sacred Chanukah lights, but from the additional light it is permissible. Sacred lights sacred, ordinary lights ordinary. But then he throws a zinger at us here. The stringent of the Sephardic custom allows one to light with an even additional candle yet. This is the light that we utilize for lighting the initial lights (which we light before we recite the blessings and light the number of lights for the day). We can take this third-party candle and use it to light; then put it out. If we relight, we can use this third-party candle again. Yes, we can even relight from the other Chanukah lights for another Chanukah light. But we should only light sacred with sacred, and non-sacred with non-sacred.
But what about the concern on transferring sacredness to the intermediary candle or temporarily using the light in the interim? The answer will be provided for us by another chacham, but this is one more closer to our day and age; in the voice of Rabbi Ovediah Yosef, shlitah, the former Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel and spiritual leader to the Mizrahi and Sephardi communities to this day:
אסור להשתמש לאור
ואפילו תשמיש עראי
כגון לבדוק מעות
כדי שלא יהיו
המצוות בזויות עליו
א) ותשמיש עראי של
ולכן אם נסתפק לו דין
שהוא צורך חנוכה,
מותר להשתמש לאורה.
ב) ואפילו תשמיש של קדושה
ולכן נוהגים להדליק נר נוסף
כדי שאם ישתמש לאורה,
יהיה לאור הנוסף,
שמדליקים אותו לאחרונה,
ונוהגים לתת הנר הנוסף יותר גבוה
ג) שרפים עומדים ממעל ”לו”,
שמנין נרות המצוה
בכל הלילות ביחד הם שלשים וששה
ואם אי אפשר
להניח נר השמש
גבוה יותר משאר הנרות, יניחנו רחוק קצת מהם,
כדי שיהיה ניכר שאינו
“It is forbidden to utilize the illumination of |
the Chanukah lights |
even if for a temporary use |
for things such as counting coins |
or examining; |
from the illumination is forbidden |
so that there is no |
contempt for the commandment. |
(Talmud Shabbat 22) |
Use of a temporary item for a |
mitzvah is allowed; |
therefore if we are satisfying a law |
that is necessary for Chanukah, |
the light may be used. |
“Even for a use that is sacred |
such as learning, |
by the illumination it is forbidden. |
Therefore we kindle an additional light |
that is called the Shamash |
so that if we make use of the illumination |
it is from the additional light. |
So kindling it last, |
the additional light tending to be taller than |
the commanded candle lamps |
hinting to its meaning |
“‘Seraphim stand above “it” [or Him]'(Is. 6:2)|
as the total lights of the mitzvah |
of all the nights together is 36 |
like the word ‘it.’ |
If you cannot place |
the Shamash light above |
we place it aside a little distance from them |
so much that it is not considered as a |
mitzvah lamp.” |
Rabbi Ovediah Yosef, (1920 – ) shelita; Rishon LeTzion (Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel)
Yalkut Yosef, Yayikra Yosef, from the “Kitzur Edition;”
Halachot Chanukah, Chapter 1- “אסור להשתמש לאורה”
Herein he also provides us with a beautiful understanding of the mitzvah lights. Using a mystical understanding of the lights he notes that if we combine the amount of mitzvah lights that we light it comes to a total of 36. It is not just the single light for the night that is sacred, but mystically all 36 of the mitzvah candles we light over the eight days have spiritual virtue. They are like the holy seraphim, whose name literally means “the burning ones.” They stand around the Throne of G-d and proclaim the holiness of G-d (see Isaiah chapter 6.)
It also spells it out for us plainly. We can use any temporary item in order to light or relight the candles with, what ever is necessary in order to perform the mitzvah. Though we are not allowed to make use of the fire or illumination for any other purpose, even for fulfilling another mitzvah; but for the mitzvah of lighting or relighting the Chanukah lights we may temporarily use that light, or use a temporary item in order to accomplish that. It can be another match, or another candle. Generally we use another candle that is able to aid us with this, then when we are done using it we extinguish it, it does not need to be kept contentiously burning like the rest of the lights.
And here, as late as the 20th century despite innovations in halachic approach and even the instruments we utilize as Chanukah lights; the tradition of the Maran that was present in the Shulchan Aruch still holds true for Sephardic and Middle-eastern Jews up until the present day, at the urging of rabbis of our own tradition.
One’s Minhag: Is it Something to be Dogmatic About?
After Rabbi Ovediah Yosef left office as Chief Sephardic Rabbi of Tel Aviv-Yaffo, Rabbi Chaim David haLevi took the position, in which he served for over 25 years. He was a widely respected rabbi who was known for his temperance, wisdom, modernity and keen insight. His Kitzur Mekor Chaim (named after the larger 5 volume halachic work, the Mekor Chaim haLevi, which would also become his nickname) became a standard text used in the Israeli religious education system and in Religious Zionists yeshivot. He is uncompromisingly Sephardi in tradition, but is bold in bridging the gap between the customs of the Jews of the East Orient and those of Eastern Europe by even including Ashkenazi halacha in his conclusions when appropriate. It’s this balance that made it a widely accepted work.
He would not be very explicit about the order of the lighting of the Shamash. Notice the vagueness of the language in the conclusions he provides us, he tries being true to each tradition by applying an open-ended statement that is applicable no matter which school you are hailing from:
“On the first night
and adding one more each night,
as is well know.
Therefore, it is the custom
that each member of the household
light his own.
And it is forbidden to utilize
the light of the Chanukah lights
even for a sacred use
such as learning Torah;
for this reason it is the proper custom
to light an additional light
called the Shamash;
so that if you use it,
it is from the illumination of the
which we place a small distance
from the rest of the lights.”
ו) בלילה הראשון |
מדליק אחד |
ומוסיף אחד בכל לילה |
ויש נהגים |
שכל אחד מבני הבית |
נר לעצמו. |
ואסור להשתמש |
לאור נרות חנוכה |
אפילו תשמיש קדושה |
כגון למוד תורה, |
ולכן נוהגים |
להדליק נר נוסף |
הנקרא שמש, |
כדי שאם ישתמש |
יהיה זה לאור |
הנר הנוסף, |
ויניחנו רחוק קצת |
מיתר הנרות. |
Rabbi Chaim David haLevi (1924-1998), Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv-Yaffo
Kitzur Mekor Chaim, Halachot Nerot, p.282
There is one interesting feature though in this statement. He would interestingly seem to not stand behind the already established Sephardi customs of permitting only the head of the house to kindle the Chanukah lights, appearing to side with the Ashkenazi tradition that each person old enough has to light their own Chanukiah.
Though one might assume that his approach of balancing both traditions left him with a choice regarding the application of the clause referring to who is obligated to light the Chanukah lights. Some have incorrectly assumed that he has sided with the Ashkenazi approach, as this custom is choicest and more logical. They disregard various passages from the Maran himself, were he twice he suggests to us that one who is old enough to learn is obligated to light too.
His opinion seems to be that everyone should light, nonetheless we must keep in mind that the obligation of lighting is performed by the head of the household only in the Sephardic tradition.
It should be noted that all Sephardic poskim prior to this have ruled that one should not allow children to light the mitzvah lights, but they are permitted to light the Shamash or any other additional light. This was first provided in clarity to us by the Ben Ish Chai:
“It is good that one should give
to his small sons
a little extra candle to light for themselves,
so that they can be educated in the mitzvot.
So with this small extra light
they can perform a small mitzvah.
And this is my custom,
and it is proper to do so.
However, do not let them kindle
the obligatory lights…”
טוב ליתן לאחד |
מבניו הקטנים |
להדליק בידם נר הנוסף |
כדי לחנכם במצות, |
שגם בזה הנר הנוסף |
יש קצת מצוה, |
וכן אני נוהג |
וראוי לעשות כך, |
אבל לא יתן להם להדליק |
מנרות של חיוב… |
Ben Ish Chai, Rabbi Yosef Chaim of Baghdad
Halachot Chanukah, Paragraph 12
However regarding the type of lights we should use, he will be a bit more explicit concerning them. He would present the words of the Maran and the Rema almost exactly, choosing only to simplify the grammar of the text. He would also add an opinion regarding the use of electric lights. Here the Mekor Chaim brings us into the modern age:
ט) כל השמנים והפתילות כשרים לנר חנוכה, |
ושמן זית מצוה מן המובחר. ונהגו מהדליק בנר |
שעוה כי אורו |
זך וצלולץ. |
ואין יוצאים ידי חובה |
באור החשמל |
להדלקת נר חנוכה. |
“All oils are permissible for Chanukah lights,
and olive oil is a mitzvah done to perfection.
There are those who light
wax for a pure and clean light.
But there is no fulfillment of an obligation
with a electric light
lit as a Chanukah light.”
Kitzur Mekor Chaim, Halachot Nerot, p.283
The Kitzur Mekor Chaim is an ideal example of modern scholarship, presenting halachic opinions necessary for our current age. It brings down law without disregarding the halacic opinions of those who came before us.
His approach is very much like that of the Baal haTanya, who presents to us a mixture of both Sephardic and Ashkenazi tradition. Whereas the Baal haTanya sought to produce a nusach and siddur that was applicable for all Israel, the Mekor Chaim sought to produce a halachic reference that was also applicable for all Israel. They both present us what is true and necessary in the broader sense. Their statements are most often purposely left open to interpretation. This is not a fault, but instead another example of their brilliance in that they were able to produce a text usable by the general public; without the pitfalls of dogmatism. That is not to say that they don’t have opinions, as they were both prolific halachic commentators who published extensively; but this just isn’t the place for it. That which is not mentioned here should be understood according to our own minhag, we are not allowed to disregard our own tradition. This is because of the general legal principal that:
“The custom of Israel is Law”
מנהג ישראל, תורה הוא |
Chida, Mihazik Beracha 261:7
Now if we want to understand our minhag, that requires more than just a passing reference in a single volume. That requires an honest and deeper look at the halachic process. Once we do that, it is very apparent that we are actually a lot more alike than we are different.
Need the blessings to light your Chanukah lights? Get them HERE