By: Rabbi Ari Enkin
One should be especially meticulous with the mitzva of lighting the Chanuka menora. We are taught that those who are careful in this area will merit having children who are Torah scholars. Even the most destitute person is required to light a Chanuka menora even if he is forced to beg or even sell his garment in order to purchase candles or oil to do so. Although universal custom is to increase the number of candles that are lit on each night of Chanuka (i.e., one candle on the first night, two on the second night, and so on), one is only truly required to light a single candle each night. So too, in many communities every member of the household lights his own menora even though only one menora per home is all that is truly required.
Women are equally obligated to light the menora, as they too were a part of the miracles of Chanuka. Indeed, although common custom is for the man of the house to light the menora on behalf of his wife and family, a woman is technically able to do so, as well. One who is blind should preferably participate in someone else’s menora lighting by contributing towards the cost of the candles rather than lighting a menora of his own. A blind man who is married should have his wife light for him. This is because it is a matter of dispute whether a blind person who lights a menora is permitted to recite the accompanying blessing over his lighting.
A person should try to acquire for himself a beautiful Chanuka menora made of metal, copper, or silver. There is an opinion that the Chanuka candles must be placed in some type of holder or vessel in order to properly fulfill the mitzva. According to this approach, one who merely lights freestanding candles will not have fulfilled the mitzva. The candles should be placed in a straight line and not in a circular or zigzag formation. One should ensure that the candles are placed far enough apart from each other so that the heat of one candle does not melt the candle next to it.
It is praiseworthy to remain in the vicinity of one’s menora for at least half an hour after lighting and to use the time to contemplate the miracles of Chanuka. One may not make any use of the Chanuka lights whatsoever. They are only to be looked upon in order to arouse praise and thanksgiving to God for the miracles that He performed for us. One may not even study Torah by their light. In an emergency, some authorities allow one to recite the Havdala blessing over fire upon the Chanuka candles on the Motzaei Shabbat of Chanuka. Many women have the custom not to perform any work while the candles are burning in order to recall the role that Yehudit played in the military victory. Some women only keep this custom on the first and last nights of Chanuka.
It is preferable to use olive oil to light the menora in order to recall the miracle of the oil and to recall that oil was always used to light the menora in the Beit Hamikdash. It is also said that olive oil provides the cleanest and purest flame. One should endeavor to use olive oil for the Chanuka menora even if doing so is more expensive. The lights of the menora must be from either oil or candles; one may not use both on the same menora. However, there is no requirement to use the same substance on each night of Chanuka and one may light with candles on one night and oil on another. While it is considered ideal to light the menora outside of one’s home, common custom is to light the menora indoors at a window that faces the street so that it can be seen by passersby.
There are a number of different opinions as to when the menora should be lit each evening. The Talmud states that the menora should be lit at sunset but there are a number of interpretations as to exactly what this means. According to the Rambam, it means at the beginning of sunset, which is when the sphere of the sun recedes below the horizon. Although the sun has officially “set” at this time there is still daylight for some time longer. According to the Shulchan Aruch, however, it means at the end of the sunset period, which is when it is almost completely dark outside. There are also more than seven other opinions in addition to the views of the Rambam and the Shulchan Aruch as to when the menora should be lit. The Aruch Hashulchan, however, dismisses all these views and rules that one should only light after dark. All authorities agree, however, that no matter when one lights the menora, one must ensure that there is enough oil or candles for the menora to burn for at least thirty minutes after nightfall.