Possibly more than any other mitzvah, the lighting of the Chanukah menorah has undergone noticeable changes in how it is observed. Some of these changes have related to persecutions, others to weather and climate and others to lifestyle. In simpler societies work was closer to home and workdays typically ended at nightfall, enabling a timely menorah lighting. Today in our mobile society, with long commutes and long work days, arranging to come home before night for a full week is far from a simple matter, so finding that optimal time, or in some cases the minimally permissible time, for lighting the menorah is frequently a socio-economic necessity. Additionally, many of our social engagements, particularly family celebrations of Chanukah, often introduce these same questions as to when and where to light the menorah.
The Time for Lighting the Menorah
It is clear from the Talmud[1. Shabbos 21b] that the common practice was to light the menorah at the beginning of the night.[2. If there had been different practices which might have shed light on the need to light at nightfall this fact would have been mentioned in the course of that discussion.
Whether night for this purpose is defined as sunset or full dark is a debate, with the Rambam (Laws of Chanukah 4:5) saying that night begins with the setting of the sun, and most other authorities ruling that it begins with actual dark. The ramifications of this debate are most significant for our question. The common practice recorded in the Shulchan Aruch (OC 672:1) is to light when it is fully dark. On Saturday night, when there is no alternative, all agree that the lighting must be done after dark.] One opinion in the Talmud states that it specifically must be lit at the beginning of the evening as at this time there is significant pedestrian traffic outdoors that can see the light of the menorah in the doorway or window. The other opinion holds that the lighting also was done first thing in the evening, not because it was the only time for the mitzvah but presumably due to the general concept of Zrizim Makdimim l’Mitzvos (that it is highly meritorious to perform a mitzvah at the first opportunity and not delay). This debate appears to remain unresolved[3. The actual discussion in the Talmud was regarding whether there is a need to rekindle a menorah if it went out before burning for a sufficient time. While attempting to support the side that the menorah must be rekindled, a proof was brought from a Braisa which states “the mitzvah is from the setting of the sun until there is no more pedestrian traffic in the marketplace.” The Talmud responded that this quote does not necessarily shed light on that question as it could be coming to teach that if one has not yet lit then one should do so as long as this time period has not elapsed. Alternatively, perhaps it has nothing to do with when to light but it comes to teach that this is the amount of time for which a menorah is expected to burn in order to fulfill the mitzvah.] The practical difference between these two opinions would be a case where a person did not light at the start of the night. According to the opinion that the mitzvah demands that the menorah specifically be lit at that time (the first half hour of the evening), then if this time was missed the menorah can no longer be lit. According to the opinion that there is no special reason to light the menorah early, then if it was not lit early in the evening it should still be lit later.[4. The idea of Zrizim Makdimim is by definition viewed as a preferred manner to perform a mitzvah, but never the only way, so that if delay is unavoidable, the mitzvah can and must be done later. The question will be addressed later as to whether this preferred manner might be viewed as less preferred in certain scenarios, such as where one might be performing another mitzvah or have some other pressing engagement.]
This indeed is the understanding of Tosafos[5. Shabbos 21b, sv d’i] who write that if a person failed to light in the beginning of the evening the menorah should still be lit, albeit without a bracha due to the doubt as to which opinion is to be viewed as authoritative.
The Rambam concurs with this reading of the Talmud, but does not view the matter as an unresolved doubt. Rather, he rules in accordance with the opinion that says the menorah may only be lit during the first half hour of the night. Accordingly, if this time is missed it may no longer be lit[6. Laws of Chanukah 4:5]
The Ritva adopts a substantially different approach to understanding this passage in the Talmud, writing that even the opinion that says that the menorah must specifically be lit in the beginning of the evening only says so in order to fulfill the optimal mitzvah since this will maximize the number of passersby who will see its lights; however if this time was missed the basic mitzvah still applies, not unlike a person who was forced due to persecution or inclement weather to light indoors who still fulfills the mitzvah since this is the maximum publicizing that can be done[7. Shabbos 21b] According to the Ritva both opinions mentioned in the Talmud would agree that the menorah should be lit at this point and a bracha should certainly be recited.
The above ruling notwithstanding, Tosafos[8. Shabbos 21b sv d’i] wrote that in their day (medieval France and Germany), where the common practice had already shifted so that menorahs were lit inside the house and not outdoors (or even in windows) as had been common in the time of the Talmud, since the primary audience of the menorah were the members of the household there no longer was the same level of concern with lighting in the early evening. Tosafos’ point is that given the changed reality of where the menorah was being lit, all Talmudic opinions would agree that an early lighting would only be due to the general concern with zeal in the performance of mitzvos or in order not to forget. Accordingly, unlike in the time of the Talmud, if a person is unable to light in the first half hour of the evening he should still light later and recite a bracha.
This ruling of Tosafos is quoted by the Tur[9. OC 672] who, writing in 14th century Spain, follows this quote by saying that “it seems that even we who light indoors should still light at the original time since we have the practice to light just inside the front door and it is still seen by passersby.” Writing a few hundred years later in Poland, the Bach[10. OC 672 sv v’nire] points out that circumstances had again changed and menorahs were no longer being lit in open doorways so there is no need to worry about when in the evening the menorah is lit. The Shulchan Aruch[11. OC 672:1] rules that if the menorah is not lit at the beginning of the night, it may still be lit all night long.[12. Strikingly, no mention is made as to whether a bracha should be recited in this case. If it is indeed Rav Yosef Karo’s intention that a bracha should not be said in this case, it is unclear which of the Rishonim he was following. Both Tosafos and the Ritva rule that a bracha should be recited for a delayed lighting, and the Rambam rules that the menorah should not be lit at all if it is not lit within the first half hour of the night. It is likely that the Shulchan Aruch incorporated both the rulings of the Rambam and of Tosafos so that the menorah would be lit without the bracha.
The Magen Avraham (672:6) finds ambiguity in Rav Yosef Karo’s writings, since in the Beis Yosef he seems to rule that a bracha should not be recited when lighting late because there is a doubt about the matter, while his language in the Shulchan Aruch seems to indicate that a bracha should be recited. The Kaf HaChaim (672:26) disagreed with this reading of the Shulchan Aruch, writing that the simple reading is that a bracha should indeed be recited even when lighting after the first half hour of the evening.]
The Ramo also quotes the ruling of Tosafos that it is no longer necessary to worry about lighting early in the evening, then quotes the Tur that even today it is still good to be strict when possible.[13. It should be noted that these are two separate and distinct opinions, the first one ruling that given the change to indoor lightings there is no longer anything to be gained by lighting at the start of night. The second opinion agrees that the primary lighting is for the family indoors, but reflects a practice recorded by the Tur (672) that the menorah was commonly lit inside but the front door was left open for the benefit of any passersby; accordingly there is still much to be gained by lighting earlier in the evening. By the time of the Rama this was no longer the common practice. Today, even outside of Israel where menorahs are almost always lit indoors it is also common to place them by the window for the benefit of passersby so that this reason to light early still applies. It should also be noted that a good case could be made in our day not to insist on such a prompt lighting because traffic (both pedestrian and vehicular) continues far later into the evening (this matter is elaborated by Rav Moshe Sternbuch (Moadim U’zmanim 1:141, T’shuvos V’hanhagos 1:390)).] It is clear from the Ramo that a bracha should be recited in this case. This is the common (Ashkenazic) practice.
This essay will not address cases of a person sleeping away from home, but only cases where they will return to their own homes later that night, after the basic time for the mitzvah has passed. It is a given that the menorah should be lit as soon as possible; that is not our discussion topic. The topic addressed here are the various cases in which lighting early is either impossible or may create significant hardships or conflicts.
Must Menorah Be Lit in One’s Own Home
The menorah must be lit at one’s home, this being one of the handful of mitzvos that is not a personal obligation but is incumbent upon the household.[14. This list also includes Shabbos candles, the search for chametz, and mezuzah.] The Talmud[15. Shabbos 23a] and poskim[16. OC 677:1] specifically address the case of a person staying with friends or relatives, offering several solutions for those who will be spending the night. However, it is accepted that this only applies for overnight guests. Those who are only visiting for a short time or just a meal must light the menorah in their own homes even if they are away at the start of the evening.[17. Magen Avraham 677:7, Mishnah Berurah 677:12.] This fact that a person cannot just light at work or in the home of a friend is often what necessitates clarification as to what must or may be done under the circumstances.
Prior to Lighting the Menorah
There is no specific discussion in the Talmud about engaging in activities prior to lighting the menorah;[18. Had there been such a discussion it likely would have been used as a resolution to the initial debate mentioned above regarding lighting the menorah at the beginning of the evening.] there is also no mention of it in the text of the Tur or Shulchan Aruch.[19. This could be taken as an indication that they do not accept that any such prohibition exists or that this mitzvah is no different than any other Rabbinic mitzvah and fit into the existing laws discussed in regard to Mincha (as will be discussed below).] However, in a similar vein the Mishnah[20. Shabbos 9b] rules that one may not engage in significant or time consuming activities such as eating a meal prior to the recitation of Mincha once its time has arrived, but if one did it is not necessary to interrupt one’s meal.
The Talmud[21. Sukkah 38a] contrasts this case with that of a person who is eating a meal but has not yet taken the lulav, where the Mishnah rules that he must interrupt. The Talmud offers two distinctions, either that in the case of Mincha there will still be time after the meal for prayer while in the case of the lulav there will not be time, or alternatively that Mincha is only a Rabbinic obligation so the meal need not be interrupted, while lulav is a Torah obligation and must be. Commenting on these distinctions, the Ran[22. Commentary on Sukkah 38a (found on page 18b of the Rif).] adds that this entire discussion was only in a case where the meal was begun during or at least close to the time of the mitzvah (so that for a Rabbinic mitzvah even a meal started during the time of the mitzvah would not need to be interrupted). However, had this meal begun before the time of the mitzvah, even a Torah mitzvah would not demand that the meal be interrupted.
Applying this to the case of the menorah would mean that, since nowadays a menorah can be lit as long as the members of the family are awake, a meal or other activity would not need to be stopped to light the menorah as long as it will end with enough time to fulfill the mitzvah. This would be even truer if the meal began before nightfall.
Commenting on the words of the Rama that nowadays one need not light so early in the evening, the Magen Avraham[23. OC 672:5] writes that it is proper to gather the family before lighting the menorah. As much as an early lighting is desirable, enhancing the mitzvah in this manner takes priority. Continuing, he quotes two opinions regarding eating before lighting the menorah: the first one merely says that it is “good not to eat before lighting” but Rav Shlomo Luria (Maharshal) rules that even Torah study is not permitted once the time to light has arrived.[24. In the t’shuva of Rav Shlomo Luria (Responsa Maharshal #89), he prohibits both learning and eating prior to lighting the menorah.] This opinion of the Maharshal applies the ruling of the Mishnah regarding Mincha to the lighting of the menorah, so it is strictly forbidden to engage in these time-consuming activities. The opinion that says it is “good” not to eat clearly does not place menorah lighting in that category. The Maharshal’s ruling is accepted by the Mishnah Berurah and many other later authorities.[25. Mishnah Berurah 672:10.]
Accordingly this would seem to severely limit available options to early nighttime activities because it would be forbidden to begin a meal or other activity after nightfall (or even in the last half hour before nightfall) until one has lit the menorah. However, this only applies to beginning an activity at the time of the mitzvah. If a person began well before the time of the mitzvah, he does not have to stop even when the time comes to perform the mitzvah. It is for this reason that an individual may even plan on working all day or attending a mid-afternoon wedding or Chanukah party. Even though they know in advance that they will not be able to light the menorah at the start of the evening, they still would not need to interrupt to light the menorah because they had started well before the time of the mitzvah.
In addressing why the rules of interrupting seem to be commonly ignored when it comes to Mincha, Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach[26. Quoted in Halichos Shlomo 2:11.] explained that this common practice is based on the assumption that the prohibition to eat or engage in other activities is a matter of priorities. Accordingly, if a person wants both to eat and recite Mincha, he must give priority to Mincha. However, if he does not wish to pray now, especially if his intent is to enhance the mitzvah later (such as with a Minyan or in a location more conducive to concentration), he may eat.
This also seems to have been the intent of the Magen Avraham when he mentioned the idea of assembling the family before lighting. Gathering the family is permissible even though it may delay the lighting since there is no desire to light presently, rather later in a more enhanced situation. Accordingly, it could be suggested that a person who has left home before nightfall, even when they arrived after nightfall at work or at a Chanukah party, would be allowed to work or participate in the party and would not be obligated to interrupt because they presently have no interest in lighting and plan on doing so when they return home.[27. Piskei T’shvuos (672:7) rules that those who will not be lighting their own menorahs need not refrain from eating while awaiting the return of the head of the household who will be lighting the menorah on their behalf. Only the person who themselves will be performing the mitzvah is prohibited to eat. Whether this prohibition to eat is understood merely as a precaution not to forget or as Rav Auerbach said as a matter of prioritizing, the person who will fulfill the mitzvah through the lighting of another would not seem to be subject to either of these limitations.]
Returning Home Late From Work/School
The most basic case faced in many if not most homes is the fact that nightfall at this time of year is quite early, so unless special provisions are made anyone who works a full day will likely not be home at the optimal time for lighting. This is also true for yeshiva students whose day typically goes to that time and beyond. For many years Rav Hershel Schachter has posted the text of the commentary of the Meiri[28. Shabbos 21b] on this matter in the Kollel at YU. The Meiri rules like many other Rishonim that nowadays since the primary lighting is indoors we need not be particular about lighting at the start of the evening. Meiri adds that the practice of yeshiva students in France (the students of the Baalei HaTosafos) was to stay in the Beis Midrash as late as usual; they did not leave early in order to light their menorahs since they followed this ruling.
The essence of this ruling is not that since the students were involved in one mitzvah, namely Torah study, they were not required to interrupt in order to light. Rather, Meiri’s point is that one need not make significant alterations to one’s regular schedule for the sake of menorah lighting. Accordingly this would apply equally to those at work as to those in yeshiva. This certainly seems to be the common practice where most people do not leave work early in order to light in a timely fashion.[29. This practice fits into two of the explanations mentioned above. Firstly, since they had been in yeshiva all day, well before the start time of the mitzvah, they need not interrupt their activities. Secondly, since they are still engaged in their studies and not interested in lighting the menorah yet, there is no question of priorities.
It should be noted that in Piskei T’shuvos (677:7), this is left as an unresolved question over which justification is utilized to remain at work past nightfall during Chanukah. Based on these two ideas, that question can easily be addressed.]
Setting Up Reminders
Due to the rule that activities including eating and learning Torah may not be done prior to each of the three daily tefillos, a challenging limitation when one faces many of the realities of life, poskim introduced various ways to avoid this problem based on Talmudic suggestions.[30. Sukkah 38a]
The Mishnah Berurah writes[31. Mishnah Berurah 89:34, 235:18.] that it is acceptable to appoint another person as a shomer to remind them to ensure that Mincha or even the Torah obligation of Shema will not be forgotten. This same solution would be equally valid for the lighting of the menorah. The question to be addressed in our cases is who that shomer should be. If some members of the family are returning home late and others have already lit at home and will remind them upon their return home, this is clearly a good solution.
However, commonly the entire family returns home together well into the night from a celebration, so the question arises whether one can serve as a shomer to remind the other. On one hand this case is better than the case of several people eating together, where it is not acceptable for one to be the shomer for the others since they may all get caught up in their activity and forget about Mincha. However, in this case they are all traveling home from the party and there is no concern that they will stay there and not come home. At the same time, since they all are obligated in the mitzvah and equally prone to forgetting, this may not be a strong solution.
An additional, more modern solution mentioned by poskim[32. Quoted in Piskei T’shuvos 235:8.] is to have a friend call on the phone. In the case of the Chanukah party, the host could call the departing guest at the time they are expected home and remind them to light the menorah.
Addressing the concern that when reading by the light of an oil lantern on Friday night the Sages feared that a person may forget themselves and adjust the lamp, the Mishnah Berurah writes[33. 275:1 Biur Halacha sv L’or.] that an excellent way to solve this problem is to post a large and noticeable note not to touch the lamp. Accordingly, signs and notes can be posted prior to departing from one’s home and placed in locations that will definitely be noticed. The menorah itself could be placed near the front door so that it wil be seen immediately upon entering the house. The use of the note and placement of the menorah seem to be the most realistic and practical solution for those returning home late.[34. Many of these same suggestions regarding the menorah can be seen in the ruling of Rav Chaim Pinchas Sheinberg (Am HaTorah, “Rulings in Matters of Chanukah”, 3:1).]
Attending a Seudas Mitzvah
It is quite common for weddings to take place during Chanukah, this year even more so with Thanksgiving (a day off from work) being the first day of Chanukah. Aside from the two reasons mentioned above justifying eating, namely the fact that the meal may have started during the day before the time of the mitzvah and the idea of priorities mentioned by Rav SZ Auerbach, the participation in a seudas mitzvah is itself of great value. This is particularly true for a wedding, where one fulfills the mitzvah of bringing joy to the bride and groom. Accordingly, once a person is involved in this mitzvah not only is there no need to interrupt it for a different mitzvah, it is inappropriate to do so.[35. This is based on the rule of “Ha’osek b’mitzvah patur min hamitzvah” (that one who is involved in one mitzvah need not interrupt to perform a different one).] Even if a wedding only began in the night after the time for lighting the menorah began, if a person needed to leave their house before it was time to light the menorah they may do so and continue to participate fully, including eating the meal. Needless to say, this would be an ideal situation to utilize the reminders mentioned above.
Avoiding Strife (Shalom Bayis)
It is far too common to hear of family tensions resulting from well intentioned invitations met by equally well intentioned desires to follow the words of the poskim to refrain from eating. Clearly this is the proper thing to do under normal circumstances, but this may not be such a circumstance. One possible resolution is that a person will remain as a guest at this family Chanukah party but not eat; often accomplishing little, as the host is not happy and the menorah is not lit any faster. Assuming that a person will indeed remain at this house, sitting idly does not seem to be any better a solution than eating. Or as expressed above by Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, it is a matter of priorities, but given that one is not presently in a position to light the menorah there would seem to be little reason to refrain from eating.
A second and perhaps even stronger reason to eat is the very likely family discord that may otherwise result. There is a principle in Halacha that “sh’as had’chak k’dieved dami” (in a pressing situation one may rely on a less preferred halachic ruling), so that an activity that otherwise might only be accepted after it was already done would be permitted up front in otherwise stressful or difficult situations. Given that the Shulchan Aruch accepts that a menorah lit after the start of the evening still fulfills the mitzvah, under such difficult situations one may even plan in advance to attend and eat knowing full well that you will not light the menorah until later in the evening.
This same logic may also be employed to understand why it is considered acceptable to remain at work until the usual time even though it is generally past the ideal menorah lighting time. The pressures associated with employment and earning a living are often considered to be in this category of Sh’as Ha’dechak.