The Mixed-Up Blessing on Chanukah Lights

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by R. Gil Student

I. Reasons to Deviate

Rav Yosef Karo (16th cen., Israel; Shulchan Arukh (Orach Chaim 676:1) says that the first blessing on Chanukah lights is: “le-hadlik ner Chanukah, to kindle Chanukah light.” Many have noted how puzzling this is because the Gemara (Shabbos 23a) says that the blessing is “le-hadlik ner shel Chanukah, to kindle the light of Chanukah.” This is similar to the blessing we recite on Shabbos and Yom Tov candles, “le-hadlik ner shel…” Why does the Shulchan Arukh deviate from the blessing text in the Talmud and most commentaries? Despite this important question, this version of the blessing has lasted and is used by most Sephardim and many Ashkenazim, including the Vilna Gaon (18th cen., Lithuania; Ma’aseh Rav, par. 239) and Arukh Ha-Shulchan (19th cen., Lithuania; Orach Chaim 676:1).

Commentaries offer two explanations for the Shulchan Arukh’s blessing text. We will attempt to add another two.

1. Rav Yosef Te’omim (18th cen., Germany; Peri Megadim, Eishel Avraham 676:intro) quotes Rav Yeshayahu Horowitz (17th cen., Germany; Shelah, Masekhes Tamid) who explains that Shabbos candles are for personal use and also for Shabbos, as opposed to Chanukah candles which we may not use for our own benefit and are only for publicizing the Chanukah miracle. 

While Rav Horowitz is actually addressing a slightly different blessing text, which we will discuss below, his explanation works well within the Shulchan Arukh’s text, as well. With Shabbos, there is a candle we are using for personal benefit. We recite a blessing on that candle and use it also to honor Shabbos. Therefore, we recite a blessing on a candle that has its own purpose and we use it for Shabbos. It is a candle, for Shabbos. In contrast, with Chanukah there is no candle if not for the holiday. The candle has no independent use. Therefore, it is not a light for Chanukah but a Chanukah light.

2. Rav Chaim Yosef David Azulai (Chida, 18th cen., Israel), in his Birkei Yosef (Orach Chaim 677:1), explains similarly to Rav Horowitz. In his Machazik Berakhah (Orach Chaim 676:1), Chida offers a different explanation. He notes that Shabbos and Yom Tov have many mitzvah actions — a meal, kiddush, wearing especially nice clothing, etc. Candles are only one of many Shabbos mitzvos and therefore the blessing refers to the lights of Shabbos, the one of many mitzvos. In contrast, Chanukah has no mitzvah action beyond candles. This is the only mitzvah of the holiday and therefore it is called Chanukah lights, inherently identified with the holiday.

To put it differently, according to the first explanation, there is no light without Chanukah. According to the second explanation, there is no Chanukah without light.

3. We can offer another proof, even if not really an explanation, for the Shulchan Arukh’s blessing text. Throughout the few pages of Shabbos in which it discusses Chanukah, the Gemara repeatedly refers to Chanukah light (ner Chanukah). For example: “The Chanukah light, it is a mitzva to place it at the entrance to one’s house on the outside” (Shabbos 21b). Throughout the Gemara, there is only one place where the text refers to the light of Chanukah: “A light of Chanukah that you placed above twenty cubits is invalid” (ibid., 22a) but Dikdukei Soferim (ad loc.) says that manuscripts have the text with “Chanukah light.” This all indicates that the proper term is “ner Chanukah, Chanukah light.” Although, as mentioned above, the blessing as described in the Gemara says “ner shel Chanukah, light of Chanukah.”

II. Is Chanukah a Holiday?

4. We said above that explanation 2 effectively means that there is no Chanukah without a light. However, that refers to the mitzvah acts of the day, that the only mitzvah is lighting candles. However, we can push that even further and say that there is literally no Chanukah without Chanukah lights.

Halakhic authorities debate whether you can recite the blessing of “Shehechyanu” on Chanukah and Purim if you do not have lights or a megillah, respectively. Rav Avraham Gombiner (17th cen., Poland; Magen Avraham 692:1) says that someone who does not hear megillah on Purim should not recite “Shehechyanu” on the Purim meal, sending gifts or giving charity since those are common activities. We do them all the time, including Shabbos and Yom Tov. Rav Ya’akov Emden (18th cen., Germany; Mor U-Ketzi’ah 692:1) objects. Even without those mitzvos, you should recite “Shehechyanu” on the day, just like we do for Yom Kippur. Chida (Birkei Yosef, Orach Chaim 692:1) similarly quotes two opinions on the subject, some in favor of reciting “Shehechyanu” on the day and some against. Rav Yisrael Meir Kagan (20th cen., Poland; Mishnah Berurah, Bi’ur Halakhah 692:1 s.v. ve-shehecheyanu) quotes Rav Menachem Meiri who says that you can recite “Shehechyanu” on the day of Chanukah itself of you do not have Chanukah lights and will not see any. 

Rav Avigdor Nebenzahl (contemp., Israel; Yerushalayim Be-Mo’adeha, Chanukah, p. 28) explains this debate as referring to the essential nature of Chanukah and Purim as rabbinically ordained holidays. According to those who advocate reciting “Shehechyanu” on the days, the Sages instituted holidays with inherent sanctity, elevating time itself. According to those who do not allow reciting “Shehechyanu” on the days, the Sages only obligate people. We are required to do what the Sages instruct us. Therefore, they may obligate us to do specific acts (read the megillah, kindle Chanukah lights, etc.) and refrain from specific acts (fasting and eulogizing) on specific days. The Sages can obligate people, the gavra, but cannot instill holiness in days, the cheftza.

Rav Nebenzahl connects this to the view of Rav Ya’akov Lorberbaum (19th cen., Poland; Nesivos Ha-Mishpat 234:3) that someone who accidentally eats food that is rabbinically forbidden does not need any atonement. Rabbinic prohibitions fall on the individual, not the object. Therefore, if you accidentally violate a rabbinic prohibition, your act lacks sinfulness because the act is inherently neutral and the intent to sin is lacking in an accidental violation. (See also Rav Yosef Engel, Asvun De-Oraisa, no. 10.) According to this logic, since Chanukah and Purim are rabbinic holidays, they lack inherent holiness and contain only obligations and restrictions. Therefore, you cannot say “Shehechyanu” on the days themselves but rather only on mitzvos of the days.

According to Rav Nebenzahl’s approach, we can say even more strongly that without the lights, there is no Chanukah. The Sages obligated us on this mitzvah and forbade us with certain restrictions, but the day itself is not holy because the Sages lack the authority to instill holiness in a day. (The issue of the second day of Yom Tov falls within the mitzvah of sanctifying the new month, which is a separate topic.)

III. The Lost Blessing

However, the prevalent Ashkenazic practice is to recite the blessing “le-hadlik ner shel Chanukah, to kindle the light of Chanukah.” As Rav Te’omim says (ibid.), this is what people customarily say. And with good reason. Rav Avraham Bing (19th cen., Germany; Zikhron Avraham 676) argues strongly in favor of this text. The Gemara (Shabbos 23a) clearly states that this is the text of the blessing. Who are we to deviate from that? The Shulchan Arukh must have been imprecise because we have on the highest authority, the Talmud, that the blessing is “le-hadlik ner shel Chanukah, to kindle the light of Chanukah.” All the explanations and speculations in the world can’t push away that fact.

However, there is another version of the blessing, “le-hadlik ner she-la-Chanukah.” The words “shel” and “Chanukah” are merged into one. This is how the Rambam (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhos Chanukah 3:4) has it (in the Frankel edition) and how Rav Shlomo Luria (Maharshal, 16th cen., Poland; Responsa, no. 85) says to recite the blessing. It is explaining this text that Rav Yeshayahu Horowitz (Shelah, quoted above) says that this refers to the sole purpose of the Chanukah light to publicize the miracle. This seems to be the old Ashkenazic version of the blessing. Dr. Seligmann Baer (19th cen., Germany; Siddur Avodas Yisrael) has it this way, vocalized as “she-la-Chanukah,” which he explains means “asher le-Chanukah, that is (solely) for Chanukah.”

Similarly, Mishnah Berurah (676:1) quotes Maharshal who says to pronounce it as one word but then Mishnah Berurah adds that people are not careful about this. In other words, really we should pronounce it that way but for one reason or another, that isn’t the custom. Both Ashkenazim and Sephardim say the blessing in a way that singles out Chanukah light as being dedicated solely for Chanukah.

As Mishnah Berurah says, many Ashkenazim aren’t careful about the pronunciation and it does not really matter. Similarly, Arukh Ha-Shulchan (676:1) says that it doesn’t really matter how you say it (although he personally says “ner Chanukah”). Either “le-hadlik ner Chanukah,” “le-hadlik ner she-la-Chanukah” or “le-hadlik ner shel Chanukah.” Any of these three are valid.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student serves on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and as Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He also serves on the Editorial Boards of Jewish Action magazine, the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and the Achieve Journal of Behavioral Health, Religion & Community, as well as the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

2 comments

  1. Nice. Two minor points
    1. The reference to Peri Megadim is to Aishel Avraham (and not to Mishbetzos Zahav, as written).
    2. I’m not sure the reference to Asvun De-Oraisa is exact, as I could not find it there (though I recall him claiming somewhere that the Rabbis can only create an Issur Gavra, not at Issur Cheftza)

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