Chanukah in the IDF

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by R. Gil Student

How does a soldier light Chanukah candles? There is an important rabbinic commandment to light Chanukah candles (really, lights) for all eight nights of Chanukah. Normally, we light in our homes, either in the window or right outside the door. When a soldier is at an army base, he can light there without worry. But what does a soldier do when he is out in the field, whether on an extended exercise or on the battlefield? At the time of this writing, there are thousands of IDF soldiers inside Gaza, engaged in battle. How do those living in tents or engaged in battle fulfill the mitzvah?

The primary mitzvah of Chanukah is to light one candle for each home (Shabbos 21b). Those who want to do extra (mehadrin) have each member of the household light a candle and those who want to do even extra (mehadrin min ha-mehadrin) light an additional candle each night. Rambam (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhos Chanukah 4:1) explains that the highest way is that each member of the household lights an additional number of candles each night. In contrast, Tosafos (Shabbos 21b s.v. ve-ha-mehadrin) believe that the highest way is for one person in each home to light an increasing number of candles each night. In one of the ironies of halakhic history, most Ashkenazim follow Rambam and therefore, in their homes, everyone lights a menorah with an additional candle each night. While most Sephardim follow Tosafos and, in their homes, only the head of the household lights a menorah with an additional candle each night.

If the mitzvah revolves around the home, does this mean that someone without a home is exempt? Rav Shalom Mordechai Schwadron (Ukraine, 20th cen.; Responsa Maharsham, vol. 4 no. 146) discusses whether someone traveling overnight on a train should light Chanukah candles. He rules that since the passenger rented the space on the train, it is considered his home and he should light candles there. Based on this, Rav Eliezer Yehudah Waldenberg (20th cen., Israel; Tzitz Eliezer, vol. 15, no. 29) concludes that someone who is hiking overnight can also light Chanukah candles. Since you do not need a fixed home for the mitzvah, even if you sleep in a tent on a hiking trail you also light Chanukah candles there. Rav Waldenberg goes further and argues that even if you sleep in a field under the sky, without any house or tent, you also light Chanukah candles there.

However, Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv (21st cen., Israel; Ashrei Ha-Ish, vol. 3, p. 262) understands Rav Schwadron’s ruling differently. Rav Schwadron was discussing someone who takes a multi-day train ride, as was common in those days. The passenger pays for a bed in a specific room in an overnight car for an extended period of time. Such a room has more permanence, allowing a person to establish residence there. This is different from someone riding the train for a few hours at night. Rav Elyashiv would not allow someone hiking to light Chanukah candles. Rav Yitzchak Yosef (cont., Israel; Yalkut Yosef, Chanukah, 671:28n, pp. 200, 653) quotes these two opinions and follows the former view, based on the conclusion of his illustrious father, Rav Ovadiah Yosef, that this is the majority opinion. Therefore, Rav Yitzchak Yosef permits soldiers who are at their guard posts to light Chanukah candles. In contrast, Rav Yosef Zvi Rimon (cont., Israel; Halakhah Mi-Mkorah, Zemanim, p. 347) says that most authorities follow Rav Elyashiv and do not allow people to light Chanukah candles without a home.

Rav Elyashiv (ibid., p. 267) rules that a tent constitutes a home if the tent is four square amos (cubits) long and wide, and its walls do not collapse under a normal wind. If a soldier will sleep at night in the tent then he can light Chanukah candles there. Rav Rimon (ibid., p. 348) says that most soldier’s individual tents are smaller than this. However, the larger military tents qualify as a home. A soldier can light at a larger tent with a blessing. If there is no other place to light, Rav Rimon allows one person to light outdoors with a blessing, following the minority (e.g. Chabad) that public menorah lightings can be done with a blessing.

Rav Zechariah Ben Shlomo (Hilkhos Tzava 75:24) rules that fully enclosed military vehicles (with a roof) constitute a home if a soldier sleeps in it. Therefore, if a soldier is going to sleep in a tank or an armoured personnel carrier, he may light Chanukah candles with a blessing. However, Rav Ben Shlomo adds that regarding such vehicles, you have to be very careful from a safety perspective about where you light. You do not want to set military equipment on fire.

This discussion assumes that the soldier does not have people back at home lighting Chanukah candles. If he does, he can fulfill the mitzvah through them because the primary mitzvah is to light one candle per home. If his parents or wife lights Chanukah candles, the soldier fulfills his obligation in that way. If a Sephardic soldier wants to light his own Chanukah candles, he is not even allowed to recite the blessing. An Ashkenazic soldier only lights if he wants to fulfill the mitzvah mehadrin min ha-mehadrin. It might be nice to light Chanukah candles for morale, but it is not halakhically required.

Of course, if lighting Chanukah candles interferes with the life-saving work of a soldier, Chanukah must be set aside. If the candles cannot be seen outdoors because that will alert the enemy of the soldiers’ location, he may only light inside at a safe place in a completely enclosed location. If that is not possible, a soldier should not light at all rather than risk any additional danger (Hilkhos Tzava 75:16). If safety considerations do not allow lighting fires, the last resort is to use a flashlight with an incandescent lightbulb as a Chanukah candle. Both Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (Halikhos Shlomo, Mo’adim 15:3) and Rav Elyashiv (ibid., p. 264) allow it with a blessing if there is no other option. Rav Yitzchak Yosef (ibid., 671:30n) objects that even an Ashkenazi can only use a flashlight for Chanukah candles without a blessing.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor 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 currently is serving his third term on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and also serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Board of Jewish Action magazineand the Board of OU Press. He has published four 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.

One comment

  1. Yashar Kohakha! With respect to those opinions that rule that one lights if dwelling in a large tent or in a military vehicle, is there any linkage between what constitutes a home for the purposes of Ner Ish u’Beto and the obligation to affix a Mezuzah? In other words under what conditions would these shitot also require a mezuzah when dwelling in these “dwellings?” Let’s say the person lives in the tent for an extended period of time. Is there any significance to the fact that the soldier, as opposed to the train traveler who paid for her or his train ticket, does not have any ownership rights to the tent or tank?

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