The Lights of Chanukah: Laws and Customs

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09 Apr 2014

The Lights of Chanukah

The Jewish tradition is that on the first night of Chanukah one flame is lit, on the second night two, and so on until the eighth night when eight flames are lit.

Actually, the question of whether to begin the lighting with one flame and proceed, adding one each night, to eight on the final, the eighth, night of Chanukah or do just the opposite, begin with eight and end with one, was a matter of dispute. In fact, it was one of the famous “machlokot,” or disagreements, between two of the greatest wise men of Israel, Hillel and Shammai, as recorded in the Talmud, in Masechet Shabbat 21b.

Hillel said that on the first night we light one, on the second, two, and so on, till eight on the eighth night. Shammai held the reverse opinion; namely, on the first night, light eight lights, and proceed, diminishing the number of lights by one each night, to just one light on the final night of Chanukah.

In the democratic spirit of the Talmud, the question was voted upon by the colleagues of Hillel and Shammai, and Hillel’s opinion prevailed; thereby establishing our present practice of lighting, from one to eight.

Learn more about the disagreements between Hillel and Shammai.

Other Burning Issues

But what materials can be used as the source of the flame? How are they to be placed in the Menorah? From which side, left or right, is the lighting of the flames begun? Where should the Menorah be placed? Who should do the lighting?

These are but a few of the many issues that are raised each year as the Holiday of Lights, Chanukah, approaches. In the following paragraphs, we will try to give some of the answers, as they have been adopted and accepted by Jews for generations.

Who should do the lighting? EVERYBODY!

As with all Jewish holidays, Chanukah is a festival best shared with family. All members of the family should gather and be present at the kindling of the Chanukah lights. Each member of the family, all generations and all genders, should be encouraged to purchase, prepare and light their own Menorah.

To read about the special role of women, check out “It’s a Woman Thing.”

A Word from Smokey the Bear

Students and singles who live in dormitories or their own apartments should kindle Menorahs in their own rooms unless otherwise instructed by the security services of their respective institutions.

How do we prepare the lights?

The preferred way to perform the ‘mitzvah,’ or commandment, of lighting the Chanukah lamps is with pure olive oil and cotton wicks, since their light is pure, and it recalls the light of the Golden Menorah in the Temple which was lit with pure olive oil. All other oils and wicks are also permissible; purity of the light and lack of flickering are the most important characteristics. Candles made of wax or paraffin are also permitted.

Each Menorah should be owned and prepared by the person who will light it, children too . Every evening of the holiday, the proper number of candles, or wicks suspended in oil, preferably olive oil, as was used in the Temple, are prepared and placed in the Menorah from right to left – with today’s flame being the last one set up.

The candles or wicks should be placed in a straight row, and even; that is, none being higher or lower than the others, none receding or protruding, and none in a circle. There should also be sufficient space between one flame and the other, so that the flame of one might not be joined to that of the other; and so that the heat of one candle, if candles are used, might not melt the wax of another.

How do we light the flames?

On the first night of Chanukah we light the first flame, and each night after, we add an additional light until the eighth night, when eight lights are lit. The flames are lit from left to right, with today’s flame being lit first. By doing this each night, we remember that it is that additional flame that represents the ‘growth’ of the miracle.

On the first night of Chanukah, three ‘brachot’ (blessings) are said before the lights are kindled: (example of the lighting using RealAudio. Please Note: One cannot fulfill the Commandment of lighting the Menorah yourself, or of listening to someone else light the Menorah, by listening to the player. Technology has not yet advanced so far that it can generate a virtual human being; Yet).

Also available are Chanukah Candle Lighting in Russian, and Chanukah Candle Lighting in Int’l Sign Language.

  1. ‘Baruch ata Hashem, Elokenu melech ha’olam, asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu l’hadlik her shel Chanukah.’ (Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, Who has sanctified us with His commandments, and has commanded us to light the Chanukah lamps.)
  2. ‘Baruch ata Hashem, Elokenu melech ha’olam, she’asah nisim la’avotenu, bayamim hahem bazeman hazeh. (Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, Who has done miracles for our fathers in bygone days, at this time.
  3. ‘Baruch ata Hashem, Elokenu melech ha’olam, shehecheyanu, vekiyemanu vehigi’anu lazeman hazeh. (Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, Who has given us life, and has sustained us, and has brought us to this time.”
  4. The lights are then kindled.

After the first light is kindled, the one who is doing the kindling recites ‘HaNerot HaLalu Anu Madlikin’ – ‘We Kindle these candles,’ as the remaining lights are kindled

Translation of “Hanerot Halalu:”

“We kindle these lights to commemorate the miracles and the wonders and the acts of salvation and the battles that you fought in behalf of our ancestors long ago, at this time, through your righteous priests. And during all the eight days of Chanukah, these lights are holy! And we have no right to make use of them, but only to behold them, in order to give thanks and to praise Your great Name, for Your miracles, and your wonders and your acts of salvation.”

When the lighting is concluded, Chanukah hymns are sung, in accord with the custom of one’s community.

‘Maoz Tzur,” “O Mighty Stronghold,” is a six-stanza review of Jewish History which begins and ends with a prayer for our final redemption. It, as well as “Mizmor Shir Chnukat HaBayit L’David,” “A Song, with Musical Accompaniment, for the Inauguration of the Temple, by David,” whose name basically summarizes in a word, or thirteen words, its essential meaning, are two of the hymns which are very popular. The latter is added to the Prayer Service after Shacharit, as the “Shir shel Yom,” the “Daily Psalm” every morning of Chanukah. According to the Sephardic custom, this Psalm is also recited immediately after “Haneirot HaLalu.”

Tickets here for the Chanukah Musical Concert!

The three brachot (blessings) shown above should be repeated by every member of the family that is lighting his or her own Menorah.

On the second through eighth nights only the first two ‘brachot’ are said, omitting the third blessing – ‘shehecheyanu.’

However, if someone was prevented by accident from lighting the Chanukah light on the first or subsequent nights, he/she does say ‘shehecheyanu’ the first time he/she kindles the Chanukah light.

Essence of the “Mitzvah”

The Talmud discusses the question of what is the essence of the Mitzvah; that is, the essential act of the commandment of “Nerot Chanukah,” the Lights of Chanukah, the purpose of which is “publicizing the Miracle of Chanukah,” – the “kindling” or the “placement?”

What’s the difference?

There has to be a practical difference, or else the discussion is meaningless. In this case, a practical difference would be if the lights were kindled in a place in the house with minimal capability of “pirsum ha’nes,” publicizing of the Mitzvah, then transferred to the window or near the door to the outside, opposite the Mezuzah, places of maximum “pirsum.”

If the essential act is the kindling, since that act was done where the purpose of the Mitzvah could not be achieved, the Mitzvah was not fulfilled properly.

On the other hand, if the essential ingredient in the performance of the Mitzvah is the placement of the light where it can achieve its purpose, then the Mitzvah was done just fine.

The decision in the Talmud is that the kindling is in fact the essential act, and therefore, in our case, the light would have to be extinguished, then transferred to a proper place or, equivalently, moved, then extinguished, and then re-ignited!

The Shamash

It is customary to light one extra light in addition to the required number of lights for the given night. The extra light is called the ‘shamash’ (the ‘assistant,’ or ‘helper’). The ‘shamash’ may be used for kindling the Chanukah lights, and one may derive benefit from its light. It is customarily placed on the Menorah, but not in line with the other lights; either above or below or in front or behind, any deviation which makes it obvious that the ‘shamash’ is not one of the regular lights.

The Chanukah lights themselves may not be used for any purpose other than the contemplation of their beauty and meaning while they burn in fulfillment of the mitzvah.

In order to avoid using even the ‘shamash’ for a mundane purpose such as reading, Rabbi Kitov recommends having at least one other light present, to provide light for purposes extraneous to the Menorah.

What may be done while the Chanukah lamps are lit?

According to the Maharil, it is a tradition that everybody refrain from work during the first half hour that the flames are lit. For women, who suffered more under the persecution of the Greeks, the prohibition extends during the entire period that the Chaukah lamps are lit; that is, beyond the first half hour, till all the flames are out.

The kind of work to be refrained from includes sewing, laundering and other “melachot,” purposeful activities, which are prohibited on “Chol HaMoed,” the Intermediate Days of Festivals.   Cooking, and melacha which will prevent a financial loss are, according to some authorities, permissible.  Thus, to some extent, the period of time while the Chanukah lights are kindled, is viewed in Halacha, as the “Chol HaMoed” of Chanukah.

Where Should the Menorah be Placed?

The placement of the Menorah should be such as to accomplish the greatest possible ‘pirsum ha’nes,’ publicizing of the miracle. It should therefore be placed in a safe (no fire hazards!) but publicly visible place in order to project the celebration of this great miracle to the outside world. At the time of kindling, the entire household should gather so that ‘the miracle might be publicized’ inwardly as well; that is, to one’s family and one’s self.

Technical Stuff, but with a Reason

Ideally, the Chanukah lights are not to be placed at a lower height than three ‘tefachim’ (handbreadths), about eighteen inches, from the ground, nor at a greater height than ten ‘tefachim’ above the ground; that is, they should be placed between a height of approximately eighteen inches and about five feet.

If they are placed at a greater height than ten ‘tefachim’, but less than twenty ‘amot’ he has still fulfilled his obligation, although not in the ideal manner. One ‘amah’ is a length somewhere between eighteen inches and two feet; therefore, twenty ‘amot’ is somewhere between thirty and forty feet. If the lights are raised above twenty ‘amot,’ he has not fulfilled his obligation.

The reason for these regulations is that only the placement of the Chanukah lights within the prescribed confines could achieve the effect of ‘pirsum hanes’ (publicizing the miracle); otherwise, they are simply not seen.

In Talmudic times, the Sages prescribed that the Chanukah lights are to be placed at the street entrance to one’s home – on the left side of the entrance, so that the ‘Mezuzah’ attached to the doorpost would be to the right, and the Chanukah lights to the left.

In modern times, when many people live in apartment buildings, the custom has become to place the Menorah at a window facing the street. If one lives in a tall apartment building such that the height of the window is greater than twenty ‘amot,’ Rabbi Kitov states that in his opinion, it is preferable to light the Menorah near the most heavily used entrance on the left side of the entry.

Nowadays, many Jews in Eretz Yisrael, and increasing numbers of Jews outside of Israel, perform the Mitzvah as it was done in Talmudic times, as described above.

What time do we light the candles?

The Chanukah lights are to be lit immediately upon the appearance of the stars. If one has not however done so, he may still perform the mitzvah through the remainder of the night as long as the members of his household are still awake, or if there is significant traffic in the streets. If he is unable to light the Chanukah lights till an exceedingly late hour, when all are asleep, and ‘pirsum hanes’ could no longer be accomplished indoors or outdoors, he kindles the lights without a brachah. If the night has passed and he has failed to kindle the lights, he can no longer do so the remainder of the day and can only resume performance of the mitzvah the following night.

Eating or drinking intoxicating liquids is prohibited one half hour before the time for kindling the lights. Once the prescribed time has arrived, even the study of Torah is prohibited till the Chanukah lights are lit. Upon the appearance of the stars, the Ma’ariv Prayer is said, and is followed immediately by the kindling of the lights.

The lights should burn at least half an hour after the stars appear in the sky. At the time of lighting, there should therefore be sufficient oil in the menorah, or the candles should be sufficiently large, to maintain a flame for the prescribed period of time. Those who kindle the lights at sunset are required to pour sufficient oil into the menorah, or use similarly large candles, for burning a minimum of 50 minutes, so that the lights might burn for the prescribed half hour period after the appearance of the stars.

If, at the time of lighting, the lights have insufficient oil for burning half an hour, one may not add oil after the lights have been kindled; rather, he is required to extinguish the lights, to add oil, to recite the brachah and to kindle the lights a second time.

If one has poured oil in excess of the required measure into the menorah, he may extinguish the lights after one half hour of burning, if he wishes to use the remaining oil for the Chanukah lights the following night. If it had been his original intention upon the lighting of the menorah, to derive any other benefit from the remaining oil, he may use that oil for any desired purpose.

If a Chanukah light accidentally goes out in the midst of its prescribed time for burning, it is to be kindled again, but without a brachah. After the fact, however, if one fails to rekindle it, he is nevertheless considered as having fulfilled the obligation of the mitzvah.

As long as the Chanukah lights burn – even after the prescribed half hour – their light may not be used for any personal benefit. Nor may they be moved from place to place. After the prescribed half hour – if one wishes to make use of them – they are first to be extinguished, and then reused.

Special issues regarding Shabbat!!

Erev Shabbat the Chanukah lights are lit first, and subsequently the Shabbat lights. One is required to pour adequate oil into the menorah for burning half an hour after the appearance of the stars, which, by most standards, is an hour and a half after the actual lighting. So, in order to satisfy that length of time, if using candles – the big Shabbat candles should be used instead of the little colored ones. If you light with oil, make sure to have enough to last over an hour and a half.

After Shabbat, at home, ‘Havdalah’ is first recited over wine and then the Chanukah lights are lit.

Levivot and Sufganiyot (Potato Pancakes and Jelly Donuts)

“Since oil, especially olive oil, is the main ingredient in the ‘Nes Chanukah,’ the Miracle of Chanukah, oil-based foods are favorite recipes on this holiday. ‘Levivot,’ also known as ‘Latkes,’ simply potato pancakes, are very popular on Chanukah, as well as ‘sufganiyot,’ jelly donuts.

The Jewish Festivals, including the Three Major Festivals, Chanukah and Purim, are designed as ‘chetzyo le’Hashem ve’chetzyo lachem,’ ‘half for G-d’s pleasure, and half for yours.’ If Purim is the Extra Calorie Per Day Champion among the holidays, there is probably a virtual tie between Pesach and Chanukah, both eight- day holidays, for Total Extra Calories.


For many generations, it has been a custom for children and adults to play the game of dreidel on Chanukah. The dreidel is a four-sided top, each side being marked with a letter.

In Israel, where the miracle occurred, the Hebrew letters are ‘nun,’ ‘gimmel,’ ‘heh,’ and ‘peh,’ where the letters stand for the words ‘nes gadol hayah poh,’ ‘a great miracle happened here.’

Outside of Israel, the letters are the same except that ‘shin’ replaces ‘peh,’ and the expression is ‘nes gadol hayah sham,’ ‘a great miracle happened there.’

Each letter is worth a different amount, children get a chance to use their Chanukah ‘gelt’ (loot), and generally, a lot of fun is had by all.

A theory as to the origin of the game is that it dates from the time of the Roman persecution, when the study of Torah was banned. Groups of Jews would meet, at great danger to themselves, to study Torah, and, at the approach of a Roman Legionnaire, out would come the dreidlach, and the group would pretend that they’d been playing an innocent game.