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Shabbat Parashat Miketz 5776

Ask the Rabbi: Lighting Chanuka Lights at a Chanuka Party

Rav Daniel Mann

Question: It is popular to light Chanuka candles in public gatherings. My extended family (about 40 people) will being getting together on a night of Chanuka in a small hall. Should/can we light with a beracha? (We expect all to have already lit at home.)

 

Answer: Chanuka candle lighting is tied to specific places to light, primarily a house that relates to the person (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 671:5-8). There is a precedent for public fulfillment of the mitzva, with a beracha – in a beit knesset (ibid. 7). We can gain insight from the discussion of this post-Talmudic practice, which has two parts: Why was it started? What is the justification for making a beracha?

The Beit Yosef (OC 671) cites a few reasons for the minhag. 1) The lighting is due to guests who lack a home to light in, similar to Kiddush in shul. 2) That public setting is appropriate for pirsumei nisa (publicizing the miracle). 3) It compensates for the fact that we no longer light outside (i.e., publicly) as was originally instituted (see Rivash 111). In the Shulchan Aruch, he cites pirsumei nisa without further explanation. 4) Some explain that a beit knesset , as a “mini-mikdash,” has special significance for commemorating a Beit Hamikdash miracle (see Kolbo 44).

Reasons #1 and #4 are linked to a beit knesset, whereas #2 and #3, which the Shulchan Aruch seems to accept, could arguably be applied to any large gathering (a minyan being a likely minimum - see Bemareh Habazak IV:64, regarding lighting in a shul without a minyan). We have never heard talk of a requirement to light out of the house, nor of real objections to lighting without a beracha. Therefore, the question boils down to whether the case for lighting in a public place is strong enough and/or similar enough to the minhag in a shul to justify a beracha.

The question of how one can make a beracha in shul without a Talmudic source is acute for the Shulchan Aruch who does not allow berachot for post-Talmudic minhagim, e.g., Hallel on Rosh Chodesh (OC 422:2). Rav O. Yosef (Yabia Omer VII, OC 57) presents several ideas. 1) A minhag that extends an existing mitzva receives a beracha (i.e., Hallel on seder night). 2) An important minhag justifies a beracha. 3) A minhag that was instituted by rabbis to strengthen observance has a beracha, whereas a grass-roots minhag does not.

Most contemporary poskim oppose making a beracha on Chanuka lighting in public places that are not shuls (see several quoted in Yabia Omer ibid.). Yet, some important poskim either encourage it or at least support the growing practice’s validity post facto. Rav Ovadia says that those who do it have what to rely upon, basing himself on the enthusiasm of Rav Rozental (Mishnat Yaakov, Zemanim p. 260 about settings in which there is better pirsumei nisa than in shuls). Az Nidberu (V:37) also feels it is the right thing, at least when it is in an outdoor, very public location. Davening Mincha/Maa’riv there strengthens the case (see Yalkut Yosef, Moadim p. 204).

Our analysis leads to the following compromise. One of the Kolbo’s (ibid.) reasons for the practice in shul is that it helps those who do not know or do not care enough about the mitzva to do it properly. This is very relevant for a large part of the Jewish community, in Israel and abroad. Not only does involving them in an authentic lighting (i.e., berachot sung traditionally, albeit not by one’s home) is not only generally important but is specifically in line with the pirsumei nisa that is so prominently part of this mitzva. Therefore, broad public lightings are important, with a beracha. There are both technical (Rav E. Melamed makes one such claim) and educational preferences to having one who does not usually perform mitzvot but respects them perform the lighting (sometimes an inspiring rabbi is a better idea).

In your case, there is little need to light. All light at home; it is a private gathering in a private place (even if you don’t fit in a house). So even if there is a minyan, we do not believe a beracha is justified.
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