Mitzvot of Hanukkah
- Every evening of the festival of Hanukkah, we light Hanukkah lights.On each of the
eight days of the festival we say the prayer “Al Hannisim” – “And on the miracles”
in the Prayer of Eighteen Blessings (Shemona Esrei) and in the after-blessing on a meal
- Full Hallel is said each morning of the festival, and the Torah portion of the Princes is read.
- The days of Hanukkah are days of rejoicing and fasting and eulogies are forbidden.
- There is a custom to eat fried foods on the festival, such as latkes and donuts – in memory of the miracle of the oil.
- More charity is given on the festival.
- There is a custom to give children money, “Hanukkah gelt,” in order to accustom them to giving charity.
The mitzva of lighting Hanukkah lights applies to every Jew, man and woman who has reached the age of bar– or bat-mitzva. However, women and girls fulfill their obligation when their husband / father lights. A single woman, or a woman whose husband will not be lighting at home, needs to light the lights herself. Children under the age of bar- or bat-mitzva are educated in fulfilling this mitzva.
Why do we light Hanukkah lights?
The reason for lighting is found in Maimonides’ book, Mishneh Torah, (Laws of Megillah and Hanukkah – Chapter 3):
[b] When Israel overpowered their enemies and destroyed them it was on the 25th Kislev, and they entered the Temple and they did not find pure oil in the Temple; only one container that was enough to last one day. The lamps of the menorah burned eight days from it, until they pressed olives and made pure oil.
[c] And because of this, the Sages regulated that in that generation these eight days would be upheld, starting from the 25th night of Kislev, days of rejoicing and Hallel and lights are to be lit in the evening at the entrances of the houses every night for eight nights, to show and to proclaim the miracle, and these days are to be called Hanukkah, and eulogies and fasting are forbidden, as on the days of Purim, and the lighting of lamps is a mitzva from the words of the Scribes, as is the reading the Megillah.
Advertising the Miracle
The original law was to light the Hanukiah at the outside entrance to one’s house (and there are those who follow this today).
Because of gentile persecution, it became customary to light within one’s home, and thus the custom remains. In multi-floor buildings, it is possible to place the Hanukiah on a window ledge facing the street, on condition that the lights are seen within the home, and that the window is not higher than 9.60 meters above street level.
On the other hand, some light the Hanukiah next to an inner entrance, between rooms. The Hanukiah is placed opposite the side of the mezuza, in order that the mezuza will be on one side and the Hanukiah on the second side, so that we are surrounded by mitzvot.
Throughout the eight days of the festival we add a Hanukkah light each evening: on the first day we light one candle or lamp, on the second day, two candles or lamps, on the third day, three candles or lamps, until on the eight day we light eight candles or lamps.
The Right Direction
We place the oil or candles from the right side of the Hanukiah, but we light from left to right. In other words, on the first day we place one lamp on the right side of the Hanukiah and light it. On the second day, we light 2 lamps at the right side of the Hanukiah, but first light the “new” lamp and afterwards the light that belongs to the first day. So with each day, first, the “new” lamp, and after it, yesterday’s lamp, and after it, the previous day’s, from left to right.
It is preferable to light the Hanukiah with olive oil, with which the miracle in the Temple was wrought, but any kind of oil and candles are fit for lighting Hanukkah lights.
Even without a Hanukiah
The Hanukiah is just a technical solution for lighting the Hanukkah lights and is not important in and of itself. It is possible to light also without a Hanukiah. For example, you can stick the candles on any surface, such as a window ledge. However, it is preferable to light them in a Hanukiah, in order to add beauty and honor the mitzva. Most importantly, the candles should not be so close to one another that they look like one unit, because then a person has not fulfilled his obligation at all. It is preferable to have a distance of 2 cm. (about 1 inch) between each candle. A Hanukiah whose branches do not stand in a straight line should not be used. The “shamash,” the lamp from which the other lamps are lit, should be at a different height, above the rest of the lights, in order for it to be known that it is not counted with the number of lights lit.
Lighting at the Right Time
The preferable time for lighting the lamps is at sunset, or ten minutes after sunset. Some prefer to light when the stars appear. If you are late, you can still light with a blessing as long as your family is awake (and if you place the Hanukiah outside your house – for as long as people are in the streets). If everyone is sleeping and it is not possible to wake any family member, you can still light, but without a blessing. If you are away from home at the time of lighting Hanukkah lights, you can ask you wife or child over bar– or bat-mitzva age to light on time, and if you, yourself, want to light when you return home – you should have in mind that you do not thereby fulfill your obligation, and then you can light with the blessings, on condition that someone else is present when you light.
Make sure that there is enough oil or big enough candles to burn at least a half-hour, and if you light before the stars appear – the oil or candles should be able to burn for 50 minutes. We may not blow out the flames after the minimum time has passed, but allow them to burn themselves out.
On Friday evening we light earlier. We light Hanukkah lights before we light Shabbat candles. Because ewe light earlier than usual, we should use more oil or bigger candles, and not the thin half-hour candles, so that they will burn at least 70 minutes. If we forget, and the lady of the house lights Shabbat candles before the Hanukkah candles are lit, the men who have not yet accepted Shabbat can still light Hanukkah lights before sunset.
On Motze Shabbat Hanukkah, the men return directly from synagogue and hurry to make Havdalah. After Havdalah, the Hanukkah lights are lit. However, some have the custom, in order to light the Hanukkah lights as soon as possible after dark, to say “Baruch Hamavdil ben kodesh lechol” [Blessed is He Who distinguishes between the holy and the weekday] then light Hanukkah lights, and only afterwards make Havdalah over wine.
Someone who is a guest in another’s home for the eight days of Hanukkah is considered a member of the household, and he fulfills all his obligations with the lighting of the host; however some have the custom that every member of the household lights his own Hanukiah, and then the guest lights too.
Someone who eats a one-time meal at his friend’s table lights the Hanukkah lights when he returns home. If he will be delayed and will not return home while members of his own household are awake, he should ask his wife of one of his children who has reached bar– or bat-mitzva age to light for him. A child who is visiting his friend waits to light on his return home.