n memory of my grandfather
Rabbi Mordechai Ya’akov Golinkin z”l
on his 45th Yahrzeit
Question: According to the Talmud, Hanukkah is a home celebration. Why, then, is there is a widespread custom to light Hanukkah candles with the blessings in the synagogue?
Responsum: Indeed, according to the main Talmudic passage regarding Hanukkah (Shabbat 21b-24a), it is a home celebration. The Talmud repeatedly uses the words Beito, Bayit etc. There is no mention of lighting candles in the synagogue in the Talmud or in the Geonic Period (ca. 500-1000 CE).
In his classic article from 1962, “Home Rituals and the Spanish Synagogue”, Rabbi Solomon Freehof maintained that
there were certain observances in Spain that were not found in the rest of Europe… These special observances seem to the writer to have been motivated by the purpose of training the Jews of Spain to observe commandments hitherto not widely observed… (p. 218).
He then proceeds to give nine examples, including “Hanukkah Lights in the Synagogue” (pp. 223-224), citing Sefer Hamanhig (Toledo, 1204) and Sefer Abudraham (Seville, 1340) who report on the custom of lighting Hanukkah candles in the synagogue.
Indeed, they do, but in truth, the custom of lighting Hanukkah candles in the synagogue is first mentioned in Provence in the 12th century, and it is subsequently mentioned many times in Provence, Spain-North Africa, Italy, Germany and France between the 12th and 15th centuries. It was then codified in the Shulhan Arukh (Orah Hayyim 671:7) by both Rabbi Yosef Karo and Rabbi Moshe Isserles in the 16th century and became the standard practice among both Sefaradim and Ashkenazim.
We shall first list the primary sources, presented by country according to the first mention of the custom in that area. The approximate date of the first mention is listed in parentheses.
I. The Early Sources
Provence (ca. 1175)
Rabbi Yitzhak ben Abba Mari (Marseilles, ca. 1120-1190), Asseret Hadibrot in Sefer Ha’ittur, ed. Yonah, Vol. II, fol. 114d;
His nephew Rabbi Moshe b”r Shmuel (Marseilles, written after 1204), Minhag Marseilles, ed. Ya’akov Gartner, Iyunei Tefilah, Alon Shvut, 2015, pp. 410-411;
Rabbi David Halevi of Narbonne (end of the 13th century), Sefer Hamikhtam to Pesahim 101a, p. 438 (quoted by Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, p. 41, note 19);
Rabbi Aharon Hacohen of Lunel (ca. 1300), Orhot Hayyim, ed. Florence, Hilkhot Hannukah, paragraph 17, which appears with variations in the Kol Bo (ca. 1300), ed. David, Vol. 2, Jerusalem, 5750, paragraph 44, cols. 292-293;
Rabbi Menahem Hameiri (d. 1315), Bet Habehirah to Shabbat 23b, ed. Lange, p. 104.
Spain and North Africa (1204)
Rabbi Avraham ben Nattan Hayarhi (born in Lunel, wrote his book in Toledo, 1204), Sefer Hamanhig, ed. Refael, p. 531;
A disciple of Rabbeinu Yonah Gerondi (Spain, d. 1264) in the recently published Siddur Catalonia, ed. Idan Peretz, Jerusalem, 5779, p. 355;
Rabbi Yom Tov Ishbili, the Ritva (Seville, ca. 1260-1320), Hiddushim to Shabbat 23a, s.v. Haroeh, ed. Reichman, p. 111;
Rabbi David Abudraham (Seville, written in 1340), Sefer Abudraham Hashalem, Jerusalem, 5723, pp. 152, 201;
Rabbi Yitzhak bar Sheshet, Ribash (Spain 1326-Algiers, 1408), Responsa Ribash, ed. Machon Yerushalayim, No. 111.
Italy (ca. 1260)
Rabbi Tzidkiyahu ben Avraham Harofe (Rome, ca. 1220-1280), Shibolei Halaket, ed. Buber, Vilna, 1887, paragraph 185, fol. 72a; which appears with variations in Rabbi Yehiel b”r Yekutiel Harofe (Rome, d. 1289). Tanya Rabbati, ed. Yisrael Baron, Jerusalem, 2011, p. 134.
Germany (ca. 1270)
Rabbi Meir of Rothenberg, Maharam (Germany, ca. 1220-1293), Responsa Maharam, ed. Prague, No. 66 = Y.Z. Kahana, ed., Pesakim Uketavim, Vol. 1, Responsa section, No. 136;
Minhagim d’vei Maharam Mirotenberg (Germany, 14th century), ed. Elfenbein, New York, 1938, p. 71;
Rabbi Ya’akov Moellin, Maharil (Mainz, 1360-1427), Minhagei Maharil, ed. Shpitzer, Jerusalem, 5749, pp. 404-406;
Rabbi Yisrael Isserlein (Wiener Neustadt, 1390-1460), Terumat Hadeshen, No. 104, reports that he saw Hanukkah candles lit in the synagogues of Vienna, Krems, Neustadt, and Marburg.
Rabbi Yisrael of Bruna (Moravia, 1400-1480), Responsa Mohari Mibruna, No. 39, reports that he saw Hanukkah candles lit in the synagogues of Regensburg, Bruna and other places.
France (ca. 1270)
Rabbi Yitzhak of Corbeil (d. 1280), Sefer Mitzvot Katan, as quoted by Rabbi Ya’akov ben Asher (Toledo, d. 1340), Tur Orah Hayyim 671; Hasemak Mizurich, Mitzvah 276, ed. Rosenberg, Vol. 3, p. 348; and Terumat Hadeshen, No. 104. (It is not found in the regular editions of Sefer Mitzvot Kattan/Amudei Golah, Mitzvah 280.)
Rabbeinu Peretz of Corbeil (d. ca. 1295), Hagahot to Sefer Mitzvot Kattan, Mitzvah 280, ed. Ralbag, p. 277 at bottom.
II. The Reasons Given for Lighting Hanukkah Candles in the Synagogue
Some of the sources cited above simply report the custom without giving a reason (e.g. Asseret Hadibrot, Maharam, Maharil), However, many of them give a reason and quite a few give several reasons for the custom. Here are five reasons given by the sources listed above:
a. In memory of the Temple. The miracle of Hanukkah took place in the Temple (Shabbat 21b) and the synagogue is a Mikdash Me’at (a small Temple) in the Diaspora (see Megillah 29a): Rabbi Moshe b”r Shmuel; Orhot Hayyim = Kol Bo; Sefer Hamanhig.
b. We light candles on the southern side of the synagogue in memory of the Menorah, which was located on the southern side of the Temple: Siddur Catalonia; Rabbi Yitzhak of Corbeil; Rabbeinu Peretz of Corbeil.
c. Since the purpose of lighting the candles is pirsumei nissa, to publicize the miracle (Shabbat 21b, Rashi s.v. Mibahutz and elsewhere), we light the candles in the synagogue in order to publicize the miracle: Rabbi Moshe b”r Shmuel; Sefer Hamikhtam; Orhot Hayyim = Kol Bo; Rabbi Menahem Hameiri; Minhagim d’vei Maharam; Sefer Hamanhig; Ritva; Sefer Abudraham, 152. The Ribash explains that since we live among the Gentiles and cannot light the candles outside of our homes according to the Talmudic custom (Shabbat 21b), therefore we light in the synagogue in order to fulfill the mitzvah of pirsumei nissa.
d. To fulfill the obligation of one who is not expert and scrupulous (zariz) in the performance of this mitzvah; or of guests who do not have a home where they can bless; or of one who does not have oil at home: Sefer Hamikhtam; Orhot Hayyim = Kol Bo; Sefer Abudraham, 152; Tanya Rabbati.
e. Maybe the custom started because the Hazzan used to live in the synagogue: Shibolei Haleket.
III. If this is only a custom, why do we recite the blessings in the synagogue?
The Ribash was one of the first to address this issue (cf. Sefer Hamikhtam). He says that normally we do not make a blessing over a light custom (minhag kal), but since we light candles in the synagogue in order to publicize the miracle for the many, we do recite the blessings, just as we recite the blessing over Hallel on Rosh Hodesh even though it’s only a custom.(1) But we do not fulfill our obligation in the synagogue and we must still bless at home as the Talmud says.
IV. Opposition to or Non-Observance of the Custom
Rabbi Tzidiyahu Harofe quotes Asseret Hadibrot re. lighting candles in the synagogue, says that this is also the custom in Rome, and then says: “and we do not know a root or branch for this custom”. He then relates that his teacher and cousin Rabbi Yehudah (the Rivevan) avoided lighting the candles in the synagogue in order not to bless them. “And this is my opinion too”; since everyone will bless at home, why light in the synagogue? (cf. Tanya Rabbati for another version of this paragraph).
There are various reports as to the Yemenite practice.(2) Rabbi Yosef Kafih reports in two of his works that the Yemenite practice was to recite Minhah in the synagogue, go home to light candles, and then return to the synagogue for Maariv.(3) I am pretty sure that this was the original Yemenite practice since the Yemenites almost always followed the Rambam and this custom is not recorded by the Rambam.
V. Lighting Hanukkah Candles in the Synagogue in the Morning without a Blessing
Surprisingly enough, there was a widespread custom to also light Hanukkah candles in the synagogue during the Shaharit service without a blessing. The reason given was pirsumei nissa, to publicize the miracle.
This custom was widespread among the Jews of Israel, Syria, Turkey and Egypt in the 19th and 20th centuries: Rabbi Raphael Aharon ben Shimon, Nehar Mitzrayim, fol. 50b; Rabbi Shemtov Gaguine, Keter Shem Tov, Vol. 1, p. 519; Rabbi Yaakov Gellis, Minhagei Eretz Yisrael, Jerusalem, 5728, p. 205, paragraph 11.
It was also found among the Jews of Vilna in the 19th century and among the Jews of Germany in the early 20th century. (See Rabbi David Tzvi Hoffmann, Melamed L’hoil, Orah Hayyim, No. 121 and Responsa Binyan Shlomo, No. 53, quoted there).
It is also recommended by Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef in our day (p. 205, paragraph 20; and cf. note 49)
Rabbi Elyahu Guedz (Zeh Hashulhan, Algiers, 1889, p. 82, paragraph 3) mentions an even more surprising custom: to light candles in the synagogue specifically in the morning and not at night. He offers no explanation for this custom. The reasoning might have been that at night everyone lights at home, while in the morning it is a unique opportunity to do pirsumei nissa.
VI. Summary and Practical Halakhah
The custom of lighting Hanukkah candles in the synagogue with the blessings began in Provence in the 12th century and quickly spread to all of the countries mentioned above. Later, it spread to most of the Jewish world. Five reasons were given for this custom, but the three most important are to remember the miracle of the cruse of oil in the Temple in the synagogue, to publicize the miracle, and to fulfill the obligation of people in the synagogue who do not know how to light the candles or who have no place to light. These three reasons still resonate today. Finally, many Jewish communities have the custom of lighting the candles in the synagogue in the morning without a blessing.
As we light the Hanukkah candles both at home and in the synagogue, may we remember the miracles which God performed for our ancestors bayamim hahem bazeman hazeh, “in those days, at this season”.
19 Kislev 5780
Freehof — Rabbi Solomon Freehof, “Home Rituals and the Spanish Synagogue”, Studies and Essays in Honor of Abraham A. Neuman, Leiden, 1962, pp. 215-227
Gartner – Ya’akov Gartner, Iyunei Tefillah: Minhagim Vetoledot, Alon Shevut, 2015, pp. 50-51, 410-411
Sofer – Rabbi Ya’akov Hayyim Sofer, Kaf Hahayyim to Orah Hayyim 671, paragraphs 65-72
Yosef – Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, Hazon Ovadia: Hilkhot Hanukkah, Jerusalem, 2007, pp. 40-59
Yosef – Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, Yalkut Yosef, Vol. 5, Mo’adim, Jerusalem, 5748, pp. 199-205
David Golinkin is President of The Schechter Institutes, Inc. and President Emeritus of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies. For twenty years he served as Chair of the Va’ad Halakhah (Law Committee) of the Rabbinical Assembly which gives halakhic guidance to the Masorti Movement in Israel. He is the founder and director of the Institute of Applied Halakhah at Schechter and also directs the Center for Women in Jewish Law. Rabbi Professor Golinkin made aliyah in 1972, earning a BA in Jewish History and two teaching certificates from The Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He received an MA in Rabbinics and a PhD in Talmud from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America where he was also ordained as Rabbi. For a complete bio click here.