Channuka Lights: A Halachic Analysis

Rabbi Israel Chait

Written by a student

How many lamps should one light on Chanukah? Its command is that one light be kindled in each and every house (Rambam, Hilchos Channuka 4:1)

What is the structure of the Channuka lights mitzvah: Is it an obligation that applies to the house, or in the person; a chovas bayis or a chovas gavra? Some wish to suggest that the obligation falls upon the dweller, similar to mezuza. Thus, if no one dwells in house, there is no obligation that the home per se has a mezuza affixed to it, or that the house has Channuka lights. Another suggestion was that it is an obligation does in fact apply to the house, and this would mean that even if one is not living in his vacation home, he would still be obligated to light Chanukah lights there. Rabbi Chait agreed [with the ramifications of this theory].

Rabbi Chait offered a different definition: The simplest formulation is that every person is obligated to light, but the fulfillment—kiyum—is via the house. Therefore, if one lives in a house and the house already has a Channuka light lit [by another household member], he is exempt.

There is a concept of a cheftza shel pirsum, an object of publication, which is the light in the house.  Now, who is obligated to create this object of publication? It is the dweller of the house. So if there are multiple dwellers, each one is obligated. But once one person lights, all others become exempt. 

The question was raised based on this theory why a guest would require to give money to the house owner to fulfill his obligation. [As he too is a dweller—albeit temporary—why is he not of equal dweller status to those who live there year-round who are exempt once a candle is lit, without payment?] Rabbi Chait agreed with this question. Furthermore, if one is a traveler—such as this person who needs hospitality—why is he even obligated in lighting? Giving money to the house owner to join in his lights, means that one fulfills his obligation through the house owner’s lights, via payment. But in fact, it should be that the traveler is not even obligated [like the year-round dwellers]. Therefore, this question proves that the obligation to like Channuka lights is an obligation on the person—chovas gavra—not an obligation in the house—chovas bayis. But the fulfillment—kiyum—takes place only through the house.

Therefore, 5 house dwellers each have their own obligation, but they have a kiyum through the light that is lit in the house. But why not say [instead] that the other 4 [who did not light] are exempt, as opposed to saying that they “fulfill” an obligation? And once again we have the question of why the traveler must give money (priti) to the house owner, unlike year-round house dwellers who do not need to give money to the house owner, whom, without giving money, have their obligation fulfilled.

So it is apparent that the Channauka lights mitzvah is an obligation which applies to the person (not a chovas bayis) but the fulfillment—kiyum—is only possible through the house. 

Now a separate question: Since the fulfillment is in the house, if one does not own a house, meaning he as no vehicle of fulfillment, is he obligated in lights at all? Does this obligation that falls upon the person exist only for one possessing the vehicle of fulfillment? Meaning, did the Chachamim not obligate one without a house, like a homeless person? Meaning, that the entire entity of mitzvah [including the means for fulfillment: a house] must relate to a person, otherwise he is exempt, just as a sailor is exempt.

Regarding mezuza, one’s obligation is generated from the house [one with no house is not obligated in mezuza, nor must he buy a house to fulfill mezuza]. But regarding Channuka, we cannot say this, based on the question above of why the traveler must join with the house owner through payment. For if the house generates the Channuka lights obligation, like mezuza, the traveler has no house and he should not need to join by giving money; he should be exempt. Also, why can't the traveler be exempt through the house owner’s lighting—without paymentjust as the year-round dwellers are exempt without payment? Why is the halacha that the traveler must give money to join? The dwellers’ obligations are fulfilled as they are connected to the house. Therefore the traveler [who is not connected to the house] must join through giving money.

That the halacha is that Channuka lights are obligatory on the person, fits with Maimonides’ formulation: “Anyone who is obligated in the reading of the Megilla is obligated in Channuka lights” (Hilchos Channuka 3:4). It’s clearly implicit that the obligation of Channuka lights is an obligation in the person, but the fulfillment is via the house. Maimonides’ words “each and every house” (Ibid 4:1) are ambiguous. Regarding mezuza, the entity of house demands mezuza. But regarding Channuka, we are not saying that the house demands the lights. Regarding mezuza, one with no house has no practical case of obligation, and this is equivalent to a parapet. [A parapet is obligated upon a house owner, not that one must buy a house in order to create a parapet]. The phrase “each and every house,” is an equivocal term, as Aristotle calls it. On the one hand, it means the structure of house obliges a mitzvah. In connection to mezuza that is a genuine “obligation of the structure.” But regarding  Channuka lights, “each and every house” does not mean that. Rather, the person is obligated, but the house is the vehicle through which one fills his obligation. The house is not the source of the obligation, rather it services the person. But the question still remains if one is obligated to begin with if he has no house . But that is a separate question [from the question of how we formulate the obligation]. 

But you do not have to say this; you could say that everyone must obtain a home [a cheftza shel mitzvah]. So as Rabbi Shirkin has it in his notes, one dwell with a host, or he can build a house. This view maintains that even one without a cheftza shel mitzvah—a home—one is still obligated in Channuka lights. 

Returning to Rambam, Rabbi Shirkin says (quoting the Rav on “each and every house”), “It is apparent from Rambam that it is an obligation on the house.”  I disagree. I don’t see how you can deduce from Rambam that it is an obligation in the house. All Rambam is saying is that the “vehicle of fulfillment” is house. But Rambam is not discussing whether one is obligated, if he does not have the vehicle. He is not addressing that issue. According to Rabbi Shirkin, you end up with a contradiction in Rambam, because he cites another Rambam that one is obligated to build a house (meaning it is an obligation on the person and not the house [unlike Rabbi Shirkin first suggested]. The Rav cites Rambam in Hilchos Berachos, that even without owning a home one is obligated in Channuka lights. 

The question was raised regarding why Pirsume ha’Nais (publicizing a miracle) relating to Channuka lights is unachievable alone, whereas it is achievable alone regarding Megilla. Regarding Channuka, one cannot be the publicizer and also the observer; by definition these are two different people. But Pirsume ha’Nais is different regarding Megilla, and requires an answer.

A final question was raised why in Halacha 4:1, Rambam formulates Channuka lights as “each and every house lights,” as opposed to “a person is obligated to light.” And Rambam is consistent, as he says in Hilchos Channuka 3:3 “and the lights are lit at evening on the houses entrances.” Again, Rambam formulated Channuka lights in public terms, not as an individual’s obligation. Rabbi Chait answered that Pirsume would be lacking, had members of the Jewish nation not lit. The Jewish nation (all houses) must be isolated in performing Channuka lights to be identified by others, as Rambam says “to display and reveal the miracle” (Ibid).