A primer for Hanukkah candle-lighting

It is appropriate to light the Hanukkah candles at ‘tzeit ha’kachavim’ (nightfall), if possible, and especially desirable to dedicate the time after kindling the lights to the study of the holiday, and family gatherings.

Rabbi Eliezer Melamed,

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Note: Although the article uses the more common expression "light the candles," it is, of course, also intended for those who kindle Hanukah lights with olive oil.

The Proper Time and Duration of Lighting

The Sages ordained that one must light the Hanukkah candles when the miracle will be publicized most effectively. In the past, when there were no street lights, at nightfall the streets would fill with people returning home from their daily activities. Therefore, the Sages declared that the proper time to light the candles is “from sunset until the marketplace empties out” (Shabbat 21b).

And although today we have electric lighting, and most people continue working into the evening and return home after nightfall, one should try to return home as soon as possible, in order to light close to the ideal time ordained by the Sages – from tzeit ha’kochavim (nightfall).

If possible, it would be ideal if one could return home early on Hanukkah, which in Israel is before five o’clock, and after the candle lighting, gather together with one’s family and learn about the miracle of Hanukkah, and the destiny of the People of Israel.

Ma’ariv (Evening Services) and Candle Lighting

Men who regularly pray Ma’ariv immediately at tzeit ha’kochavim should pray as usual and afterwards, return home at once to light the candles.

For those who usually pray Ma’ariv later, it is preferable to light candles at tzeit ha’kochavim and pray at their usual time, and thus be able to light at the more ideal time, tzeit ha’kochavim.

One must be careful, however, not to eat dinner beforehand. If there is concern that after a party following candle lighting, one will forget to pray Ma’ariv, it is preferable to pray at tzeit ha’kochavim, and light candles after Ma’ariv (Peninei Halakha: Z’manim 12,13; 13, footnote 4).

Cancelling a Regular Torah Class  

In a place where a regular Torah class takes place after Ma’ariv, and if as a result of the participants going home to light candles after prayers the class will be cancelled, it is preferable to hold the class at its regular time and to light candles afterwards, because Torah study takes precedent to lighting the candles at the ideal time (Peninei Halakha: Z’manim 12, 13; 13, footnote 13).

Those Returning Late from Work

A person who finds it difficult to return home at tzeit ha’kochavim, is permitted to light candles with a bracha (blessing) after he returns from work, for even in the past in the opinion of the majority of poskim (Jewish law arbiters), bediavad one could fulfill the mitzvah all night long – kal ve’chomer (all the more so) today, when many people normally return home after tzeit ha’kochavim.

However, a person who comes home late should try to light the candles as soon as possible, and if he can, light before 9:00 P.M., because until that time, even latecomers usually return home from work. Only in a sha’at dachak (pressing circumstance) is one permitted to light the candles all night long, and to recite the blessing only if there is at least one other person in the house or on the street who will see the candles (ibid 13: 8, footnote 12).

A latecomer must be careful not to eat achilat keva (a proper meal) until he lights candles (ibid 12, footnote 13).

Waiting for a Spouse

In many families, the question arises as to the appropriate procedure when one’s spouse cannot return home from work by tzeit
ha’kochavim. Is it better to light at tzeit, or wait for his or her return?

Technically, it is not necessary for both spouses to be present for candle-lighting. When either one of them lights candles in their home, they have both fulfilled their obligation. Therefore, it would seem preferable for one to light at tzeit. Nevertheless, in practice it is preferable in most cases to wait for the spouse to return home. For if the latecomer does not have the opportunity hear the blessings on the candles elsewhere, he should be waited for. And also, if there is concern that one’s feelings might be hurt by the fact that the mitzvah was observed without him, or that one’s connection to the mitzvah will be harmed, they should wait until the other spouse returns.

If they wish, they can decide that the spouse at home will light candles on time and with a bracha, and when the other spouse returns, he or she can also light candles with a blessing (ibid 12: 4, footnote 2).

Waiting for Children

According to the custom of Sephardim, where only one member of the family kindles the lights for all members of the household, according to the same considerations previously mentioned, i.e. that one should wait for a spouse, they should also wait for each member of the family.

However, if the latecomer arrives after 9:00 PM, it is preferable not to wait for him and light beforehand, and the latecomer should be careful to participate in a candle lighting and hear the blessings elsewhere. If he cannot, and it is not a one-time event, it is preferable for him to follow the Ashkenazi minhag (custom), and have kavana (intention) not to fulfill his obligation in his family’s lighting, and when he arrives home, he should kindle the lights himself with a bracha.

According to Ashkenazi minhag, candle lighting is not postponed until children arrive because it is customary for each child to kindle his own lights, and when they do arrive, they should light for themselves with a bracha.

Do Children Light Candles? (For Sephardim)

The minhag of Sephardim is that only the head of the household lights the Hanukkiyah, but if the children are eager to light a menorah, they are permitted to do so without a blessing. In families where the children really desire to recite a blessing, or the father especially wants them to bless, they can rely on our teacher and guide, the Rishon LeTzion, Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu ztz”l, who permitted children up to the age of Bar Mitzvah to kindle the lights with a blessing.

In the opinion of Rabbi Shalom Mashash ztz”l, even boys who have passed the age of Bar Mitzvah may have the kavana not to fulfill their obligation with their father’s lighting, and to light themselves with a bracha (Yalkut Shemesh, O. C., 192). In times of need, one is permitted to rely on his opinion.

Candle Lighting at Public Gatherings

Many people glorify the miracle by kindling Hanukkah lights wherever people gather, such as at weddings, bar mitzva’s, bat mitzva’s, Hanukkah parties, and lectures.

There are poskim, however, who maintain that one should not recite a bracha at such gatherings, because the berakhot are customarily recited only in synagogues (Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach and Rabbi Elyashiv).

On the other hand, there are those who believe that it is permitted to light with a bracha in any place of public gathering, because the reason for the minhag of lighting in the synagogue is to publicize the miracle, and therefore lights should be lit at any place where there is a public gathering (Rabbi Yisraeli; Yebiah Omer, sect.7, 57:6). If possible, it would be good to pray Ma’ariv at the gathering, and then to a certain extent, the place could be considered a synagogue, and thus they would be permitted to kindle the lights in any case (Rav Eliyahu).

In practice, a person who wishes to rely on poskim who say it is permitted to light with a blessing, is allowed to do so. This is also the proper way to act l’chatchila (ideally) when there are people present who do not observe the mitzvot. In such a case, it is preferable to honor a secular Jew with the lighting, thus making it clear that the mitzvoth belong to all Jews, both observant and non-observant (Peninei Halakha 12:15, footnote 18).

Where to Light in an Apartment Building

Ideally, our Sages determined Hanukkah lights should be lit near the doorway facing the street, in order to publicize the miracle to passers-by in the street. However, there is disagreement about where the entrance is for those who live in a high-rise building. Some poskim say at the entrance to the building, but one should not follow this opinion since there are poskim who believe that one does not fulfill his obligation by doing so, for the mitzvah is to light next to a person’s private home.

Therefore, it is preferable to kindle the lights in the window facing the public domain. And although some poskim are of the opinion that it is preferable to light on the left side of the door entrance facing the stairwell, it is preferable to light on the windowsill, because the primary objective is to publicize the miracle. Even for those living on the fourth floor or higher, it is preferable to light on the window. True, our Sages said that one who lights the candles in a place higher than twenty cubits (9.12 meters) does not fulfill his obligation, however, they spoke about a person who lights the candles on a pillar in the middle of his courtyard. But someone who lights the candles on the windowsill inside his home, about a meter and a half from the floor of his house, most certainly fulfills his obligation. And since people normally look at the windows of apartment buildings, by lighting the candles on the windowsill, the miracle is publicized even more (ibid 13: 3).

For those following Ashkenazi minhag, where the children also light candles, it is preferable for the head of the family to light on the windowsill, and one of the children near the entrance to the apartment.

Where to Light in a Private House

Our Sages said that the recommended place to light the Hanukkah candles is near the entrance to the house outside, on the left side of the entrance, with the mezuzah on the right, and the candles on the left, so that someone passing through is surrounded by mitzvot (Shabbat 21b). In other words, it seems our Sages’ enactment indicates that in the past there was no concern that the wind would blow out the Hanukkah candles that were lit at the entrance to the home. Homes were built close together, many cities and courtyards were enclosed by a wall, and there were no strong winds blowing between the homes. Therefore, evidently, it was possible to light candles outside entranceways and courtyards without worrying that the candles would blow out. Today, however, when one lights candles outside, the wind usually blows them out. The only way to protect the candles is to light them in a glass box, like an aquarium.

However, our Sages never required people to buy glass boxes in order to fulfill the mitzvah of kindling Hanukkah lights . Therefore, one who does not wish to buy a glass box may light the candles inside his home. If he lights in a window facing the street, he beautifies the mitzvah of publicizing the miracle to the same degree as one who lights in the entranceway, though he does not further beautify the mitzvah by lighting on the left side of the entranceway and thus surrounding himself with mitzvot (the mezuzah on the right, and the candles on the left). 

To Light Candles by the Door or by the Window?

When a person has an aquarium and can light at the entrance to his house from the outside, however, the location of the entrance is not visible from the street, but on the other hand, if he lights the candles on the windowsill, passersby’s will see it – there is a disagreement among the poskim where it is preferable to light. It seems that in practice, it is more mehudar (rendered more beautiful) to light by the window; however, there is also an advantage to lighting in the entranceway. If several family members are lighting, as is the Ashkenazic custom, one should light at the entrance to the house, and another, on the windowsill (Peninei Halakha 13:2).

The Candles

All candles are kosher for Hanukkah candles, provided they can be lit for at least half an hour. And if numerous people see the candles from the street, it is preferable to use candles that will burn for several hours, in order to publicize the miracle more effectively.

The candles lit on Erev Shabbat should remain lit for approximately an hour and a quarter, because since they are lit before Shabbat begins, they need to continue burning for half an hour after tzeit ha’kochavim.

Ideally, one should choose candles whose light shines most beautifully, in order to publicize the miracle. That is why many people choose to light either wax or paraffin candles, because they give off a particularly beautiful light.

Some say that it is preferable to light olive oil, which shines beautifully, and also reminds us of the miracle of Hanukkah which was performed with olive oil (ibid 12: 6).

Electric Light Bulbs

According to the majority of poskim,

One may not use electric bulbs, because they are not considered candles. Indeed, concerning Shabbat candles, according to numerous poskim, one may fulfill his obligation with electric light bulbs; however, in regards to Shabbat candles, the main purpose is to add light, whereas for Hanukkah candles, the intention is to remind us of the miracle that occurred in the menorah of the Temple, and therefore the candles should be similar to those of the Temple (ibid 12:8).

This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper, and was translated from Hebrew. Other interesting, informative, and thought-provoking articles by Rabbi Melamed can be found at: