The Difference Between Chanukah Candles and Lighting the Menorah

Rav Elisha Friedman

Rav Elisha Friedman

The Gemara (Menachos 88b) rules in a case where a Menorah candle in the Beis Hamikdash burned out early, as follows:

אמר רבי יוחנן אמר רבי נר שכבתה, נידשן השמן נידשנה הפתילה, כיצד עושה? מטיבה ונותן בה שמן ומדליקה

If a candle went out, the oil is considered ashes and the wick is ashes. What should [the kohein] do? He removes the ashes [of the oil and wick] and places new oil into it and lights it

The Rishonim debated how to interpret this ruling, with the following three major approaches: 

  1. Rashi – explains the case is referring to a candle which went out in the middle of the night, which is problematic because the candles are supposed to burn all night long. The Gemara rules that the kohein must relight the candles to ensure they burn for the full allotted time. But the kohein cannot simply relight the candles as they are, they must be cleaned out all over again – even though this was already done at the beginning of the night – and only then relit. 
  2. Rashba – argued with Rashi’s reading, because why can’t one simply reuse the oil and wick which are in the candle already? Why does the kohein need to replace the existing usable oil and wick with a new wick and oil? Rashba says that if the candle goes out in the middle of the night, the kohein simply relights it, without cleaning or replacing anything. The case of the Gemara is that a kohein came in the morning and found the candles all burned out. He may leave all the candles unlit, except the special “western candle” which had to burn throughout the daytime too, the Gemara rules that this special candle must be cleaned and replaced even in the morning.
  3. Rambam – agrees with Rashba’s reading that one need not replace the wick and oil in the middle of the allotted burning time, but he explains the Gemara is referring to coming in the morning and finding the candles burned out, the kohein must relight all the candles in such a case. This is the Rambam’s unique position that all the candles in the menorah must be lit both in the nighttime, and in the day too. Accordingly, he reads the Gemara as saying that even in the morning all the candles must be cleaned and relit.

The commentators have difficulty understand Rashi’s position. Why does the candle need to be cleaned out in the middle of the night, and not simply relit? What is wrong with the oil and wicks in there already, that they have to be replaced?

Rav Silver explained that according to Rashi the kohein cannot light the menorah without preparing it and cleaning it beforehand, based on the principle in the Gemara (Yoma 24b) that lighting the candles is not considered “avodah” (service) in the beis hamikdash. For this reason even a non-kohein, a yisrael, can light the candles, because it is not avodah. If so, Rashi maintains that every lighting requires some avodah and this is the cleaning and preparing part of the process. The cleaning and preparing plays the important role of being avodah, which ironically the actual lighting itself does not constitute.

Since Rashi maintains that every lighting requires the avodah of cleaning, if the kohein finds a candle went out in the middle of the night, he must clean out the wick and oil. Once he has cleaned out the wick and oil, he can no longer replace the same ones back in that candle, but must bring new ones out. By lifting out the candles and wick, they become like the refuse of the menorah and can no longer be used in the relighting of the menorah.

This understanding is distinct from other commentators’ interpretation of Rashi’s position. Some explain Rashi’s position that practically the oil and wick are unusable from the candle having extinguished. Others understand that the ashes of the wick and oil seep into the usable oil, rendering it all unusable. These commentators understand that the cleaning is necessary for practical purposes. But Rav Silver’s explanation is the opposite, that the obligation to do the cleaning without any prior practical need, creates a situation where the wick and oil have to be lifted up and then they cannot be returned again, so they must be replaced. 

One commentator who offered a similar approach to Rav Silver’s was Rav Velvel Soloveitchik, the Brisker Rav (Hilchos Tamidin U’musafin 3:12). Rav Velvel explained that cleaning the ashes of the Menorah is necessary for two different reasons: 1. For preparing the Menorah to be lit again and 2. To prepare the ashes, not the Menorah, for the service with the ashes. Since there is a special halacha that one must clean the ashes for their own sake (not the Menorah’s sake) as soon as the wick goes out the wick and oil becomes unusable for relighting, because one must do the ashes avodah with this wick and oil. Therefore the old oil is unusable for relighting, and it requires new oil. This explanation is similar to Rav Silver’s, that the cleaning is what makes the wick and oil unusable, but proceeds differently. For Rav Velvel, the obligation to use the ashes of this oil and wick is what creates the obligation to clean it, whereas for Rav Silver the obligation to clean the Menorah makes the wick and oil unusable.   

While the Rishonim debate the details, all agree that if the menorah candles go out before their allotted time they must be relit. This is different from the Chanukah candles, where the halacha is that if one lit them and then they go out early, they do not need to be relit (Shulchan Aruch 673:2). Since we hold that the mitzvah for both the lighting of the Menorah and the lighting of the Chanukah candles is to do the lighting, not the placement of the Menorah, why is there a distinction between the Chanukah candles, which do not need to be relit, whereas the Menorah candles do require relighting if they go out early?

Rav Yosef Rosen, the Rogatchover Gaon, and one of Rav Silver’s rebbeim, explained in his commentary on the Rambam, Tzafnas Pane’ach, that this distinction points to a fundamental difference between the mitzvah of the Chanukah candles and the lighting of the Menorah. 

ועיין מנחות דף פ”ח ע”ב דנר שכבתה באמצע הלילה צריך להדליקה עוד הפעם הרי חזינן דלא המצוה היא ההדלקה רק המצוה שתהא דולקת, לא כמו גבי חנוכה

See in Menachos 88b that a menorah candle which extinguished in the middle of the night must be relit again, so we see the mitzvah is not the lighting, rather that the candle should burn, which is different from Chanukah.

The Chanukah candles must be lit, therefore once one has lit them there is no need to relight them, if they go out early. But regarding the Menorah candles the obligation is not to light them, but that they must burn. The act of lighting is not the mitzvah, it is the fact that the candles are burning which fulfills the mitzvah. Therefore, if the Menorah candles go out, one must relight them to fulfill the mitzvah.

Based on this distinction, the Rogatchover, and Rav Chaim Soloveitchik, another rebbe of Rav Silver’s, explain the Rambam’s ruling (Hilchos Bi’as Mikdash 9:7) that a non-kohein can light the Menorah even in an ideal situation.

וכן הדלקת הנרות כשירה בזרים לפיכך אם הטיב הכהן את הנרות והוציאן לחוץ מותר לזר להדליקן

So too, the lighting of the candles is permitted for a non-kohein, therefore if a kohein prepared the candles and then brought them outside, a non-kohein can light them.

The Ra’avad argued on the Rambam, claiming that at best we can say if a non-kohein lit the menorah it would be kosher, but not that it can be done ideally by a yisrael. The Rogatchover and Rav Chaim explained the Rambam’s position that a non-kohein can ideally light the Menorah as being based on the notion that the lighting itself is not a mitzvah. The burning candles are the mitzvah, and so who does the actual lighting of the menorah is not important.  Therefore there is also no problem bringing the Menorah outside to light it, since the lighting is not the primary act of the mitzvah the Menorah can be lit any place, even outside where it belongs. Since a non-kohein cannot enter the area of the Menorah, we can bring it out to be lit.  

As Rav Chaim explained:

והנראה מוכרח בדעת הרמב”ם, דס”ל דכל עיקר הך מילתא דהדלקת הנרות אין המצוה בעצם מעשה ההדלקה, כי אם דעיקר מצותה הוא שיהיו הנרות דולקים תמיד, ובזה שהנרות דולקים הוא דהוי יסוד קיום מצוה זו

It seems evident in the Rambam’s position that he holds regarding this topic that lighting the candles is not a mitzvah in the actual lighting, rather the mitzvah is that the candles should burn always, and with this that the candles burn the primary mitzvah is performed.

Rav Chaim’s son, Rav Velvel Soloveitchik, also defined the mitzvah as the candles burning, and not being lit. This explains the position of the Rambam (Hilchos Tamidin U’musafin 3:12) that one need not extinguish an already burning candle in order to prepare and light it again. They can just add more oil to the burning candle and that suffices. Rav Velvel explained this ruling as also being reflective of the principle that the candles need not be lit, but rather must burn. If one was required to light the Menorah, they would need to put out the candle, clean it and relight it. But since the obligation is for the candles to burn, there is no need to put out the burning light and relight it, it suffices to simply add oil to increase its burning time.

In sum, three major contemporary commentators, the Rogatchover, Rav Chaim and Rav Velvel, maintain the mitzvah of the menorah is for the candles to burn, unlike the mitzvah of Chanukah which is for the candles to be lit. Rav Silver presented an alternative view, arguing that the lighting of the Menorah is the mitzvah, not the burning of the candles, identical to the mitzvah of the Chanukah candles. 

Regarding the issue as to why the Menorah candles must be relit, unlike the Chanukah candles which don’t need to be relit, Rav Silver suggested another explanation. Since the Torah (Shemos 27:21) requires that the lighting of the Menorah be מֵעֶרֶב עַד-בֹּקֶר “from evening to morning,” this implies that there is a time dependant quality to the lighting of the Menorah, that it must continue to be relit until the morning. But that does not change the fact that the lighting constitutes the mitzvah. It only creates an additional requirement to continue lighting until the morning, the relighting being a fulfillment of the mitzvah each time it’s done.

Regarding the Rambam’s ruling that a non-kohein can light the menorah outside the Beis Hamikdash, Rav Silver quoted the interpretation of Rav Shlomo Feinzilber, in his commentary on the Rambam Yerios Shelomoh. Rav Feinzilber explained that the reference in the Rambam to lighting the Menorah outside, is not to the Menorah being taken outside, but rather to having very long wicks which extend “outside” all the way to the public area of the Beis Hamikdash, while the Menorah remains in its proper place. Rav Feinzilber proved this from the Rambam’s grammar – והוציאן “and took them outside.” This cannot refer to the Menorah, because it’s in the plural, and it also cannot refer to the candles because those are immovable, and so it must refer to the wicks, which must mean they made very long wicks which extended outside and were lit.   

The reason the Rambam had to revert to such an unusual case, where the wicks extended all the way outside, and not the more usual case where one carried the Menorah out, is because the Rambam believes the Menorah must be lit while it is in its proper location. This in turn reflects the fact that the act of lighting the Menorah is the mitzvah, and so it must be done in its proper location, as is the halacha regarding the Chanukah candles. This analysis is precisely the opposite conclusion of the Rogatchover and Rav Chaim’s reading of this law, which concluded that the lighting of the Menorah is not the mitzvah. Rav Feinzilber’s reading of the Rambam leads to the opposite conclusion, that it is precisely the lighting of the Menorah which is important, just as it is regarding the Chanukah candles.