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Why Do I Hear Blessings at Public Menorah Lightings?

Why Do I Hear Blessings at Public Menorah Lightings?

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Illustration by Sefira Ross.
Illustration by Sefira Ross.

Question:

I recently had the pleasure of attending a public menorah lighting (a beautiful event that brought the whole Jewish community together), and I noticed that they recited the blessings before lighting the menorah. I was always under the impression that you make a blessing only if you are actually fulfilling a mitzvah. Now, isn’t the mitzvah just to light the menorah at home? So why were the blessings recited at the public ceremony?

Reply:

The closest example to public menorah lightings is the kindling of the menorah in the synagogue during the Chanukah festival. Let’s start there, and then work back to the jumbo public menorahs.

Lighting in the Synagogue

Although not mentioned in the Talmud, the custom to light the menorah in the synagogue—and to recite blessings when doing so—is codified in the Code of Jewish Law.1 A number of reasons are given for this lighting:

1) It is for the benefit of those who lack the knowledge or inclination to perform the mitzvah of lighting the Chanukah menorah on their own.2

2) It serves guests and travelers who may be visiting the community.3

3) Our rabbis teach us that a synagogue is considered a mikdash me’at, a micro version of the Holy Temple.4 It is therefore a most appropriate place to commemorate (and somewhat replicate) the miracle of the Temple menorah. 5

4) It is in order to publicize the miracle (pirsumei nisa), as it is a sanctification of G‑d’s name when so many people gather in public to hear the blessings and witness the lighting.6

5) The custom began after Jews were no longer able to light their own menorahs outside their front doorways, as was originally intended. Although the concept of publicizing the miracle still exists with regard to family members, to accomplish a more encompassing and ideal expression of publicizing the miracle of Chanukah, the custom was instituted to light in the synagogue.7

Whatever the reason, the synagogue lighting is seen as sufficiently significant that it warrants blessings beforehand, just like the home lighting.8

Public Menorah Lighting

We can now turn to the thousands of public menorah lightings that take place in malls and town squares all across the globe.

There are indeed some who are of the opinion that since synagogue lighting is somewhat of an anomaly, without a Talmudic precedent, we cannot extend the law to other situations, so one should recite the blessings only for kindling ceremonies that actually take place in the synagogue.9 (This would ring especially true according to the third reason, that we light the menorah in the synagogue since it is a miniature Temple.)10

Yet, even according to this line of reasoning, many rule that if a minyan (quorum of ten men for prayer) for afternoon or evening services is held at the public menorah ceremony, then the place would be considered like a synagogue, and one would be able to light with the blessings.11

Others, however, point out that the primary reason for lighting the menorah in the synagogue is in order to publicize the miracle of Chanukah. Accordingly, the same reasoning should apply to an even greater extent to lighting the menorah in a public place like the mall or city square. And the same argument can be made about many of the other reasons listed above. It is for this reason that blessings are recited at the vast majority of public menorah lightings, even outside of the synagogue.12

Of course, this assumes that you are lighting a “kosher” menorah, with properly spaced fuel-burning flames, and are lighting at the right time of evening. Otherwise, it is clear that the menorah is purely symbolic and warrants no blessings.

Why It’s Important

Especially now, with the clouds of darkness once again gathering and threatening our nation and all that is good, it is most important to let the message of the Chanukah lights shine brightly for all to see—the message that good and light will, in the end, always triumph over darkness.

You can see public menorah lightings around the world here. Or better yet, join one near you!

Footnotes
1.
Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 671:7.
2.
Kol Bo 44, quoted in Beit Yosef on Tur, Orach Chaim 671; Orchot Chaim, Hilchot Chanukah 17.
3.
Tanya Rabbati 35; see also Beit Yosef on Tur, Orach Chaim 671, who seems to cite this reason in the name of Kol Bo.
4.
Talmud, Megillah 29a, based on Ezekiel 11:16.
5.
Sefer ha-Manhig, Hilchot Chanukah 148; Kol Bo 44.
6.
Kol Bo, quoted in Beit Yosef on Tur, Orach Chaim 671.
7.
Responsa of Rabbi Yitzchak ben Sheshet (Rivash) 101.
8.
While some (see Shibbolei ha-Leket 185; Chacham Tzvi 88; Maharam Schick, Yoreh De’ah 374, quoting Chatam Sofer) are of the opinion that even in a synagogue one should not make the blessings, the halachah is that not only do you recite the blessings when lighting in the synagogue, but that even one who will light at home says the blessings both when lighting in the synagogue and when lighting at home.
9.
Minchat Yitzchak 6:65; Tzitz Eliezer 15:30; Shevet ha-Levi 4:65; Az Nidberu 6:75, quoting Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach. The last-named authority himself, however, disagrees and holds that one should indeed recite the blessings.
10.
See Shevet ha-Levi 4:65.
11.
Torat ha-Moadim 7:15; Yalkut Yosef Moadim, p. 204; Chikrei Minhagim, vol. 1, p. 205 (original edition).
12.
See Responsa Az Nidabru 5:37, 6:75 and 11:32; Yalkut Yosef, Chanukah 671:10, quoting Rabbi Ovadia Yosef; Yad Natan 2:25; Mishneh Sachir 202; Beit Mordechai 41; Rabbi Yosef Heller, Haorot u-Beurim 721; Netivot bi-Sedeh ha-Shlichut 1:13.
Rabbi Yehuda Shurpin responds to questions for Chabad.org's Ask the Rabbi service.
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Ramoan Thompson Honolulu Hawaii December 13, 2016

Thank you for including the transliteration of the blessings. I really appreciate your efforts in creating this website. Reply

Anonymous Jerusalem December 14, 2015

Blessing menorah lighting in synagogue There is a common custom to light the menorah on Chanukah in the synagogue in the morning. Does one say a blessing then? Why/why not? Reply

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