Question:

While at the mall, I was approached by two young chassidic teenagers who asked me whether I was Jewish and if I had a menorah at home. I proudly replied that I had a nice big electric menorah in my window. They then proceeded to tell me that while an electric menorah is good for the window, I should still light a menorah with candles (which they then gave me). At the time I was in a bit of a hurry, so I didn’t get into it, but I would still like to know: what is the story with electric menorahs?

Reply:

Let’s start with why we light the menorah in the first place. Here’s what the Talmud has to say:

When the Hasmonean family overpowered and were victorious over the Greeks, they searched and found only a single cruse of pure oil . . . enough to light the Temple menorah for a single day. A miracle occurred, and they lit the menorah with this enough-for-one-day-oil for eight days. The following year they established the festival of Chanukah, in which we light the menorah for eight days, commemorating this miracle.1

Fuel, Wicks and Fire—Like the Temple Menorah

Since the miracle occurred with a menorah consisting of fuel, wicks and fire, we likewise use the same type of lamp for the Chanukah menorah. (Accordingly, it is preferable to use olive oil as the fuel.) Many are of the opinion that since electric lamps don’t really have any of these elements, one should not use them for Chanukah.2

Prerequisite Fuel

Additionally, even if the exact type of fuel were not an issue, there is still another potential issue. The mitzvah of lighting the menorah is the actual kindling of the flames; therefore, one is obligated to already have the required amount of fuel in the menorah lamp at lighting time (i.e., enough to burn for 30 minutes after nightfall). If one adds the proper amount of fuel only after lighting, he has not fulfilled his requirement.3

Since electricity is constantly being regenerated, or at the very least it isn’t all present at the time of lighting, it is similar to lighting the flame and only later adding the right amount of fuel, so one may not fulfill the mitzvah with it.4

(However, based on this reasoning alone, using a battery-powered light may indeed be permissible, since all of the “fuel” is present at the time of lighting.5)

Flame vs. Torch

Others, however, explain that (a) it can be argued that the electric wires of the menorah itself are perhaps the equivalent of “wicks,” and more importantly, (b) oil or fuel isn’t even a necessary requirement for the menorah. The main thing is just that it “burns.” After all, the halachah states that “all oils and wicks are acceptable for use in one’s menorah” (although as mentioned, all agree that olive oil is preferable).6

In light of this, they explain that there is not an absolute requirement that the Chanukah menorah be exactly like the one in the Temple, and the absence of actual fuel may not be a problem.7 However, there is seemingly a much more fundamental problem with using an electric menorah.

Even if there is no absolute requirement that the menorah be exactly like the one in the Temple, there is still a basic requirement that the Chanukah lights be similar to the Temple’s in that they should be a ner (single wick) and not a medurah (blaze of fire).8 Many electric bulbs, especially incandescent ones, have an arc-shaped filament that is lit up. This is similar to a medurah rather than a single flame.9 (Other types of bulbs, such as fluorescent ones, don’t necessarily even have the status of “fire” and definitely should not be used.10)

Extenuating Circumstances

In light of the various potential issues discussed, one should always endeavor to use a fuel-wick-and-fire menorah. This is no doubt the reason why those two young men gave you a conventional menorah. I would add, however, that in a situation in which there are some concerns about using a conventional menorah (for example, an elderly person living alone), one can simply light some tea lights placed in a tray (and the tray can even be filled with water). For more on that, see I am an elderly man and I am hesitant to use Chanukah candles . . .

Additionally, in extenuating circumstances, when lighting a fire just isn’t an option, then in consultation with your rabbi you may be able to use some sort of battery-powered light for the menorah. However, in such a situation, you would still not make the actual blessings for lighting the menorah.

Don’t Pack Away That Electric Menorah!

One of the most important themes of the Chanukah celebration is to publicize the miracle.11 So although there are issues regarding the use of an electric menorah in actually fulfilling the mitzvah, electric menorahs are still a great way to publicize the Chanukah miracle. So by all means, keep your electric menorah lit in your window—just be sure to also light a conventional one like they lit in the Temple during the story of Chanukah.