Women’s obligation in the mitzva of the Chanuka lights

Author: Rav Duvdevani of Bet Shemesh, Kislev 5765/Dec 2004

It might be thought that women have no obligation because the mitzvah of lighting lights on Chanuka is a positive commandment linked to a specific time (cf the first talk in this series). However, our Sages do not place it in that category.

Rav Duvdevani examined a number of questions:

Do women light Chanuka lights?

Can women’s lighting suffice if no men are present? Can women exempt men from their obligation in this mitzvah?

A number of considerations determine the line of thought in the sources:

1. A comparison of the mitzvah of Chanuka lighting with the mitzvah of the Megilla reading on Purim.

2. The function of Chanuka lighting to publicise the miracle (pirsumei nisa).

3. The fact that women were also present at the miracle (af hen hayu be oto ha nes).

4. One or more sets of Chanuka lights per household (ish u beito).

5. The status of lighting where several members of a household light.

We learn from the Gemara (Shabat 23A) that the mitzvah of Chanuka is the lighting itself and that ‘a woman certainly lights; as R Yehoshua ben Levi said: they too were present at the miracle’(af hen hayu be oto a nes). Tosafot (on Tractate Megilla 4A) add that this reason is Rabbinical. Rav Soloveitchik explains that the benediction ‘al ha nissim’(who performed miracles) indicates that this is so. He adds that while remembering the miracle is basic, our lights, too, impact on darkness and thus we have not only a symbol of past events; we are participating in the function of Chanuka itself (Sefer Horerei Kedem).

Maimonides (Hilchot Megilla ve Chanuka, 1) takes up the comparison of Chanuka lighting with the reading of the Megilla. Women are included in the obligation of the reading of the Megilla and, to fulfil this mitzvah on Purim, one needs to hear the Megilla read by someone obligated in that reading, as women are. The implication would seem to be that, since women are obligated in the Chanuka lighting, they can act on behalf of others.

Tosafot (on Sukka 38A) also look as at the reading of the Megilla, stating that women’s reading does not exempt men, since the reading is a public one (cf earlier talk on public reading of the Torah). However, since the Chanuka lighting takes place in the home, that constraint is not there,

We now come to the question of lighting in the home (ish u beito). The Gemara (Shabbat 23A tells the story of R.Zeira on a visit to Rav on Chanuka. R. Zeira thought to pay his host a peruta towards the cost of the oil for lighting. This, however, was not called for. R.Zera’s obligation was fulfilled by the fact that, in his own house, the lights were being lit while he was not there. Lights on Chanuka shine from the house; they are not personal, like tefilin or lulav.

Rav Soloveitchik explains the mitzvah further. If one person lights on Chanuka, that person is not doing it on behalf of the others, but for the house (ish u beito).The others have fulfilled their obligation because they are part of that household.

It became accepted Ashkenazi practice to perform the mitzvah of Chanuka lighting in the best possible way (mehadrin min ha mehadrin).; each member of the household performs the mitzvah (Responsa of Maharshal, 85). We read in the Responsa of the Geonim that each and every one lit on Chanuka (ner le kol achat ve echad). Using the feminine ‘achat’ and the masculine ‘echad’ spells out that this included the women.

Women clearly have an obligation in the mitzvah of Chanuka lights. As the Rashbam has it (Tosafot on Tractate Megilla 4A), women were essential in the miraculous events both on Purim, with Esther and with Judith on Chanuka.