The laws of Hannukah include several details that are variable in accordance with the changing circumstances of life:
a. Where to light
“Our Sages taught: It is a mitzvah to place the Hannukah lights outside the entrance to one’s house. If he lives upstairs (upper-floor apartment, etc.) – he places them at the window facing the public domain. And at a time of danger, he places them upon the table, and this suffices” (Shabbat 21b).
The beraita lists three possibilities:
At the entrance to his house – where one’s house has a doorway that faces onto the public domain (street, etc.), he should kindle his Hannukah lights there.
At the window that faces onto the public domain – where there is no doorway facing the public domain.
Upon his table – in a situation of danger.
The most preferable place for kindling Hannukah lights is in the public domain. Where this is impossible, one should place the lights at a window that faces onto the public domain. At times of danger one need not endanger himself by publicizing the Hannukah lights; he may observe the mitzvah in the safety of his home.
Based on this beraita, the Shulhan Arukh rules as follows (Orah Haim siman 671, 5):
“Hannukah lights should be placed at the doorway facing the public domain, on the outside (of the doorway). If the house faces onto the public domain, he places them at the entrance; if there is a courtyard in front of the house, he places them at the entrance to the courtyard.
If he lives in an upper dwelling that has no doorway onto the public domain, he places them at a window that faces onto the public domain.
At a time of danger when he is not able to fulfill the mitzvah (as above), he places the upon his table, and this suffices.”
The Ribash (a 14th century halakhic authority, Spain-Algiers) writes in his responsum no. 111 that, “Now, overpowered as we are by the gentiles, we do not perform the mitzvah in the ideal manner, but light only inside the house.” This represents an elaboration on the law in the beraita concerning a “time of danger”. This reason is not valid today in the State of Israel.
The Arukh ha-Shulhan (siman 671, 24) explains that it was not customary to light outside, even though there was no danger involved, because of the weather: “Even though there is no danger in our case, it is nevertheless almost impossible (to light outside) Hannukah falls in the season that is characterized throughout our region by rain, snow, and strong winds.” Our Sages did not require that we place the Hannukah lights inside a glass case, or – possibly – a glass case would make the lights very similar to street lamps of earlier times, and thus it would not be clearly apparent that they were lit specifically for Hannukah.
In the case of an apartment building with a common stairwell, kindling Hannukah lights in the stairwell at the doorway to one’s apartment serves to publicize the miracle only to people coming and going inside the building; not to passers-by in the street. Kindling at a window, on the other hand, publicizes the miracle in the public domain. In this situation, then, the most preferable place to kindle the lights is not in the public domain (the stairwell), but rather at a window facing the public domain (the street).
b. When to light
“The mitzvah is to be fulfilled from when the sun sets until all activity ceases in the marketplace” (beraita, Shabbat 21b). The hour referred to here is about half an hour after sunset. In the Sages’ era, people did not go about in the street after this time, and hence there could be no “publicizing of the miracle” later in the night.
The Gemara lists three possible interpretations of this beraita:
Up until this time one is obligated to re-kindle the lights if they were extinguished;
if one did not kindle the lights on time (at sunset, according to the beraita), he may kindle them up until the time when “activity ceases in the marketplace”, but no later than that;
the amount of oil that is used (or the length of the candles) must be sufficient to last throughout that half-hour period.
The halakha combines and adopts the two latter options. In his Laws of Hannukah, chapter 4, Rambam writes:
“Hannukah lights are not kindled prior to sunset but rather at sunset – no later and no earlier. If one forgot or refrained from kindling at sunset, one may still do so until such time as activity ceases in the marketplace. How long is this period (from sunset until the cessation of activity in the marketplace)? About half an hour, or a little longer. After this time one does not kindle. Sufficient oil must be prepared so that the lights will remain burning until activity ceases in the marketplace. If one kindled lights and they were extinguished, he need not kindle again. If they remain kindled after the time that activity ceases in the marketplace then he is permitted to extinguish or remove them if he so wishes.”
In our reality today, in many places people walk about in the streets at later hours, and therefore one is permitted to kindle later. But in order to be consistent in keeping with the halakhic reasoning, we should then ensure that the lights continue to burn until the time when people are no longer generally about on the streets.
The Rema rules, based on the Tur, that “in our days, when we light inside the house and the publicizing of the miracle is directed towards the members of the household rather than people in the public domain, one may kindle so long as the household members are awake. When the members of the household are asleep and there are no people about in the public domain, one kindles the lights without reciting the blessing.”
Thus, aspects of habit, weather conditions and the social situation in which we find ourselves all contribute to our lifestyle and also have their influence on the application of halakha in our lives.