Rabbi Yitzchak Neria
Former Ros Kollel in Montreal
Since Chanukah is rapidly approaching, we will discuss a number of Chanukah laws.
The Gemara (BT Shabbat 21b) states:
“Our Rabbis taught: The mitzvah of Chanukah is one candle [for] a man and his household. And the mehadrin (loosely, those who pursue or enhance mitzvot) [light] one candle for each and every person. And the mehadrin min hamehadrin – Beit Shammai says, ‘on the first day, he lights eight; from here on, he decreases as he goes along.’ But Beit Hillel says, ‘on the first day, he lights one; from here on, he increases as he goes along.’”
Thus, it would seem that there are essentially three levels: One who simply wants to fulfill the basic obligation lights one candle for the entire family. Meanwhile, those who prefer to add an extra dimension to their mitzvah performance light one candle per family member. And finally, those who choose the ultimate method of observance light one candle the first night, add one candle each night, and conclude with eight candles on the last night. In fact, today, everyone lights according to the mehadrin min hamehadrin approach. Interestingly, fondness for the mitzvah of Chanukah is so prevalent that no one lights according to the basic approach.
But the issue is not as simple as it seems. There is a machloket rishonim between the Tosafot and the Rambam concerning the mehadrin min hamehadrin. Do they light one set of candles for the entire household? (In other words, regardless of the number of family members, exactly one candle is lit the first night; two candles are lit the second night; etc.) Or, do they light one set of candles per family member? (In other words, the total number of candles per night depends on the number of family members.)
We will explain the reasoning behind the two opinions. The former approach – which is, in essence, the Sephardic custom – ensures that a passerby will be able to immediately know if this is the first or second night of Chanukah. After all, the number of candles corresponds to the specific night in question, and therefore, a quick glance at the number of lit candles will reveal this information. Otherwise, for example, eight candles could mean that either four people lit on the second night, two people lit on the fourth night, or one person lit on the eighth night. And an important part of the mitzvah of lighting Chanukah candles and pirsum haness (literally, publicizing the miracle) is indicating which night of Chanukah it is.
In contrast, in Ashkenazi households, each family member lights his own set of candles. The logic behind this approach is that it follows the words of the Gemara, which seem to indicate that the mehadrin min hamehadrin method is a step up from – and therefore, somehow preferable to – the mehadrin method.
In order to solve the problem of determining the correct night of Chanukah, Ashkenazi family members simply leave a small space between their respective sets of candles. In this way, they allow for pirsum haness, because passersby can easily discern which night of Chanukah it is and how many family members there are in the specific household.