Rabbi Moshe Bernstein
Former Shaliach in Montreal
Chanukah famously commemorates the Hasmonean victory over the Greeks as well as the miracle of the pach hashemen (the single vial of oil). As we recite in Al HaNissim, the mitzvot of Chanukah serve an important objective:
“And they established these eight days of Chanukah to thank and praise Your great Name.”
Hence, a number of halachot help achieve this goal. For instance, we recite the complete Hallel; many have a custom of having seudot (festive meals); and eulogies and fasting are prohibited. In addition, the mitzvah of lighting the Chanukah candles is designed to achieve pirsuma nissa (pirsum hanes – literally, publicizing the miracle). Indeed, several halachot reflect the fact that lighting the candles and pirsum hanes are intrinsically connected.
In some situations, one lights the candles without fulfilling one’s obligation – if there is no pirsuma nissa. According to the Rambam (4:5), the designated time for candle lighting is:
“From when the sun sets ad shetichleh regel min hashuk (literally, ‘until there are no longer any feet in the market place’).”
Afterwards, one may no longer light the candles, because pirsum hanes occurs only in this time period. In contrast, the Tur holds that one may light throughout the entire night, but l’chatchilah, one should light within this timeframe. Of course, today, there are people in the streets until much later at night, and therefore, perhaps even the Rambam would permit one to light later. Nevertheless, ideally, one should light according to Chazal’s decree. In any event, when there is no one left outside, pirsum hanes does not occur, and thus, one who lights at such a late hour does not fulfill the mitzvah in its entirety. Therefore, one who is home alone at that time should light, but according to most opinions, he should do so without reciting the brachot (blessings).
In other situations, one publicizes the miracle but does not fulfill the mitzvah of lighting the Chanukah candles. Jewish law is very specific about how the candles must be lit. In theory, we could come up with all sorts of ways to achieve pirsum hanes, but none of them adhere to Chazal’s prescription for the proper way to fulfill the mitzvah. One interesting example is the halachah that one must light next to one’s house. One who lights on a ship or in the middle of the city (away from one’s home) does not fulfill the mitzvah and, according to most opinions, may not recite the brachah.
Similarly, one who sees lit Chanukah candles and is not going to light candles himself may recite the brachah of she’asah nissim. Indeed, the two brachot over the candles – l’hadlik ner shel Chanukah and she’asah nissim – are manifestations of the mitzvah’s two facets.
As we have seen, pirsum hanes is an integral part of the mitzvah of lighting the Chanukah candles. Yet, what does it come to teach us?
The military victory was both unforeseen and startling. But not everyone chose to credit it to Hashem; many preferred to account for the triumph in mundane terms. Hence, the supernatural miracle of the pach hashemen, which is difficult to attribute to natural causes, comes to prove that the military victory was also a supernatural miracle – a miracle which reflected Yad Hashem.
Furthermore, although the Hasmoneans managed to return Jewish sovereignty to the Beit HaMikdash, sadly, the military and political achievements did not last forever. In fact, the Beit HaMikdash was destroyed less than two hundred years later.
However, the miracle of the pach hashemen continues to remind us that Yad Hashem is evident throughout Jewish history. Therefore, when we light the Chanukah candles, we strive to publicize this idea. In this way, we give ourselves and all of Klal Yisrael hope and renewed strength to carry on along our long journey towards the final geulah (redemption).