By Rabbi Meir Orlian
On Chanukah, menoros throughout the world burn brightly to celebrate Hashem’s miracles and our deliverance from the Greeks. In the evening, the streets in Jewish neighborhoods, especially in Eretz Yisrael, are lined with glass boxes containing glowing menoros at the entrances to people’s homes.
Yossi had always lit inside the house, but now that he was older, his father allowed him to light outside. One evening the box tipped over and the glass door broke. The weather was calm, though, and it seemed that the flames would burn well even without the glass door.
“Do you think it’s safe?” asked his friend Yankel. “What happens if something catches fire?”
“Nobody’s supposed to touch the flames,” responded Yossi. “Anyway, the ideal mitzvah is to light outside. If something happens, it’s not my fault; I’m just doing what Chazal instituted. In Chazal’s time they didn’t have these glass boxes; people just lit bowls of oil outside.”
“I hope you’re right,” said Yankel.
Yossi lit his menorah and watched the flames dance around in the mild breeze. He shook the box gently to make sure that it was stable. After watching the flames for 10 minutes, he went inside, thinking he would get another piece of glass for the box the next day.
Taking some chocolate coins to snack on, Yossi settled down to study for a test on hilchos Chanukah. Suddenly, there seemed to be a commotion in the street. He heard cries: “Fire! Fire!”
Yossi ran over to the window, his heart thumping. Sure enough, a small fire had begun spreading from his menorah. Fortunately, someone managed to dump a bucket of water on the fire and extinguish it, but there was some damage to the neighbor’s property.
When Yossi’s father came home later that night, he heard what happened and was very upset about the potential danger. He was also going to have to deal with the neighbor’s damage. Although Yossi felt bad, he still wasn’t convinced that he was at fault.
“I was doing the mitzvah,” he protested. “What more was I expected to do?”
“I think we should discuss this with Rabbi Dayan,” his father said. He called Rabbi Dayan and arranged to meet the following day.
When Yossi and his father arrived, Rabbi Dayan began to explain. “Yossi, you raised an important question: Is a person liable for a mitzvah that caused damage?”
“The mishnah (B.K. 62b) deals with the case of a camel laden with flax that caught fire from a candle in someone’s store and caused damage,” continued Rabbi Dayan. “The mishnah concludes: ‘If the storeowner left his candle outside, the storeowner is liable. Rabi Yehudah said: Regarding a Chanukah candle, he is exempt.’”
“You see,” said Yossi, “I was right! If the fire was caused by a Chanukah candle left outside, Rabi Yehudah exempts the storeowner.”
“Not exactly,” smiled Rabbi Dayan. “This is only Rabi Yehudah’s opinion. The Tosefta (6:13) states that the Sages disagree with Rabi Yehudah and hold the storeowner liable, even though he had permission to place the Chanukah candle outside. This is the accepted halacha.”
“How can the storeowner be liable if the mitzvah requires him to light outside?” asked Yossi. “What do Chazal want him to do?”
“The Rambam (Nizkei Mammon 14:13) and Shulchan Aruch (C.M. 418:12) address this,” answered Rabbi Dayan. “When recording the halacha, they add, ‘He could have sat and guarded.’ Chazal instituted that one should light outside, yet at the same time they expect you to act responsibly. An unattended candle poses a hazard, and therefore Chazal require you to take proper precautions or look after the candle so that it should not cause damage or danger.”
“That’s a powerful message!” exclaimed Yossi. “Doing a mitzvah is not an excuse; it’s a responsibility that must be carried out carefully.”
This article is intended for learning purposes and not to be relied upon halacha l’maaseh. There are also issues of dina d’malchusa to consider in actual cases.
Rabbi Meir Orlian is a faculty member of the Business Halacha Institute, which is headed by HaRav Chaim Kohn, shlita, a noted dayan. For questions regarding business halacha issues, or to bring a BHI lecturer to your business or shul, please call the confidential hotline at 877-845-8455 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. To receive BHI’s free newsletter, Business Weekly, send an email to email@example.com.