A nice Chanukah present might be the FlashTorch. It’s billed as the world’s brightest flashlight, sporting 4,100 lumens of power. Interestingly, it comes with a safety switch. Why would that be necessary for a flashlight? It turns out that the flashlight is so powerful that it can light newspaper on fire in a matter of seconds.
Maybe look elsewhere for a gift?
In halachah, brighter is not always better. The Gemara (Pesachim 8a) contrasts two different halachos. For Havdallah, we would prefer a torch to be used for the berachah of “borei me’orei ha’eish.” However, certainly one who does not have a Havdallah candle can use a regular candle. The Mishnah Berurah (298:5) cites that one reason to use a torch or Havdallah candle is that it is bright. The Biur Halachah wonders whether a bright single-wick lantern may be used as a candle of choice for Havdallah. After all, it provides more light than two standard candles.
There is an interesting story related about Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzinski (d. 1940), a preeminent av beis din in Vilnius, Lithuania. With the advent of the lightbulb, people were unsure whether it was permitted to turn off and on the lights on Shabbos. Rav Chaim Ozer was adamant that turning on an incandescent lightbulb is the equivalent of lighting a fire on Shabbos and is therefore absolutely forbidden. To publicize his psak, he ruled that an incandescent lightbulb may be used for Havdallah because it is the same as reciting a berachah over fire. This psak was not universally accepted.
Rav Nissim Karelitz, zt’l, opined that Rav Chaim Ozer only permitted the lightbulb to be used for Havdallah in his times, when the status of lightbulbs on Shabbos was unclear. Nowadays, even he would have agreed that “real fire” should be used.
However, in terms of bedikas chametz, everyone agrees that a single-wick candle should be used and not a Havdallah candle. The Gemara offers four reasons for why a torch may not be used. For starters, a multi-wick candle is very bright, and the light may be blinding when one is looking past the candle for chametz. Moreover, the fire dances more with a multi-wick candle, and the shifting light is not conducive to searching for chametz. In addition, with a larger flame, one will not be able to search the tighter spaces where the big fire will not fit. Finally, with a large flame, the searcher will be constantly anxious that he might start a fire. So in terms of bedikas chametz, brighter isn’t necessarily better.
What would be the halachah about using a bright flashlight for bedikas chametz? It would seem to alleviate all the above concerns: The light isn’t blinding since it is only focused forward. The flashlight provides steady illumination. One can use a small flashlight to get into tight spaces; this is certainly true now with the advent of LED flashlights. Lastly, one does not have to worry about starting a fire with a flashlight (assuming it is not the FlashTorch!). Therefore, the majority of poskim permit one to use a flashlight for bedikas chametz. According to Rav Moshe Feinstein, a flashlight is preferred. Nowadays, even with a steady candle, the searcher will be nervous that he may start a fire. It is much safer to use a flashlight.
However, there is a minority opinion that says using an actual fire for bedikas chametz was part of the original rabbinic enactment of bedikas chametz. Perhaps even an incandescent bulb in a flashlight is not considered a real fire. According to this logic, one would not be able to recite a berachah before bedikas chametz performed with a flashlight. Although this opinion is not accepted l’halachah, many rabbanim advise to start the bedikah with a candle and then continue with a flashlight. This is also in deference to the fact that bedikas chametz was always historically performed with a candle, and there are Kabbalistic reasons behind its use.
This leads to the question of whether or not one may use electric lights for Chanukah. Even if one was to agree with the logic that an incandescent bulb is equivalent to a real fire, there are other issues at play. There is a concept of hadlakah oseh mitzvah — the mitzvah of Chanukah candles is performed at the time of lighting. Therefore, one should not move the menorah into the proper position after lighting.
Moreover, at the time one lights the menorah there must be enough fuel to last a half-hour. If one adds the necessary amount of oil to the Chanukah light after it was already lit, he may not have fulfilled the mitzvah. This is certainly relevant for Chanukah licht on Friday, when the candles need to burn for around an hour and a half. (There is some disagreement regarding the exact amount of time.) One must make sure that all the oil that is necessary for the fire to burn for the requisite amount of time is already in the cup at the time of lighting.
This would rule out the use of electric lights, where the power is constantly being supplied and is not present at the time of lighting. This issue may be alleviated with the use of battery-powered flashlights. All the power that is needed is present in the flashlight when it is turned on for the sake of the mitzvah.
Yet, there are still other issues. Whereas by bedikas chametz and Havdallah, the focus is on the fire and light, Chanukah candles commemorate an event. The oil in the menorah lasted eight days. Perhaps the Sages required Chanukah candles to have a real wick and fuel that is actually burnt.
It seems most poskim have ruled that one cannot fulfill the mitzvah of Chanukah candles with flashlights. A notable exception is Rav Shlomo Zalman. He ruled that IDF soldiers may use incandescent flashlights and light with a berachah if they are in a situation where real fire cannot be used. At the very least, one who is in a similar situation should light Chanukah licht using flashlights without a berachah. Ask a rav for a final ruling.
If one does need to use a flashlight for Chanukah light and intends to turn it off after the mitzvah, he should have in mind that he will turn it off after a half-hour.
Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow is a rebbe at Yeshiva Ateres Shimon in Far Rockaway. In addition, Rabbi Sebrow leads a daf yomi chaburah at Eitz Chayim of Dogwood Park in West Hempstead. He can be contacted at ASebrow@gmail.com.