Halachic Musings

By Rabbi Yair Hoffman

This is in response to those who attacked my column of two weeks ago regarding the parameters of pirsumeinisa. In that column, two points were made. The main point of the article was that there are numerous opinions that pirsumeinisa for Chanukah applies to a broader audience than just Jews. It further stated that a blessing should not be recited when someone is lighting past the parameters of what our sages had enacted. Thus, no blessing should be recited when lighting a menorah above a height of 20 amos, or at parties, weddings, or other public venues.

In written correspondence with people that took issue with my column, it became clear that many of them do not share the same view as to who exactly constitutes, or constituted, the leading poskim of the generation. One correspondent even negated the idea that Rav Elyashiv, zt’l, was considered from the gedoleiha’poskim.

The Enactment

The enactment of Chazal to light Chanukah lamps was to do so in one’s home. Later on, however, the custom developed to light the Chanukah lights in shul. Eventually, a blessing was also recited on the lighting in shul and that custom became enshrined in the ShulchanAruch (OC 671:7 citing the responsa of the Rivash #111).

The Rivash himself writes, “Now that the hands of the gentile are strong upon us and it is impossible to light the Chanukah lamps at the doorway to our homes outside, therefore we light the Chanukah lamps in the synagogue in order to publicize the miracle. And we recite a blessing on this just as we recite a blessing on the Hallel of Rosh Chodesh–even though it is only a minhag.”

Questions On This Ruling

I. How is it that the ShulchanAruch ruled that a blessing is made in the synagogue, when he himself rules in the laws of Rosh Chodesh (OC 422:2) like the opinion of the Rambam (Megillah 3:7) that a blessing is not recited on the Hallel of Rosh Chodesh because it is only a minhag? The Rivash’s entire reasoning to recite a blessing on the lighting in shul is because a blessing is recited on a custom! This question was first posed by the ChachamTzvi (#88).

Three Answers

1. The Vilna Gaon (OC 671:8) seems to be bothered by the ChachamTzvi’s question and brings a proof from the Hallel that is recited on the night of Pesach on account of pirsumeinisa. It seems that the Vilna Gaon understands the ShulchanAruch here regarding reciting a berachah on Chanukah lighting in shul as being permitted because of a combination of minhag and pirsumeinisa. Perhaps his position on not reciting on a minhag is different if it includes an element of the original rabbinical enactment. This also seems to be the understanding of the AruchHaShulchan in the ShulchanAruch (See AH OC 671:26).

2. The BeisYosef in his comments on the Tur actually cites three reasons for lighting in shul:

a. To fulfill the mitzvah for those guests who do not have a home in which they can light (See Orchos Chaim, Hilchos Chanukah #17).

b. To publicize the miracle which can be done better in shul (See Kol Bo’s work on Psachim–Sefer HaMichtam page 80 on Psachim 101a).

c. To fulfill the Rivash’s rationale that the element of pirsumeinisa doesn’t exist when there is an anti-Semitic environment and thus the shul lighting is fulfilling this aspect of the lighting.

The ChachamTzvi himself concludes that the ShulchanAruch must be ruling like the first two reasons that he cites or a combination of these two.

3. Rav Chaim Leib Eisenstein in his Peninim MiBei Midrasha makes a suggestion based upon a Brisker Rav explanation of the Rambam in Hilchos Brachos on the difference between a mitzvah and a minhag. According to this, the minhag of lighting in shul was not a minhag per se, but rather an expansion of the parameters of the original rabbinic mitzvah on account of the anti-Semitism. Thus there is a difference between Hallel, which is a minhag, and the lighting of Chanukah lamps in shul, which is a form of the mitzvah.

II. Can the lighting in the synagogue be extended to other areas as well? Can there be public lightings at parties and any public gathering, and may a blessing be recited? No one is questioning whether some of the public lightings are an effective outreach tool. Thousands of people have come back to Yiddishkeit on account of the outreach efforts that include such public lightings. But can the idea of shul Chanukah lighting be extended to shuls and be done with a blessing?

Let us go through all three answers to the first question before we examine the relevant response on the matter.

1. According to the way in which we have understood the Vilna Gaon’s answer, we would need both a minhag in KlalYisrael to be combined with pirsumeinisa. Theoretically, if this reading is correct, the Vilna Gaon would hold that if enough of KlalYisrael would start doing so, and there was adequate pirsumeinisa, a blessing could eventually be recited. Did this happen yet? This author believes that it has not. One reader has written that the earliest such public lighting was in 1979 with President Carter, but I would believe that it dates earlier.

2. According to the Chacham Tzvi’s answer, neither of the first two answers that the Beis Yosef cites is fulfilled. There are no guests who do not have a home and this is not a shul.

3. According to the expanded mitzvah theory, the mitzvah was only expanded to include a shul–not other venues.

Thus, only according to the Vilna Gaon’s explanation of the apparent contradiction within the Shulchan Aruch is there a possibility of expanding the blessing to include venues beyond a shul.

Leading Poskim
Who Forbid

Dayan Yitzchok Weiss, zt’l (MinchasYitzchok Vol. VI 65:3) writes in regard to lighting in a public lighting, “How can one possibly think to invent on our own that which our forefathers did not consider?”

The Tzitz Eliezer writes (Vol. XV #30) that it is forbidden to recite a blessing.

The Sheivet HaLevi (Vol. IV #65) also strongly disapproved of making a berachah on such lightings.

Rav Elyashiv, zt’l, even ruled that the women’s section of a shul that is not used on Shabbos but only during the week is not considered a shul for these purposes and a blessing may not be recited on the lighting.

Rav Chaim Kanievsky also shares this view that a blessing should never be recited at a party or a public lighting.

Poskim Who Do Not Forbid

The author of Az Nid’bru (Vol. V #37 and Vol. VI #75) rules that a berachah can be made on lightings in the public area in Israel.

Rav Ovadia Yosef, zt’l (YabiaOmer Vol. VII #57) also writes that they have who to rely upon, even though he recommends that a Ma’ariv service be held if a berachah is to be made. Some of the commentators have misconstrued his words as actually advocating that a berachah should be said. This is erroneous.

Jewish Traditions

There is another issue. The traditions and customs that observant Jews have observed for thousands of years carry enormous weight. Making halachic changes to fit with the times is fraught with danger, and is the argument of the Reform and Conservative movements. It is pretty clear from the vast halachic and response oeuvre of rabbis across the globe that no one even considered reciting a blessing or lighting elsewhere until a few decades ago. When the Chasam Sofer said, “Chadash assur min haTorah–newfangled halachic innovations are forbidden by the Torah”–there was great wisdom in his words.

Position Of The Lubavitcher Rebbe, zt’l

In the Sichos of ParashasVayeishev, Toras Menachem 5747 Vol. II page 98, the Lubavitcher Rebbe writes specifically that an announcement should be made at these lightings that one does not fulfill the mitzvah with this lighting. Nowhere in his writings did the Lubavitcher Rebbe ever say that a blessing should be recited or did he state that it is just like a shul.

This author would like to suggest that the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s advocating of the public lighting was based upon outreach and his view was not necessarily that he equated public lightings like a shul. It is also clear from his writings that he did not advocate a lighting to publicize the miracle for gentiles. Although some readers had read my previous article on pirsumeinisa as implying that he did, this was not the author’s intention. The intention of the previous article was to prove that there was ample opinion in Torah thought that, at least for Chanukah, there may be a pirsumeinisa for gentiles as well.

Some have argued that the fact that the Rebbe, ob’m, saw that others did light with a blessing and did not publicly distance himself from this position is proof that he agreed with that position. However, a number of people are aware that the Rebbe, ob’m, often did not publicly distance himself from many similar things. There were people who openly declared that the Rebbe, ob’m, was Mashiach and he did not publicly distance himself from this position.

There is no question that, notwithstanding the positions of Rav Ovadia Yosef and the Az Nid’bru, the overwhelming majority of the gedolei ha’poskim hold that blessings should only be recited at lightings at home and at shul, and not elsewhere. v

The author can be reached at Yairhoffman2@gmail.com.


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