Candle Domain by Yakir Forman


The Gemara (Shabbat 21b) states, “Neir Chanukah Mitzvah LeHanichah Al Petach Beito MiBaChutz; Im Hayah Dar BaAliyah, Manichah BaChalon HaSemuchah LiRshut HaRabim,” “It is a Mitzvah to place the Chanukah candle upon the threshold of one’s house, outside; if one lives in an attic, one may place it by a window facing the public domain.” This Beraita introduces the question of Reshut, domain, as an important question concerning the Mitzvah of Neir Chanukah. On the one hand, the Beraita explicitly mentions “facing the public domain,” implying that Reshut HaRabim is the ideal place for the Mitzvah; on the other hand, it is clear in the latter part of the Beraita that the candle is lit inside the attic, not in Reshut HaRabim proper. The former part of the Beraita highlights this same ambivalence: the Petach is the border between Reshut HaYachid and Reshut HaRabim. To which does the Mitzvah belong?

The same topic is central to the Sugya of the ideal maximum height of Neir Chanukah. The Gemara (Bava Kama 62b and Shabbat 21b) notes that, at least according to Rabi Yehudah, Neir Chanukah should ideally be placed within ten Tefachim of the ground. Ritva (Shabbat 21b) gives one explanation of this Halachah: one and one’s candle should be together in one domain (outside, the area above ten Tefachim is Halachically considered a different domain). This suggests that Neir Chanukah should ideally be together with the one who lights, in his private domain. At the same time, however, this Halachah applies in an area which is clearly not a private domain; indeed, Ritva goes on to state explicitly that in a Reshut HaYachid, there is no need to place the candle within ten Tefachim of the ground! Thus, once again, we see that the location of Neir Chanukah is considered to have some semblance of both private and public domain.

A third Sugya may provide a hint as to how to deal with this issue. The Mishnah (Bava Kama 62b) discusses the laws of liability if a flax-laden camel encounters a storekeeper’s candle, starting a fire and burning both the flax and the store. The general rule is that if the storekeeper left the candle outside, in Reshut HaRabim, he is liable for damages to the flax; if he left it inside, the camel’s owner is liable for damages to the store. Rabi Yehudah, however, exempts the storekeeper in the former case if the candle was Neir Chanukah. The Gemara (Bava Kama 30a) concludes that this is because of “Reshut Mitzvah,” which, according to Rashba (Bava Kama 62b), is limited to Neir Chanukah and not to other Mitzvot such as Sukkah. I suggest that Rabi Yehudah’s position and Rashba’s limitation of it can be explained as a revolutionary way of looking at the role of domain in the Mitzvah of Neir Chanukah. According to Rabi Yehudah, Neir Chanukah, even outside, is not fully in the public domain. Part of the Mitzvah of Neir Chanukah is to create an extension of the private domain into Reshut HaRabim. Thus, the storekeeper is exempt as if the candle were actually within the private domain.

The Gemara (Bava Kama 62b and Shabbat 21b) connects Rabi Yehudah’s position to the Din of placing Neir Chanukah within ten Tefachim of the ground. Ritva’s explanation thus fits nicely into the picture: in order for Neir Chanukah to create the appropriate extension of the private domain, it should ideally be within ten Tefachim of the ground. Because of the extension of the private domain, one and one’s candle are considered to be “together in one domain” even though the candle is outside.

To what end does Neir Chanukah create this unique configuration? The answer may be rooted in the idea of “Petach Beito,” the threshold, the border between Reshut HaRabim and Reshut HaYachid. The Petach is most closely associated with the Korban Pesach ritual performed by the Jews in Mitzrayim – they put the blood of the Korban on the threshold of their doors, which served as a sign that Hashem would not kill the firstborn in those houses. In that context, it is clear that the Petach serves as a separation between the inside and the outside (as is stressed in the Pesukim), between the Jews and the Egyptians. Such a separation is appropriate in celebrating Chanukah as well; after all, part of what we celebrate is the prevention of assimilation, the separation of Jewish culture and values from Hellenistic culture, along with the political separation of the Jewish entity from the Seleucid Empire. Thus, the Petach’s role, initially, is to highlight the distinction between Reshut HaYachid and the outside world. However, Chanukah adds one further element, as Rashba highlights in his aforementioned explanation: Pirsumei Nisa, publicizing the miracle. Once we have shown the distinction between the private domain and the outside world, we begin to broadcast the miracle, placed firmly “together in one domain” with the Jew inside, to the outside world. This creates the extension of Reshut HaYachid into the public domain. Thus, Neir Chanukah serves as an expression of the idea that while we must maintain a religion, culture, and identity that is uniquely ours, we must harness it in order to relate to the public outside world.

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