The Gemara (Shabbat 21b) states that the Mitzvah of Neirot Chanukah begins “MiShetishka HaChamah” “when the sun begins to set.” However, once the sun sets on Friday, there is an Issur Melachah (prohibition to work). Thus, how do we act on the Friday of Chanukah? All agree that we cannot violate Shabbat to light Neirot Chanukah, so when should we light?
When the Halachic Day Begins
We first must determine at what point in the day does it switch into the following day, which in our case is significant in dictating when Shabbat arrives and the Issur Melacha sets in. This moment is generally understood as the period called Bein HaShemashot, the time between Sheki’ah (sunset) and Tzeit HaKochavim (when stars first appear).
There are two passages in the Gemara define the length of Bein HaShemashot. Shabbat 34b calculates it as about three-quarters of a Mil, or 13.5-18 minutes (Mil=18-24 minutes), while Pesachim 94a claims a period of 4 Mil, or 72-96 minutes.
Rabbeinu Tam (presented in Tosafot Shabbat 35a s.v. Trei and Pesachim 94a s.v. Rabi) asserts that there are two phases to Bein HaShemashot: the first phase lasts three and a fourth of a Mil, and the second lasts three-quarters of a Mil, for a total of 4 Mil, agreeing with the Gemara Pesachim’s total of 72 minutes.
Gra (Biur HaGra Orach Chaim 261:2 s.v. She’hoo), on the other hand, argues that Bein HaShemashot is described in Shabbat 34b as Safek Yom Safek Laylah (possibly day or night) and he notes that stars can certainly be seen far before 72 minutes following Sheki’ah. He therefore rejects this universally set amount and claims that the length of Bein HaShemashot varies geographically, based on how quickly the sun sets. Some Israeli soldiers reported that they saw stars 14 minutes after Sheki’ah, while in some cities, Tzeit HaKochavim is about one half hour after Sheki’ah. Most non-Chassidic Jews follow Gra (see Biur Halacha 261:2 s.v. Metichilat) that there is no set time between Sheki’ah and Tzeit; the time depends on where one lives.
Lighting Neirot Chanukah close to Sheki’ah
Ritva (who subscribes to Rabbeinu Tam’s view) rules that one can light Neirot Chanukah on a regular day once the sun sets. His proof is from Erev Shabbat: Since one cannot light during Bein HaShemashot because the Issur Melacha already applies, and one cannot light too early because it is still too light outside for the candles to be seen, the Ritva concludes that one should light Neirot Chanukah immediately after sunset on Erev Shabbat.
However, Gra asks: how can one light after the sun sets— isn’t there already an Issur D’Orayta (Torah prohibition) to engage in work during that time period? Thus, Ran, quoting the Behag, states that one should light at sunset, claiming there is a window of a twelfth of a Mil, approximately 1.5 to 3 minutes, to light before entering the DeOrayta time period. Teshuvot Avnei Nezer comments that since it is inconceivable to light in this short window of time, one should light Neirot Chanukah before the sun sets beneath the horizon. But how early should one light?
Another aspect of determining the appropriate time for lighting the Neirot is Tosefet Shabbat, the requirement to extend the Shabbat, in this context by beginning Shabbat slightly earlier than sunset, when the normal halachic day would dictate Shabbat should begin.
Rav Moshe Feinstein states that the minimum required amount of time for Tosefet Shabbat is 2 minutes. Rav Mordechai Willig believes that Rav Moshe derives this from Rambam, who, when discussing the Zemanim for Vatikin (the optimal time to pray Shacharit), states that one must start Kriyat Shema a third of a tenth of an hour, or 2 minutes, before sunrise. These 2 minutes are the time it takes for the sun to fully rise, in which case the time for the sun to fully set should be an identical two minutes.
Many Ashkenazic Jews in Yerushalayim have the custom to light Neirot Shabbat 40 minutes prior to sunset, following Rabbeinu Tam and Shitah Mekubetzet (Beitzah 30a), who believe that Tosefet Shabbat should begin one half of a halakhic hour before dark, which can reach as high as 36 or 37 minutes in the summertime. Rav Hershel Schachter practices in accordance with this opinion and davens Minchah on Friday before that time period as well. Since, however, most follow Gra who believes Tosefet Shabbat to refer to a short time before the sunset, they would say that a half hour of Tosefet Shabbat contradicts Beit Hillel’s opinion in the Mishna (Shabbat 17b-18a) that Melacha can be done “Im HaShemesh”. Therefore, those who follow Gra believe that 2 minutes is sufficient for Tosefet Shabbat.
The Time for Lighting Neirot Chanukah on Erev Shabbat:
According to those who believe that Tosefet Shabbat is 40 minutes before Sheki’ah, one should light Neirot Chanukah and Neirot Shabbat 40 minutes before Sheki’ah like on every other Shabbat. Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, who accepts Gra’s two minutes as sufficient for Tosefet Shabbat, rules that one should light Neirot Chanukah 25 minutes before the sunset to ensure that he lights late enough to be “Samuch LeSheki’at HaChamah” (as close as possible to sunset; 25 minutes reflects the thirty minutes set forth by the Shitah Mekubetzet, adjusted to the Sha’ot Zmaniyot of the short days of early winter). The opinion of Rav Shlomo Zalman seems to be contrary to Rema (Orach Chaim 679:1) who rules that one may light “MeBiOd HaYom Gadol”, considerably before sunset. Indeed, the Rama seems to constitute normative practice, with the Mishnah Brurah (679:2) setting the earliest time to light as Pelag HaMincha (approximately an hour before sunset, in the early winter).
Similarly, the Shulchan Aruch (O.C. 672:1), states that in a Sha’at Hadechak (a situation of pressing need) one may light as early as Plag HaMinchah. Rav Moshe Shternbach rules that one should light as close as possible to Sheki’ah, in accordance with Ran’s stipulation to light just as the sun is setting. Thus, when the Shulchan Aruch states that one may light as early as Plag HaMincha, this is because Rabbeinu Tam’s Plag HaMincha is only 3 minutes before Sheki’ah. Some, however, would say that one can light Neirot Chanukah at the Plag HaMincha of Gra, because this would be much too early. In the New York area, the earliest one could light on Erev Shabbat would be about 23 minutes before Sheki’ah according to this approach.
Which Comes First: Neirot Chanukah or Neirot Shabbat?
Rashba quotes the Behag that Neirot Chanukah are lit first because Hadlakat Neirot Shabbat constitutes accepting the Shabbat, at which point lighting Chanukah candles would violate the Melachah of Mavir (kindling a fire).
Ritva and Ramban, however, believe no Brachah is said by Neirot Shabbat, and thus claim that lighting Neirot Shabbat does not constitute accepting Shabbat and therefore lighting Chanukah candles afterwards would not violate Shabbat.
Instead, they rule that one should light Shabbat candles first, based on the famous principle of Tadir VeSheAino Tadir, Tadir Kodem (The Mitzvah more frequently done is performed first).
An additional reason presented to light Neirot Shabbat first is based on the Gemara (Shabbat 23b) which states that if a person can light only one candle, he lights Neirot Shabbat due to concern for Shalom Bayit (familial harmony created by the Shabbat light). Our practice, however, is to follow the Behag that Neir Chanukah is lit first (Shulchan Aruch O.C. 679:1).
When Should One Daven Mincha on Erev Shabbat of Chanukah
The Mishnah Berurah (679:2) writes that it is preferred to daven Mincha before one lights Neirot Chanukah, though the difficulty in assembling a Minyan at that time has resulted in the Halachah’s lack of widespread observance in many circles. There are two distinct reasons for davening Mincha early. The Sha'arei Teshuva (679:1) explains that Mincha corresponds to the Korban Tamid and the Neirot correspond to the Neirot of the Menorah, and in the Beit HaMikdash services, the Tamid was offered before the Neirot were lit. A second reason, provided by the Sha’ar HaTziyun (679:7), is that this period of time would be Tarti Disatrei (inconsistent). Lighting Neirot Chanukah indicates that it is now nighttime, yet by subsequently davening Minchah, one indicates that it is still daytime! (Note that such an argument is not made about lighting Neirot Shabbat following Neirot Chanukah since when one lights Neirot Chanukah before Shabbat, he performs two lightings for Shabbat at the same time which both apply at night, which is acceptable.) For these two reasons, it is proper to make an effort to daven Minchah prior to Hadlakat Neirot Shabbat.
The vast majority of non-Chassidic observant Jews in North America follows the Gra’s understanding of Bein HaShemashot and Tosefet Shabbat and therefore should preferably light not earlier than 23 minutes before Sheki’ah. Additionally, Neirot Chanukah should be lit before Neirot Shabbat, and should preferably be preceded by Minchah.