It is not uncommon, given the relatively short length of the day during the season in which Chanukah falls in this part of the world, to find people who, because of their daily schedules, are not at home and are thus unable to light Chanukah candles at the prescribed time. The question that must be asked, then, is what the preferred course of action is for such individuals.
The Best Time to Light
The Gemara in Shabbat (21b) quotes a B’raita which states that the Mitzvah is to light the Chanukah candles when the sun has set. While this seems straightforward enough, the fact is that there are a number of opinions as to precisely what is meant by sunset here; the discussion about this matter relates to a broader discussion as to the exact definition of sunset as it impacts upon other important areas of Halachah. One possibility is that sunset is indeed that which most people commonly refer to as sunset, namely, when the sun dips below the horizon. This is the position of the Rambam (Hilchot Chanukah 4:5), as understood by the Aruch HaShulchan (Orach Chaim 672:4), the Mishnah Berurah to Orach Chaim 672 (in Biur Halachah, s.v. lo me’acharim and s.v. velo makdimim) and others, as well as of the Maharam of Rothenburg in his Teshuvot (Amsterdam edition, #47), among other Rishonim. The Vilna Gaon (Biur HaGra to Orach Chaim 672:1, s.v. sof) thus considers it the correct practice to light Chanukah candles at the time commonly called sunset.
Some, however, maintain that in Halachah, there are actually two phenomena known as sunset, or two stages to the “process” of sunset, the first occurring when the sun dips below the horizon, and the second occurring almost a full hour (58 ½ minutes) later, when the sky is dark except for at its westernmost point, where it is still red (see Tosafot to Berachot 2b, s.v. dilma, to Shabbat 35a, s.v. trei, to Pesachim 94a, s.v. Rabi Yehudah, to Zevachim 56a, s.v. minayin and to Menachot 20b, s.v. nifsal). Accordingly, the Rashba (to Shabbat 21b, s.v. ha deamrinan), the Ran there (9a in Rif, s.v. mitzvatah) and other Rishonim (see Mishnah Berurah in Biur Halachah ibid., s.v. im sof) imply that one should preferably light at the time of this second sunset, or this second stage of sunset. Still others, including Rabbeinu Tam (cited in Tosafot to Menachot ibid.) and the Rosh (Shabbat 2:3), posit that one should light about a quarter of an hour (13 ½ minutes) after that, at which time it is completely dark outside; this is the time they believe is called Tzeit HaKochavim, or the time when the stars are visible in the sky, which is 72 minutes after the time people commonly call sunset.
Most authorities, however, hold that Tzeit HaKochavim actually occurs much earlier, only 13 ½ minutes after the time commonly referred to as sunset. See Teshuvot Maharam Alashkar (no. 96), who asserts that this is the view of the majority of the Geonim and the Rishonim; the Vilna Gaon (Biur HaGra to Orach Chaim 261:2, s.v. shehu) adds that one can tell by simply looking outside that it is completely dark well before 72 minutes after the time commonly known as sunset. The Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 672:1) rules, as understood by the Magen Avraham there (#1), the Mishnah Berurah there (#1) and others, that one should indeed light Chanukah candles at the time of Tzeit HaKochavim. Consistent with his opinion elsewhere (Orach Chaim 261:2), he thus accepts the position of Rabbeinu Tam that one should light 72 minutes after the time known as sunset. However, the Baal HaTanya in his Siddur, as cited by the Kazhiglover Gaon in a Teshuvah (Shu”t Eretz Tzvi #121), affirms that Rabbeinu Tam’s opinion is clearly in the minority, and thus rules that one should light at the “earlier” Tzeit HaKochavim. This seems to be the widely accepted practice, though there are variations.
The Kazhiglover Gaon himself, for example, rules that one should light 18 minutes after the time commonly called sunset, it is reported that the Chazon Ish would light 20 minutes after sunset (see Sefer Orchot Rabbeinu Baal HaKehilot Yaakov Volume 3, Chanukah #35 and Sheilot UTeshuvot Az Nidberu Volume 7 #70, who adds that some of the Chassidic leaders did so as well) and that Rav Aharon Kotler would light 25 minutes after sunset (see Sefer Nitei Gavriel, Hilchot Chanukah Chapter 3 Note 7). Rav Moshe Feinstein (Shu”t Igrot Moshe Orach Chaim Volume 4, 101:6) recommends lighting ten minutes after sunset; many of these authorities note, though, as the Mishnah Berurah states (ibid.), that one must see to it in any case that the candles (or the oil) should be able to burn for a full half hour after sunset.
The Baraita in Masechet Soferim (20:4) indicates that one may not recite a Berachah over the Chanukah candles at a time when its flame provides no benefit because it is still light outside. The Rambam cited above rules that one should not light the candles any earlier than sunset; this is also the position of the Behag, cited by the aforementioned Rashba and Ran, and others. There is some discussion, however, as to whether the Rambam would disqualify the Mitzvah if one did in fact light early, or whether he means merely that it is preferable not to do so (see Shu”t Pri Yitzchak 2:8 and Ma’atikei Shemuah, Volume 1 page 9). The Rashba and the Ran themselves assert, though, that one may certainly light before the prescribed time, just as one does (by necessity) on the Erev Shabbat of Chanukah. The Beit Yosef (Orach Chaim 672, s.v. umah shekatav) cites an opinion that if one is very busy, he may indeed light the Chanukah candles as early as the time known as Plag HaMinchah, which occurs 1¼ Halachic hours before nightfall (see Mishnah Berurah ibid. #3), provided that the flame will burn for the requisite amount of time. This opinion is codified in the Shulchan Aruch there (672:1); some rule that one may not recite a Berachah in such a case (see Kaf HaChaim ibid. #3), but most do allow the Berachah to be recited even then (Mishnah Berurah ibid., see Shaar HaTziyun #5). One who will be unable to light at the proper time, then, has the option to light earlier, though not before Plag HaMinchah.
The Gemara in Shabbat quoted above cites a Baraita (21b) stating that the Mitzvah relating to the Chanukah candles extends from the time when the sun has set until there are no more passers-by in the streets. According to the Rambam’s understanding of the Gemara (see his ruling ibid.), although one should light the candles at sunset, as explained above, if he did not, he may still do so as long as there are still passers-by in the streets. After that point, however, one can no longer fulfill the Mitzvah and therefore cannot light. The aforementioned Rosh and one authority cited in Tosafot to that Gemara (s.v. de’iy), among others, agree. According to another authority cited in that Tosafot, though, one may still light even after that time, as the Gemara suggests that the Baraita is not ruling about how late one may light, but rather about how long the candles or the oil must burn, namely, for the amount of time that goes by from sunset until there are no longer any more passers-by in the streets, which the Rishonim (see, for example, Rif there 9a-b) say is half an hour. One may therefore light at any time during the night; the aforementioned Rashba concurs with this view, citing a Mishnah in Megillah (20b) which teaches that Mitzvot which must be done at night may be done any time during the night. The Shulchan Aruch (ibid. 672:2) rules in accordance with this position, although he maintains that it is certainly preferable to light when passers-by are still around.
It must be pointed out, however, that the above dispute pertains to Talmudic times when the practice was to light the Chanukah candles outdoors, as the Gemara in Shabbat (ibid.) states should be done. In later times, however, the practice developed to light indoors, as the Gemara there allows, due to concerns for danger. According to that same Tosafot in Shabbat, as well as other Rishonim, one therefore need no longer be concerned with lighting specifically when passers-by are present because the lighting is directed primarily towards the members of the household. The Rama (ibid. 672:2) thus rules that nowadays one may light at any time during the night, though he concedes that it is still better to light at the earlier time; the Maharshal in a Teshuvah (#85) asserts that one may light with a Berachah only until midnight.
There is then some question as to whether the members of the household must be present when one wishes to light with a Berachah at a later time. The Pri Chadash (ibid. #2) does not seem to require it, but the Magen Avraham (ibid. #6) says that one may light at any time of the night (until dawn) as long as people in the house are awake, and the Aruch HaShulchan (ibid. #7) agrees, saying that one household member, even a young child, suffices. The Mishnah Berurah (ibid. #11) concludes that it is indeed proper to wake up household members in order to be able to light with a Berachah, In the Shaar HaTziyun (ibid. #17), however, he cites those who allow one to light with a Berachah at any time during the night even if nobody else is awake; this position is accepted by, among others, Rav Moshe Feinstein (Shu”t Igrot Moshe Orach Chaim Volume 4, 105:7), Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (Sefer Shalmei Moed, Chapter 47, page 218) and Rav Ovadyah Yosef (Sefer Chazon Ovadyah-Chanukah, page 62). It is thus a viable option for one who cannot light Chanukah candles on time to do so at any point during the night, though it is certainly better to do so when someone else in the house is awake.
Having Somebody Else Light
The Gemara later in Shabbat (23a) teaches that one of the Amoraim, when unable to light Chanukah candles himself, would have his wife light at home and rely on her performance of the Mitzvah. In discussing the language of the Berachah on lighting Chanukah candles, the Ramban in Pesachim (7a, s.v. uvitekias shofar) implies that the essence of this Mitzvah is to have the candles lit in one’s home; they may therefore be lit by somebody else. The Yad Ephraim (to Magen Avraham there 432:6) states this explicitly. There is thus now a third option for a person who is unable to light Chanukah candles at the proper time, in addition to lighting earlier or lighting later, namely, having somebody else in his household light in his absence at the proper time. The question is, which of these options, if any, is more optimal and should thus be sought out initially?
If one has to choose between lighting candles early (after Plag HaMinchah, but still well before nightfall) and lighting late at night, Rav Moshe Feinstein, as cited in the Sefer Nitei Gavriel (ibid. # 14 and note 29), rules that it is preferable to light early, and Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (Sefer Shalmei Moed ibid.) agrees. Many others, however, including Rav Shmuel Wosner (Shu”t Shevet HaLevi 4:66), disagree, and hold that it is better to light later at night. Indeed, it appears from the Chayei Adam (154:18) and the Mishnah Berurah (ibid. #2) that lighting early is allowed altogether only if one will not be able to light at any other time. The Sefer Chovat HaDar (Hilchot Ner Chanukah, Chapter 1 note 59) suggests that for those who light outdoors, it is better to light earlier than later, while for those who light indoors, it is better to light later.
If one must choose between lighting earlier and designating a household member who will be there to light in one’s home at the proper time, Rav Wosner (Shu”t Shevet HaLeivi ibid.) rules that one should opt for the latter. The same ruling appears as well in the Sefer Chovat HaDar (ibid. note 50). Similarly, if one has to choose between lighting late at night and designating someone at home to light at the proper time, Rav Yitzchak Zev Soloveitchik held that the latter is the preferred option (see Uvdot VeHanagot LeBeit Brisk Volume 2, page 99); Rav Binyamin Zilber (Shu”t Az Nidberu Volume 3 #30:3) rules that way as well, as does Rav Ovadyah Yosef (Shu”t Yechaveh Daat Volume 3 #51) and many others. See, however, Shu”t Shevet HaLeivi ibid. and Rav Moshe Feinstein, cited in the Sefer Moadei Yeshurun (Laws of Chanukah 1:12-13 and notes 27- 28) who disagree, saying that it is preferable to be present when the lights are lit, even at a later time. Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (Shu”t Minchat Shlomo Volume 2, #58:43) also concurs with the first position, though he adds that if for reasons of familial harmony it is better to have the entire family together when lighting Chanukah candles, one may perform the Mitzvah at the time when everybody will be present. This appears to be the wide-spread practice presently in many homes