After outlining the Berachot recited upon lighting the Chanukah candles, the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 676:4) states that following the lighting, one recites a paragraph beginning with the words “Hanerot Hallalu…,” “These candles…” This practice is initially described in a Beraita in Masechet Soferim (20:6) where the entire text of the paragraph is presented; the Rosh in Shabbat (2:8) quotes this Beraita, including the text, albeit with some minor alterations, and this is presumably the text referred to by the Shulchan Aruch (ibid.). The Taz (676:5) quotes from the Maharshal (see Teshuvot Maharshal Siman 85) that this paragraph contains a total of 36 words besides the opening two words “Hanerot Hallalu;” since the total number of candles that any one person lights for the Mitzvah through the course of Chanukah (presuming that one lights one candle the first night, two the second night and so on up to eight on the eighth night) is 36, this paragraph thus hints at the idea that “Hanerot Hallalu,” “these candles,” are 36. The Magen Avraham (676:3) quotes this as well, adding that the two words “Hanerot Hallalu” themselves are comprised, in Hebrew, of eight letters, alluding to the eight days of Chanukah. The Mishnah Berurah (676:8) cites this as well, noting in the Shaar HaTziyun (676:13), though, that an adjustment needs to be made to the text of the paragraph regarding one word so that the calculation will indeed work precisely. The Machatzit HaShekel (676:3) also mentions this adjustment, and then adds that the two words “Hanerot Hallalu” are discounted from the calculation when they appear a second time later in the paragraph as well, just as they are when they appear at the start of the paragraph, and this indeed allows the total of number of words to add up to 36. The Kaf HaChaim (676:28) also quotes this latter point, but then produces an alternative adjustment to the text which likewise results in this paragraph containing exactly 36 words.
In spite of all this maneuvering, however, the Aruch HaShulchan (676:8) admits that he is unable to make the numbers work out so that the text of Hanerot Hallalu will have exactly the same number of words as there are candles used for Chanukah. This would certainly seem to be the case regarding the texts found in the standard Siddurim used today, whether Nusach Ashkenaz or Nusach Sepharad, according to each of which there are several more than 36 words in Hanerot Hallalu, although the precise texts vary. Likewise, the Siddurim which follow Nusach HaAri and those that follow Nusach HaGra also do not print texts that contain exactly 36 words. In spite of the declaration of the Maharshal in his aforementioned Teshuvah that the text should not be tampered with or altered at all because it must have the correct number of words, it seems that only some of the Siddurim used by the Sephardim of the Eidot HaMizrach actually do present versions of this paragraph that have exactly 36 words.
The question is, then, what is the real purpose or meaning behind the recitation of Hanerot Hallalu? There clearly must be something more to it than some numerical connection, a seemingly somewhat loose connection, between the length of the text and the total number of candles lit over the course of Chanukah. Although the Rambam, for one, actually makes no mention of Hanerot Hallalu at all, the custom to recite this paragraph is a very widespread and long-standing one, and there must be something more significant behind it.
Perhaps it may be suggested that the recitation of Hanerot Hallalu relates directly to the well known Chanukah requirement of Pirsumei Nisa, publicizing the miracle, as indeed mentioned by the Aruch HaShulchan (ibid.). This requirement plays a role in a number of Halachot of Chanukah, including the matters of where to light the Chanukah candles (see Rashi to Shabbat 21b, s.v. MiBachutz), the maximum and minimum height off the ground where the candles may be positioned (see Rosh to Shabbat 2:5 and Rashi to Shabbat 22a, s.v. Pesulah), when the candles should be lit (see Chidushei HaRashba to Shabbat 21b, s.v. Ha D’Amrinan), the number of candles that should be lit per night per household (see Tosafot to Shabbat 21b, s.v. VeHaMehadrin, and the analysis of the Steipler Gaon in his Kehillot Yaakov on Shabbat, Siman 17), and the significance of the Mitzvah of lighting Chanukah candles as compared to other Mitzvot (see the Gemara in Shabbat 23b and Shulchan Aruch O.C. 678:1). It is clear from a thorough examination of the above sources, among others, that the notion of Pirsumei Nisa is not something extraneous to the Mitzvah of lighting Chanukah candles, like a kind of icing on the cake, but is in fact an integral and perhaps indispensable part of it. Indeed, the Rambam states openly in introducing the laws of Chanukah (Hilchot Chanukah 3:3, in the standard editions), that the purpose of lighting the candles each of the eight nights of the holiday is to demonstrably reveal the miracle. Similarly, in concluding these laws, the Rambam writes (Hilchot Chanukah 4:12) that the Mitzvah of Chanukah candles is a very precious one and that one must be careful to fulfill it properly in order to make the miracle known. It is thus clear that the actual lighting of the Chanukah candles must in some way serve to publicize the miracle.
In view of the above, it is possible to posit that the recitation of HaNerot Hallalu is the verbal component of this act of publicizing the Chanukah miracle and may thus actually be what makes, or helps make, the very lighting of the candles into an activity that in fact fulfills the requirement of Pirsumei Nisa. In other words, there is nothing inherent in the act of lighting candles which automatically defines that act as representing the publicizing of a miracle; indeed, prior to the advent of electricity, people lit candles in their homes every night of the year in order to illuminate the house, just as we today turn on the electric lights in our homes every night. In order, then, to help transform that mundane act of lighting candles into something which carries with it Halachic import as an act which publicizes the miracle of Chanukah, some type of verbal declaration may be needed and reciting Hanerot Hallalu takes care of that need. Moreover, it stands to reason that if one wishes to properly publicize something, he must certainly be clear as to exactly what he is publicizing, and he must obviously make that which he is publicizing clear to others. The recitation of Hanerot Hallalu accomplishes both of those objectives: it reminds the person lighting the candles exactly what he is doing and it also helps make a clear presentation to others. When one recites Hanerot Hallalu upon lighting the Chanukah candles, one is enhancing the Mitzvah by publicizing the Chanukah miracle in the optimal fashion.
There is actually a clear Halachic precedent for this idea of a verbal explanation accompanying the act of a Mitzvah, thereby enhancing its fulfillment. The Mishnah in Pesachim (116a-116b), famous because of its inclusion in the Pesach Haggadah, states that one who fails on Pesach night to talk about Pesach, Matzah, and Maror does not fulfill his obligation. Although the Rambam (Hilchot Chametz U’Matzah 7:5) and some other Rishonim (see Meiri to Pesachim 116a, s.v. Rabban Gamliel) understand that the “obligation” referred to there is the Mitzvah to relate the story of Yetziat Mitzrayim. On the other hand, certain Rishonim maintain that the “obligation” referred to is in fact the Mitzvah of eating the Pesach, the Matzah, and Maror. These Rishonim then debate what is meant by one not fulfilling his obligation. Some take the term literally and say that although one may have eaten the Peasach, the Matzah, and the Maror he has still not discharged his obligation at all unless the verbal declaration outlined by that Mishnah in Pesachim (ibid.) accompanies the eating (see Orchot Chaim, Hilchot Leil Pesach Siman 38, s.v. Rabban Gamliel, and Tosafot in Pesachim 116a, s.v. VaAmartem, as explained by Bikkurei Yaakov to O.C. 625:3). Others disagree to an extent, saying that the intent of this ruling is that one who does not discuss Pesach, Matzah, and Maror does not fulfill his obligation to eat these items properly, but he is still considered to have fulfilled the Mitzvah of eating, albeit not fully (see Ran in Pesachim, 25b in the pagination of the Rif, s.v. Kol, and Ritva, Biur HaHaggadah, s.v. Rabban Gamliel.) In either case, though, what emerges here is that a verbal explanation of the significance of and the reasoning behind an action that one is doing as a Mitzvah is necessary, or at least preferred, for the complete and optimal fulfillment of that Mitzvah.
It should be pointed out that regarding Pesach as well, the idea of Pirsumei Nisa plays a role, and indeed the actual Pasuk in the Torah which mandates an oral declaration concerning Pesach night (Shemot 12; 27) may actually be the very source for the whole concept of Pirsumei Nisa. Perhaps it may be added that because eating too is a commonplace activity, something must be done to demonstrably elevate the act of eating the Pesach, the Matzah, and the Maror into an act with Halachic import publicizing the miracle of Pesach, hence the requirement for some kind of oral statement. In an earlier Gemara in Pesachim (30b), among other places, we are told that whenever the Rabbanan instituted a ruling, they modeled it after something in the Torah. It may well be, therefore, that just as when it comes to Pesach, which of course is from the Torah, we find that the Mitzvot of the holiday should be performed along with an oral description of what they’re all about, so too when the Rabbanan instituted Chanukah, they at least recommended that the Mitzvah of the holiday, namely, lighting the candles, be performed along with an oral description of what that Mitzvah is all about, and that is what is accomplished by the recitation of Hanerot Hallalu. Keeping in mind this approach to the significance of Hanerot Hallalu, which views its recitation as an expression of the Pirsumei Nisa that is so central to the Mitzvah of lighting Chanukah candles, we can perhaps understand why the original Beraita in Masechet Soferim (ibid.) seems to say that Hanerot Hallalu is recited in between the two Berachot over the candles (Lehadlik Neir and She’Asah Nissim), as noted by the Korban Netanel in his commentary on the Rosh in Shabbat cited above (ibid., Ot 8). Evidently, it is an important part of the Mitzvah and not something extraneous that is merely “nice,” and it is thus not an interruption in the middle of the Berachot. Although this is not the standard practice, as noted by the Korban Netanel (ibid.), the Pri Chadash (676:4), the Aruch HaShulchan (676:5) and others, the Maharshal does write in his aforementioned Teshuvah (ibid.) that Hanerot Hallalu should be recited immediately after lighting the first candle, while engaged in lighting the rest. Though the Shulchan Aruch (676:4) is not non-committal, the Taz (676:5), the Magen Avraham (676:3), the Aruch HaShulchan (676:8) and others all rule accordingly. It is clear from these authorities, then, that this recitation does not constitute an interruption in the performance of the Mitzvah, but seems to be, as suggested above, a major part of it. The Pri Megadim (Mishbetzot Zahav 676:5), however, does note that some have the custom to recite Hanerot Hallalu only after lighting all the candles, and the Mishnah Berurah (676:8) and the Kaf HaChaim (676:28) acknowledge that this custom is acceptable as well.
Finally, this understanding of Hanerot Hallalu as a part of the Mitzvah of lighting Chanukah candles based on its character as a means to fulfill Pirsumei Nisa by sharing some of the story behind the Mitzvah may also help solve some puzzling presentations in both the Gemara in Shabbat (21b) and in the Rambam (Hilchot Chanukah 3:1-2). The Gemara there asks “Mai Chanukah,” meaning, in effect, what is this holiday all about, and then proceeds to briefly summarize the familiar historical events that took place which eventually resulted in the establishment of Chanukah. While the inclusion of this information in the Gemara is understandable, its placement is not. Rather than being found at the beginning of the Gemara’s deliberations about Chanukah, as a kind of introduction, which would seem to be appropriate, it is instead quoted right in the middle of them after the recording of numerous Halachic details and before others; it appears to be quite out of place. The answer, though, may be that the story of Chanukah in terms of its historical background is not merely introductory material, but is rather part and parcel of the laws of Chanukah. In order to correctly observe the laws of Chanukah, including the requirement to properly publicize the miracle, one must be familiar with the story and be able to share it with others; one must know what it is that one is publicizing (see Rashi there, s.v. Mai Chanukah). Being aware of the story itself is thus part of the laws of Chanukah, and the story consequently appears specifically among those laws.
For this same reason, perhaps, the Rambam (ibid.) begins his discussion of Hilchot Chanukah by describing the historical background of the holiday, something he does not do regarding other holidays or other Mitzvot, which one to ask why he does it here. Again, the answer may be that specifically with regards to Chanukah, knowledge of the story and the historical background is part of the requirement of Pirsumei Nisa, which is central to the Mitzvah of lighting the candles and in the absence of any other text, the Rambam includes the story as part of the laws of Chanukah. Based on all of the above, we should all be very careful when reciting Hanerot Hallalu and recognize that by so doing we are enhancing the Mitzvah of lighting the candles by engaging as well in a verbal form of Pirsumei Nisa at the same time, thereby highlighting a major theme of Chanukah.