Where should one place his Chanukah lights? What would appear to be a rather simple question is actually quite a nuanced issue, especially due to the challenges of applying the principles set forth in the Gemara and its commentaries to contemporary circumstances.
The Gemara (Shabbat 21b) discusses three possible locations for lighting a menorah: outside, by the window, on the table.
The first place listed in the Gemara as a possible area to light is outside. Rashi (s.v. Mibechutz) states that we light outside for the purpose of Pirsumei Nissa (publicizing the miracle). Rashi also states that the Gemara applies to a situation where the person’s house opens to a courtyard. Rashi indicates that even if the lights will not be visible to someone walking in the street, one should still light towards the yard.
Tosafot (s.v. Mitzvah) disagrees and explain that our Gemara means to say that one should place the Menorah by the entrance which faces the street. However, if the entrance of the house faces a courtyard, then the person should light at the entrance of the courtyard so that the menorah will face those who walk by.
Tosafot’s opinion is clear. Since the purpose of the Menorah is to publicize the miracle, it makes sense that one should always light wherever people will pass. Why, then, does Rashi believe that one should always light facing the courtyard, even when one can light it near the street? Rashi’s opinion can be explained based on a Halacha in the Rambam: The Rambam (Hilchot Chanuka 4:1) teaches that the obligation of lighting the Menorah focuses upon the house (i.e. one must insure that Chanukah lights are lit in one’s home). Based on this, Rashi believes that even though there would be more publicity for the Menorah if it was placed near the street, we cannot place it there, because the Menorah must be placed near the house.
Although the Ran and Ohr Zarua (both cited by Biur Halacha 671:5 s.v. Petach) follow Rashi, the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 671:5) sides with Tosafot. There are many Acharonim who debate whether we can apply this Halacha to contemporary yards. Most of these Acharonim quote the Chazon Ish who rules that contemporary yards are not the same as yards in the time of the Gemara. Since in the time of the Gemara, most of the housework was done in the courtyard, the yard was just an extension of the house and one would be allowed to light at the entrance of the yard. The Chazon Ish argues that in our times, even the Shulchan Aruch would require one to light at the entrance to his house, and not towards his yard.
Others say that there is no difference between today’s yards and the yards from the time of the Gemara. But among those that make this argument, there is yet another dispute as to whether one can light at the entrance to a yard where there is no formal doorway. According to Rav Yitzchak Zev Soloveitchik, one should not light at the entrance to a yard that does not have a proper doorway.
Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach and Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv rule that even if the yard does not have a doorway one should still light at the entrance of the yard. Some Poskim suggest that if the doorway to one’s house is visible through the yard from the street then he should light it in the doorway of his house. This would satisfy both the opinions of Rashi and Tosafot.
Lighting by the Window
The second place for lighting mentioned by the Gemara is by the window for one who does not live on the ground floor of the building in which he resides. Rashi, as we noted, rules that one should light at the entranceway to his house. If to access one’s house one needs to go through a separate building (e.g. an apartment building), then the entranceway to the building is not the entranceway to his house. However, since lighting the menorah at the entrance to his apartment (inside the building) is not the optimal location for him to publicize the miracle, he lights it in a window that opens to the street.
However, according to Tosafot who believe that one may light at the entrance to the courtyard, why should one light by the window of his house? Why shouldn’t he light it by the entrance to the building, so as to publicize the miracle?
The Beit Yosef explains that if one were to light his candles at the entranceway to the courtyard then no one would know that they were his candles. So one should light in his window so that those that walking in the street and pass by his apartment will know whose candles they are.
Lighting on One’s Table
The Gemara presents a third and final option that in times of danger one can light in his house on a table:
The Rishonim argue as to what precisely is the danger referred to in the Gemara. Some believe that this is in a time of a general ban on all Mitzvot and others explain that this is in a time of a specific ban on lighting the menorah (Rashi s.v. HaSakanah explains that it refers to a Persian-Zoroastrian holiday where it the authorities permit lights only in their place of worship). The Ritva states that the Gemara is talking about a time when there is simply a general hatred towards Jews. He also says that some extend this leniency to areas with bad weather conditions.
Where to Light Nowadays
Why is it that we don’t light outside nowadays so as to publicize the miracle? It doesn’t seem to be a time of danger, so why not light outside? The Shibolei HaLeket suggests that since we lit inside during times of danger, we still light inside even when there seem to be peaceful times.
The Levush and the Chayei Adam attribute the practice of lighting inside as a result of two things: the fact that Jews still live next to Nochrim, and poor weather conditions. Rav Moshe Feinstein rules that ideally one should still light by a window that faces the street. Rav Yaakov Emden writes that ideally people should try and light outside in a glass box.
Where should one who lives in an apartment building light? Since Rashi rules that one must light at the entrance to his house and not in public, Rashi would not allow someone to light at the entrance of their apartment building. According to Tosafot, one could claim that the stairwell is a courtyard and therefore one could light at the entrance to the stairwell. However, one may argue that one should not light in the stairway since it may not be recognizable to the public that he is the owner of the candles, in accordance with the approach articulated by the Beit Yosef.
But what should one do if the window is higher than 20 Amot (approximately thirty five feet), since the Gemara (Shabbat 22a) states that one may not place a Menorah higher than 20 Amot? Some say that in this case one should light at the door of the apartment, and it is quoted in the name of Rav Moshe Feinstein that as long as his apartment window faces other apartments then the people from those apartments will be able to see the candles. The latter view believes that the Gemara invalidated a Menorah above twenty Amot only if it would not be visible to others. This is not the case here, where there are other apartments across from where one will place his Menorah.
Rav Moshe Feinstein rules that the deciding factor of where to light should be the place that will maximize Pirsumei Nisa. Rav Feinstein is reported to have lit by his window, which was visible to someone walking in the street and the apartments facing the building in which he resided in the Lower East Side of Manhattan.