Electricity and Chanukah Lights by Rabbi Chaim Jachter


Common practice among observant families is not to use an electric Menorah for Chanukah lights.  This week's discussion will focus on the many reasons for this practice.  If one wishes to explore this issue in depth, he can see Rabbi Feitel Levin's essay on this topic in Hebrew (Techumin 9:317-340) and this author's essay in English (co-authored with Rabbi Michael Broyde, in The Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society, Spring 1993 pp. 89-126)  entitled "Electrically Produced Fire or Light in Positive Commandments."

People often ask why we consider an electric Menorah unacceptable for Chanukah lights.  They point out that on Shabbat and Yom Tov it is forbidden to turn on the electricity.  Indeed, it is correct that turning on an incandescent bulb on Shabbat constitutes a forbidden act of , creating a fire, (see Rambam   :, Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach   , and Rabbi Broyde and Rabbi Jachter "The Use of Electricity on Shabbat and Yom Tov, Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society," Spring 1991 pp. 6-10).  Hence, Halacha considers a lit incandescent bulb to be a fire.  In fact, most Poskim agree that one can fulfill the Mitzvah of lighting Shabbat or Yom Tov candles with electrically produced light.  Rav Yitzchak Shmelkes (    ), Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzinsky ( :), Rav David Tzvi Hoffman (  ), and Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik (cited by Rav Hershel Schachter in Nefesh HaRav pp. 155-156) are among the many authorities who permit reciting a Beracha on electrically produced light on Erev Shabbat or Erev Yom Tov.  Shemirat Shabbat Kehilchata (43:4) writes concerning this issue, "one who uses electrically produced light for Shabbat or Yom Tov candles has halachic support for his practice and may recite a blessing on this lighting."  The question is then appropriately raised - why can electric menorahs not be used on Chanuka? 

Many different approaches to this issue have been taken.  Rav Zvi Pesach Frank (Har Zvi Orach Chaim 2:114:2) writes that a  , an act of kindling, is required in order to fulfill the mitzvah of lighting Chanuka candles (as evidenced by the language of the bracha    , and see Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 675:1).  Rabbi Frank asserts that turning on an electric bulb is not considered to be an act of kindling.  This opinion is rejected by most authorities, most prominently Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzinski (Achiezer 3:60 and see aforementioned article on the use of electricity on Shabbat and Yom Tov).

Rabbi Waldenburg (  ::) suggests that incandescent bulbs are unsuitable for use as Chanuka lights since the bulb's filament is shaped like an arc, and the halacha does not permit Chanuka lights to be arranged in a round shape (Shulchan Aruch 671:4).  One could argue, against this reasoning, that this ruling is inapplicable to a single circular filament and should be limited to a collection of candles or lights.

The argument which has attracted the greatest support is the contention that electric lights, even though they are halachically "kindled fire," differ significantly from the Menorah which was lit in the Beit Hamikdash.  Thus they cannot be used to fulfill the mitzvah of commemorating the miracle with the Menorah which occurred in the Beit Hamikdash.  Among the prominent differences are that electric lights do not have a flame, no fuel is consumed, no fuel supply is present at the time of lighting, and that electric bulbs contain a glowing filament which is not a conventional fire.  Other differences include the lack of a wick in electric lights and that they are dependent on not-yet produced fuel.  While each of these differences alone might not be significant (or even technically correct), the sum total of these differences motivates almost all authorities to prohibit the use of an electric menorah.  Most prominent among these authorities is Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach  (  :) who emphasizes the differences between electric light and the menorah and rules that an electric menorah is unacceptable for Chanuka use.

The argument has also been advanced that electric lights lack the required  of lasting at least half an hour.  It is possible, however that this obstacle can be overcome by using a flashlight or a battery-operated  menorah.  In fact, the Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv, Rav Chaim David Halevi ()   (:) writes that a person who finds it impossible to light Chanuka candles, such as an airplane passenger, should light without a bracha (see Rabbi J. David Bleich, Contemporary Halachic Problems III: 54-58 for a summary of the various opinions concerning whether an airplane passenger is at all obligated to light Chanuka candles).

Rabbi Halevi adds that if after lighting a battery powered flashlight for use as Chanuka light, one has an opportunity to light oil or wax candles, he should do so with a blessing.  This author and Rabbi Broyde wrote in their aforementioned article that one could argue that in such a situation that one should not recite a bracha.  This is because of the general rule emphasized by poskim regarding brachot --    -- that when in doubt regarding a bracha, it should be omitted for fear that one may be reciting a   , a wasted bracha.

These authors argue that it might be possible for one to fulfill the minimal obligation of lighting Chanuka candles by using a battery powered flashlight.  This appears to be the opinion of Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzinski ( :) who writes "on the issue of electric menorah lights, olive oil is the preferred form.  This is particularly true in light of the Ramo's rule that one should light in a place in which it is clear that he is lighting for Chanuka, hence it would seem that one should undoubtedly make great efforts to insure that he lights with oil or wax candles."  It seems from this statement that one fulfills, at least minimally, his obligation to light Chanuka candles with electric lights.  Therefore, in the situation described by Rav Halevi, it would seem that it would be more proper to avoid the problem of  , by lighting the second time without a bracha.

It should be emphasized that this discussion applies only to light in which a metal filament glows, such in an incandescent bulb.  However, fluorescent, LCD, or LED lights would undoubtedly not fulfill the commandment to kindle the Chanuka lights, because these lights are "cold" (i.e. do not contain a heated filament) and hence are not considered fire.

Perhaps the most persuasive argument that an electric menorah is unacceptable is Rav Auerbach's argument (  :) that only when one turns on an electric light is one considered to be doing an act of lighting.  However, once the electric light is lit it is dependent on more current being generated to keep it lit.  This is not considered that the light is being caused to burn by the one who turned it on.  This is because only by oil or wax candles can one be considered to be responsible for its burning for the entire time it burns (because of   , see   .).  These candles do not require human intervention to keep them burning.  Hence electric lights would be unacceptable for Chanuka lights because one must light a candle with an act of kindling that will last for at least half an hour.  By electric lights only for the moment that one turns on the light it is considered an act of lighting.  This argument, however, does not apply to battery operated lights.

Let us yearn and pray for the day in which we will merit to witness the dedication of the   in which we light the Menorah in the Beit Hamikdash.

[Addendum to Rabbi Jachter's article in the last Issue:]

This past Shabbat, a prominent Orthodox attorney informed me that almost all restrictions of economic activity run afoul of civil antitrust statutes.  This point is significant and the issue of whether the rule of    (that civil law is halachically binding) should be applied in a given situation must be carefully examined by leading halachic authorities.

Electricity - The Prohibitions By Rabbi Chaim Jachter

Hasagat Gevul - Economic Competition in Jewish Law by Rabbi Chaim Jachter