This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Burning Issues*

The precept of lighting candles on Hanukkah is intended to bear public witness to the great miracles of the defeat of the Hellenist forces and the rededication of the Temple. For this reason, the Talmud requires that the Hanukkah lamps be stationed outside the doorway, or on a second-storey window that opens onto the street, allowing them to be observed by passers-by.

In Talmudic, times indoor lighting of Hanukkah lights was an exceptional occurrence, a special dispensation that was given by the rabbis of the time on account of flare-ups of Zoroastrian religious persecution.

During the Middle Ages, when Jewish communities flourished in many parts of Europe, we discover to our surprise that indoor candle-lighting had become the almost universal norm, and nobody was observing the original Talmudic tradition of placing their menorahs outside the house.

The rabbis of the time were keenly aware of the discrepancy, but were not certain how to account for it. The most widely quoted rationale posited that the Talmudic sages, in order to remove the peril of Zoroastrian persecution in their own generation, had issued a decree that candles be lit indoors; and for some reason had never gotten around to revoking it. Since then, even though the grounds for the edict had long ceased to exist, no subsequent court possessed the authority to repeal it.

A few authorities have suggested a more prosaic reason for the change. A very compelling factor that discouraged outdoor Hanukkah lighting was the weather. Strong winds and torrential rains occurred more frequently in the northern European climes than in the Middle Eastern lands where the rules had originally been formulated. This made it a daunting challenge to keep the flames lit without resorting to complex and costly equipment, such as glass cases for the candles.

Interestingly, none of the medieval sources that deal with this question contain the remotest suggestion that Hanukkah was considered offensive to the religious sensibilities of Christian neighbours. The phenomenon of Jews having to conceal their candles from hostile gentiles is invariably presented as a scenario from the distant past.

It is therefore comes as something of a surprise to read the words of the prominent fourteenth-century Spanish halakhist Rabbi Jeroham ben Meshullam, who wrote that "some people are accustomed to lighting it inside the doorway that opens to the courtyard, because gentiles and thieves are common."

Though Rabbi Jeroham's misgivings might simply be motivated by the prospect of stolen menorahs, what are we to do about the puzzling ruling by the fifteenth-century Rabbi Joseph ben Moses, who wrote that "In a house belonging to a non-Jew, a person should light only one candle and one shammash. Even though the non-Jew would not object to two or three candles, there is always that one case in a hundred when it could lead to danger, and it would bring discredit upon the precept."

Since Rabbi Joseph states explicitly that the gentile in question has no problem in principle with his Jewish tenant lighting candles, what difference does it make how many candles he lights?

I suspect that the issue here is not a theological matter, but an eminently practical one. Medieval Jews had acquired some notoriety for causing accidental conflagrations with their Sabbath candles. According to Talmudic halakhah, it is permitted to extinguish a fire on Shabbat only in order to save lives, but not to prevent destruction of property. Therefore, when fires did break out in their homes and neighbourhoods on Friday nights or Saturdays, Jews were reluctant to extinguish them, and the flames could spread rapidly through their ramshackle neighborhoods and beyond.

It is understandable that otherwise well-disposed Christian landlords could become very apprehensive at the prospect of eight days of Jewish candle-lighting.

Through their scrupulous adherence to the Sabbath prohibitions, Jews had occasionally placed themselves in danger of injury at the hands of enraged Christians who blamed them for promoting large-scale conflagrations, and vented their wrath in the form of bloody pogroms.

It was these kinds of considerations that led many influential medieval rabbis to relax the restrictions on putting out fires on Sabbath. Several French and German authorities allude to cases where the irate gentiles, on determining that the fire had originated from a Jewish home, would cast the Jews into the flames.

Under the circumstances, it is not surprising that Rabbi Joseph ben Moses was willing to cut down on the number of Hanukkah candles in order to allay the fears of a Christian landlord.

And I think that we can all take this as a valuable reminder to take appropriate precautions in preparing our holiday candles, so as not to bring discredit or calamity upon this joyous precept.

This article and many others are now included in the book

In Those Days, At This Time
In Those Days, At This Time:
Holiness and History in the Jewish Calendar

published by

University of Calgary Press
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  • First Publication:
    • Jewish Free PressDecember 2 1999, p. 20.

  • Bibliography:
    • Sperber, Daniel. Minhage Yisrael : mekorot ve-toladot. Yerushalayim: Mosad ha-Rav Kuk, 1989-.