Use of Electric Lights for the Chanukah Lights

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Dec 20, 2006
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In a previous issue, we discussed the halachic status of incandescent bulbs. According to many poskim, they are considered a fire for the purpose of lighting Shabbat candles. In this issue, we will discuss whether incandescent bulbs may be used for the purpose of lighting Chanukah candles. Much of this discussion is based on the comments of R. Shlomo Z. Auerbach in his work Me'orei Eish, (Ch. 5) which primarily deals with the halachic status of incandescent bulbs.

Must the Lights Reflect the Miracle of the Oil?
It is well known that the mitzvah of lighting Chanukah lights is based on the miracle of the oil. As such, it is arguable that the mitzvah may only be fulfilled with a light that is similar to the lights of the Menorah in the Beit HaMikdash. In fact, Maharal of Prague, Ner Mitzvah, s.v. V'Katav HaRosh, rules that one can only fulfill the mitzvah of Chanukah lights with oil, and not with wax, because the miracle was specifically with oil.

R. Auerbach notes that while we don't follow the opinion of Maharal (see Sha'ar HaTziun 673:4), we might still accept his fundamental principle that the mitzvah of Chanukah lights must be reflective of the miracle. We could still permit the use of wax candles by reasoning that wax is similar enough to oil. We could then state that in order for something to be considered similar enough to oil to be kosher for the mitzvah of Chanukah lights it must have a wick that draws from a fuel source. If, for example, one lights a piece of wood, he would not fulfill the mitzvah of lighting Chanukah lights because there is no wick drawing fuel and thus it does not reflect the miracle of the oil. R. Auerbach therefore asserts that electric lights, which have no wicks that draw fuel, are not valid for the mitzvah of lighting Chanukah lights.

R. Auerbach also posits that the mitzvah of lighting Chanukah lights requires an actual flame. When the Torah describes the mitzvah of lighting the oil in the Beit HaMikdash, the Torah (Bamidbar 8:2) uses the term b'ha'alot'cha, when you raise the candles, as opposed to b'hadlakat'cha, when you light the candles, which implies that in the Beit HaMikdash, there is a requirement for a rising flame. If the mitzvah of lighting Chanukah lights is supposed to reflect the miracle that occurred in the Beit HaMikdash, an incandescent bulb, which does not have a rising flame, would be invalid for the mitzvah of lighting Chanukah lights.

R. Eliezer Waldenberg, Tzitz Eliezer 1:20:12, claims that we reject Maharal's principle fundamentally. The fact that one may use oil, wax or fat for the mitzvah is evidence that the mitzvah does not serve to replicate the miracle of the oil. As such, one cannot exclude incandescent bulbs from the mitzvah simply by virtue of the fact that they do not reflect the miracle of the oil.

Lighting With Insufficient Fuel
R. Auerbach presents another factor that must be considered regarding use of electric lights for the mitzvah of lighting Chanukah lights. The Gemara, Shabbat 21b, rules that although there is no requirement to relight Chanukah lights that were extinguished before consuming their fuel, one must place enough fuel in flask at the time of lighting in order that they could last from sundown until the cessation of traffic in the marketplace (approximately thirty minutes). R. Auerbach questions whether one can light a candle that receives its fuel from a reservoir continually but the candle itself only has a few drops of oil at any given moment. On the one hand, the light can last for many hours. However, it is arguable that since the candle does not contain the requisite fuel at the time of lighting, it is invalid for the mitzvah.

R. Auerbach then applies this question to lighting with electric lights. If the power source of the light is alternating current (i.e. the light is plugged into the wall), the electric light does not have enough fuel to last for thirty minutes at the time in which it is activated. Rather, the energy necessary to fuel the light is being supplied continuously. Therefore, if the candle that is supplied by a fuel reservoir is invalid, an incandescent bulb that is supplied by alternating current is also invalid. [R. Auerbach admits that if this was the only objection to the use of electric lights, one can simply avoid this problem by using a battery-operated lamp where all of the fuel is considered connected to the lamp at the time of lighting.]

R. Auerbach then quotes R. Ya'akov Moshe Charlop, who suggests that there may be a difference between an incandescent bulb and a candle that is fed by fuel from a reservoir. Regarding the candle that is fed by the fuel reservoir, the system that allows the fuel to be fed into the candle is not a function of lighting the candle. However, regarding an incandescent bulb, the activation of the bulb is what causes the system to provide more fuel. As such, one can view the fuel in the "reservoir" as part of the same system.

Can the Mitzvah be Fulfilled Via Gerama?
R. Chaim Ozer Grodzenski, Achiezer 3:60, in a landmark responsum regarding incandescent light bulbs, rules that completing a circuit on Shabbat is not considered gerama (indirect action). Therefore, one violates a biblical violation for activating an incandescent light bulb on Shabbat. Nevertheless, R. Tzvi P. Frank, Har Tzvi 2:114, claims that for the purpose of fulfilling a mitzvah, one should be concerned that activating a light bulb should would be considered gerama (at least as a matter of stringency). R. Frank then discusses whether one can fulfill the mitzvah of lighting Chanukah lights if the lights are kindled via gerama. Is the mitzvah to light the candles or is it to ensure that the candles are lit? If the mitzvah is to light the candles, then the lighting must be a direct action. If the mitzvah is to ensure that it is lit, even gerama would acceptable since the lighter caused the light to be kindled. R. Frank concludes that the mitzvah is to light the candles, and therefore lighting via gerama would be invalid for the mitzvah.

R. Auerbach notes that the question of whether the mitzvah is to light the candles or whether it is to ensure that the candles are lit can be solved by examining the text of the beracha. If the beracha would be "al hadlakat ner shel Chanukah" (upon the lighting of the Chanukah light), then one can argue that the mitzvah is to ensure that the candle is lit. However, the proper beracha is "l'hadlik ner shel Chanukah" (to light the Chanukah light) which connotes that the mitzvah is to actively light the Chanukah light.

The Invalidity of a Bonfire
R. Waldenberg, op. cit, claims that the only problem he sees with use of electric lights for the mitzvah of lighting Chanukah lights is that it may be considered a medurah (bonfire). The Gemara, Shabbat 23b, states that if one places multiple wicks in a flask of oil and lights it, one does not fulfill the mitzvah at all because it is like a bonfire. Rashi, ad loc., s.v. Asa'ah, explains that the problem is that the two fires connect and it does not resemble a candle. R. Waldenberg suggests that the light in an incandescent bulb also appears as a dispersed fire and may not resemble a candle.

Conclusion
R. Ovadia Yosef, Yabia Omer, Orach Chaim 3:35, summarizes the comments of R. Auerbach, R. Waldenberg and others, and concludes that one should not use electric lights for the mitzvah of lighting Chanukah lights. He writes that at best it is doubtful whether one can fulfill the mitzvah in this manner and therefore, there is no justification to recite a beracha if one is using electric lights. [If one assumes that use of electric lights for the mitzvah constitutes a doubt, it is possible that if one is in a situation where there is no alternative but to light with electric lights (such as in a hospital), he may light without reciting a beracha.]

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