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The Unique Status of Hiddur Mitzvah in Neros Chanukah

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Nov 27, 2007
The well known Talmudic presentation of neros Chanukah (Shabbos 21b) describes a tri-level stratification of the mitzvah. The basic requirement is “ner ish u-beiso,” one candle per house, per night. The mehadrin option is for every family member to light one candle each night. And finally, most optimally – mehadrin min ha-mehadrin – is to light the number of candles corresponding to the night of the holiday. More specifically, following the opinion of Beis Hillel we light one candle on the first night, two the second, and so on, until we light eight candles on the final night of the holiday.
The exact relationship between the final two levels, mehadrin and mehadrin min ha-mehadrin, is unclear and is subject to a dispute among the rishonim.
Tosafos ad loc., s.v. u-mehadrin maintains that the final level of adding a candle each night is in lieu of the previous fulfillment of everyone lighting for themselves. In other words, according to Tosafos the preferred method is for one person per home to light an additional candle each successive night.
The Rambam, Hilchos Chanukah 4:1 argues on this understanding and rules that mehadrin min ha-mehadrin builds on and includes the prior method of lighting. Namely, we increase the number of candles lit each night in addition to lighting for every member of the household.
The Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 671:2 follows the position of Tosafos while the Ramo – at first glance – appears to follow the Rambam’s understanding1. However, a number of achronim have correctly pointed out that a closer reading of the Rambam and Ramo reveals that despite some overlap, they appear to disagree about the critical question of who should light the neros Chanukah.2 The Rambam’s position is that even though you are lighting for every member of the house, only the ba’al ha-bayyis lights the candles, while the Ramo clearly rules that – as is the common practice in Ashkenazic homes – each family member lights their own neros.
While the machlokes between Tosafos and the Rambam seems to revolve around whether or not it must be visibly clear to a passerby what night of the holiday it is3, it is unclear what issue underlies the debate between the Rambam and Ramo – both of whom deny the need for “heker shel minyan ha-yamim”. 4
R. Velvel Soloveitchik suggests that, in fact, the positions of both the Rambam and Ramo, respectively, are consistent with their general views about the larger question of the role of hiddur mitzvah. 5
He bases his analysis on a seminal teshuvah of the Beis ha-Levi, II #47, who explains – in the context of a discussion about removing additional pieces of the foreskin after the essential bris milah is already complete – that the Rambam and Ramo (along with the Tur) argue about the relationship between the actual mitzvah and hiddur mitzvah. The Rambam understands that for hiddur mitzvah to be meaningful it must be performed simultaneously with the actual mitzvah whereas the Ramo allows for the hiddur mitzvah to be accomplished even somewhat apart from the performance of the mitzvah itself. 6
R. Velvel explains that this same issue is at the heart of the debate regarding neros Chanukah. The Rambam rules that the head of the house must light all of the candles – both those which fulfill the essential mitzvah and those for hiddur mitzvah – because by so doing he integrates the ikkar mitzvah with the hiddur. The Ramo, on the other hand, allows every member of the home to light independently – consistent with his general position which allows for hiddur mitzvah to be accomplished even independent from the actual mitzvah requirement.
The implicit assumption made by R. Velvel is that the hiddur mitzvah of Chanukah candles is, essentially, the same kiyyum – rooted in “zeh keli v’anvehu” – as the hiddur mitzvah of mitzvos generally, and one can therefore explain positions about neros Chanukah based on positions held regarding other mitzvos. 7
However, this assumption seems questionable in light of a number of anomalous characteristics of the hiddur mitzvah of neros Chanukah.
First, the very fact that there is a specifically prescribed method of performing hiddur – as is outlined by the Gemara Shabbos – is a departure from the more subjective criteria which typically governs the implementation of hiddur mitzvah. Second, this is the only context where we find the additional level “mehadrin min ha-mehadrin.” And finally, the preferred performance of the mitzvah clearly requires an outlay of money which far exceeds the general rule of “hiddur mitzvah ad shlish” (Bava Kama 9b).
In light of these discrepancies, perhaps we can suggest that the hiddur of neros Chanukah is unique and is in fact quite distinct from the general notion of hiddur mitzvah. More specifically, it appears that whereas hiddur mitzvah is generally something additional which remains apart from the essential mitzvah, the hiddur of neros Chanukah is different in that integrates into the very fabric of the mitzvah. 8
There are a number halachos where this unique feature of hiddur mitzvah seems to be evident.
For example, the poskim discuss whether one can still make a berachah if the first candle has already been lit but one has not yet kindled the remaining candles. Teshuvos Rebbi Akiva Eger, Mahadura Tinyana, #13, Teshuvos Kesav Sofer, Orach Chayyim, #135, and R. Yosef Engel, Gilyonei Ha-Shas, Shabbos, 23a all rule that one may recite the berachah in this instance.9 But this seems very problematic, as the Pri Meggadim, Mishbetzos Zahav, 676:2 notes, because the basic mitzvah is already complete and we generally do not make berachos on the fulfillment of hiddur mitzvah. But the explanation may be that hiddur of neros Chanukah is unique in that it is incorporated into the mitzvah itself and therefore one can make a beracha on its fulfillment.10
Another example of this phenomenon may be the debate about a case where one lacks sufficient candles to fulfill the mitzvah optimally and only after having already lit does the person come into possession of additional candles. The question arises whether, when lighting the additional candles (to correctly correspond to the night of the holiday), another berachah should be recited. The Magen Avraham, 651:25, Elyah Rabba, 672:7, Birkei Yosef, 671:13, and others debate this question.
In truth, the very possibility – let alone, final ruling – that one should make a berachah is startling considering that the basic mitzvah has no doubt already been fulfilled (see the Machatzis ha-Shekel, 676). However, if hiddur is actually a component of the mitzvah and not additional to it then it is understandable why one would even make a berachah in this situation.11
A further echo of this understanding is implied by the ruling of R. Meir Simcha, Ohr Sameach, Hilchos Chanukah, 4:12, regarding a person who cannot afford neros Chanukah. In such a case, the halacha requires a person to do whatever it takes – including selling the shirt off his back – to raise enough money to fulfill the mitzvah.12 Unlike the Chemed Moshe (cited approvingly by the Mishnah Berurah, 651:3) who limits this to raising sufficient funds for the basic obligation of one candle per night, the Ohr Sameach suggests that one must even go to such lengths in order to fulfill the demands of “mehadrin min ha-mehadrin.” The most likely explanation for such a surprising and extreme position is that the hiddur mitzvah is, ultimately, inseparable from the basic mitzvah and is therefore equally demanding.
The mitzvah of neros Chanukah thus emerges as the source of a new and fascinating halachic construct. Far from being just another example of the general principle of zeh keli v’anvehu, our ambitious and maximal fulfillment of the mitzvah is rooted in the unique integration of the ikkar mitzvah and the hiddur mitzvah. 13

1. See the Taz ad loc. # 1 and the Sedei Chemed, Ma’areches Chanukah, #9 who note the oddity of the Shulchan Aruch – and subsequent Sefardic tradition – following Tosafos while the Ramo and Ashkenzic tradition follow the Rambam.
2. Teshuvos Galya Maseches, #6 and Aruch ha-Shulchan, Orach Chayim 671:15.
3. See the Biur Ha-Gra, Orach Chayim s.v. v’yesih omrim and the Beis Ha-Levi Al Ha-Torah, Derashah L’Chanukah, s.v. b’Gemara chad amar. See as well, R. Daniel Feldman, Binah B’Seforim, I #5. For alternative explanations, see R. Asher Weiss, Minchas Asher al Maseches Shabbos, #32 and R. Avroham Farbstein, Keneses Avroham al Inayanei Mitzvos u-Moadim, #7.
4. A number of different explanations are suggested. See for example, the discussions of R. Yosef Dov Soloveitchik in Kovetz Mesorah, IV p. 9, R. Yosef Lieberman, Mishnas Yosef al Inyanei Orach Chayim, II #36, and R. Yitzchok Sorotzkin, Gevuras Yitzchok al Inyanaei Chanukah, #10.
5. Chiddushei Maran Riz ha-Levi, Hilchos Chanukah 4:1.
6. See R. Moshe Shternbuch’s important discussion in Moadim u-Zemanim, II #123 on the parameters of how independent the hiddur can be even according to the position of the Ramo. See, however, R. J. D. Bleich, Sefer Zichron Ha-Rav pp. 4-11.
7. R. Velvel seems to have been preceded in this position by Rabbenu Chananel – see the commentary of Rabbenu Chananel to Shabbos, ad loc. and Bava Kama 9b.
8. Support for this idea can be found in the comments of the Ra’avan, I #35 cited by R.Lieberman, op cit. and the Sefer Ha-Ittur, Hilchos Tztzis, III no. 2 cited by R. Shmuel ha-Levi Wozsner, Teshuvos Shevet ha-Levi, III #84. This may also explain the striking presentation of the Shulchan Aruch, ad loc. who only cites the maximal fulfillment of “mehadrin min ha-mehadrin” without ever mentioning that me’ikkar ha-din the obligation can be fulfilled with one candle per night. See the comments of R. Elazar Menachem Shach, Avi Ezri, Hilchos Chanukah who is very bothered by this omission of the Shulchan Aruch.
9. This position is based on comments of the Beis Yosef, Orach Chayyim 676,
10. See also Teshuvos Shevet ha-Levi, loc cit. and R. Nosson Gestetner, Teshuvos Le’horos Nosson, II #53 who discuss variations of this case and rule similarly because of the unique role that hiddur mitzvah plays in neros Chanukah.
11. R. Betzalel Zolti, Mishnas Ya’avetz, Orach Chayyim, # 66.
12. See Rambam, ad loc. and Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayyim 671:1. For an explanation of this demanding requirement, see the Maggid Mishneh, ad loc., Teshuvos Maharam Schick, Orach Chayyim, #331, and Teshuvos Avnei Nezer, Orach Chayyim, #501.
13. For further development of this idea and its application to other halachos of neros Chanukah, see my Ateres Yaakov, #5.


References: Shabbat: 21b 

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