Dear Rabbi Fried,
I once spent Hanukkah in Jerusalem and noticed that most people lit their menorahs in glass boxes outside their doorways or at the entrance to their courtyards. I’ve never seen that done back home; we have always lit inside in the window or just on the dining room table. Why the discrepancy between Israel and the Diaspora?
The Talmud states, “The light of Hanukkah; its mitzvah is to (light) it at the doorway, outside the house. If one lives on a higher floor, he places it in the window which faces the public thoroughfare. In times of danger (from hostile Gentiles) place it upon the table and that is sufficient.” (Talmud, Shabbos 21b)
The basic principle of this teaching is pirsumei nisa, meaning the lighting of the candles was enacted in order to publicize the miracles of Hanukkah. That is why we are to place the lights in the optimal location in or adjacent to one’s home which would publicize the miracle to the greatest number of onlookers.
Hence the custom in Israel of lighting outside the home, such as in a glass box, as this attracts far more attention than lighting inside, even at the window. Only one who lived on a higher floor and didn’t have a doorway which faced the public thoroughfare was allowed to light in his window.
(One fulfills the mitzvah only when the lights are in some way connected to the home or place of residence; to light in the street or in a public place, such as at a mall, fulfills no mitzvah whatsoever although it may be a place which would greatly publicize the miracle.)
The Talmud concludes: “In times of danger, place it upon the table and that is sufficient.” (Talmud Shabbos, ibid.) Historically, in the anti-Semitic atmosphere of much of our Diaspora, to light outside the home in such a public way may have caused danger to the individual or even to the entire Jewish community.
The rabbis enacted that under such circumstances one could fulfill the mitzvah of lighting in an alternative manner — without exhibiting the lights publicly. This is by lighting them inside the house, solely publicizing the miracles to the members of one’s own household.
The question arises: If one lives in the Diaspora in a place where anti-Semitism is not rampant or tolerated and there is no danger for one to light outside, should one then light the menorah outside as is the preferred way of lighting? This question has been the subject of discussion by authorities of Jewish law for many generations.
Most authorities maintain the following: Although lighting outside may be safe in one locale, there are always places in the Diaspora where danger still lurks as anti-Semitism is still alive and well. Dallas may be safe as we’re surrounded by friendly neighbors, but in many parts of France and Europe (or even Dearborn, Michigan), it would be quite dangerous to publicly exhibit a Jewish practice. These authorities maintain that we view all of the Diaspora as one locale: If it’s dangerous in one place, the “danger enactment” applies to the next place as well despite its relative safety.
This explains the discrepancy:
• In Israel, most continue the principal Talmudic ruling of lighting outside.
• In the Diaspora, most adopt the custom of lighting inside.
(For an in-depth discussion of this, see my newly published “Maadanei Shlomo,” pp. 230-232.)
We anxiously await the final miracle that of the redemption of our people, when we will all light the candles in the ideal way in the Land of Israel!