(based on an article by Rabbis Howard Jachter and Michael Broyde in The Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society, Volume 25)

It is well known that the best possible substance that one can use for the lighting the Chanukah candles is olive oil. This has the dual advantage of both being precisely reminiscent of what was used in the Beit HaMikdash, as well as being the cleanest burning fuel available. If one is unable to obtain olive oil, there are several other oils that will suffice. Additionally, wax candles are said to be preferable to most oils, since they also produce a very pure flame.

However, as man has been able to harness electricity during the course of the past two decades, the question has come up as to the permissibility of using an electric menorah for lighting candles on Chanukah. While this is obviously an issue for all candles that are required by halacha (Shabbat candles, havdala candles, etc.) We will focus on this one specific issue and the unique characteristics and laws involved in the lighting of Chanukah candles.

The majority view among recent poskim is that one may not fulfill his obligation to light Chanukah candles by using an electric menorah and turning on the appropriate number of bulbs each night. What is interesting, however, is the vast range of opinions given as to why electric lights are insufficient and the failure of the poskim to agree on any one reason.

The first objection raised to the use of electric Chanukah candles, as stated by Rav Tzvi Pesach Frank, is that they do not constitute a fire. There are at least two reasons why this opinion lack force. The main reason is that the consensus of poskim is that a light bulb does constitute a fire, as proved by the fact that one will violate the prohibition of starting a fire on Shabbat by turning on a light bulb (the exact prohibition involved in the subject of debate, but there are a good number who hold this view). The second objection to Rav Frank's view is that no where in the gemara or Rishonim are we told that we need specifically a fire. All that we know is that we have to light some form of lights during Chanukah.

The second objection, raised by the Tzitz Eliezer (1:20.12), is that since the filament in an incandescent light bulb (florescent bulbs are not considered to be fire according to any opinion) is curved there would be a violation of the prohibition of arranging the Chanukah lights in a circle. However, the Tzitz Eliezer seems to be obfuscating the issue. The prohibition involved here is to arrange a series of lights in a circular pattern; having a wick that is bent or curved (as many wicks are at some point) is completely permissible.

Rav Yitzchak Schmelkes, author of the Beit Yitzchak, argues against electric candles based on the all-important notion of pirsumei nisa, the need and requirement to publicize the miracles of Chanukah through the lighting of the candles. He claims that since electricity is what is commonly used for illumination in this day and age, there will be nothing recognizable about the Chanukah candles and thus they will fail to adequately publicize the miracle. However, there are again two problems with this theory. Rav Ovadia Yoseif (Yechaveh Da'at 4:38) claims that a menorah that is built specifically for the purpose of Chanukah candles leaves no doubt why it is being lit. Furthermore, the Shulchan Aruch (O.C. 671:7) notes that when wax candles were the popular form of lighting one's home, there was no injunction issued against using the same for Chanukah candles. Rather, people were told to publicize the miracle by lighting these candles in a specifically designated location within their houses.

Perhaps the most popular objection to electric Chanukah candles is that they do not resemble the candles of the Beit HaMikdash in a vast multitude of ways. They do not have an actual flame, they do not consume fuel in the same manner, and the fuel that they use is not present at the time of lighting (since it is constantly flowing from the wall). Furthermore, even if electric light is considered to be a fire for some purposes, it is certainly not a conventional one, as it uses neither oil nor a wick. Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach notes that while electric light may be considered a fire for the purpose of violating Shabbat, it may yet not be sufficiently considered to be a fire for the purpose of fulfilling a positive commandment. He further argues that beyond needing a fire, we need to publicize the miracle, something that is not accomplished, in Rav Auerbach's opinion, with electric light.

However, several counter-arguments have been tendered as well. Rav Yitzchak Sternall (Kochvei Yitzchak) notes that there is no requirement written anywhere to have our Chanukah candles exactly resemble the lights of the Beit HaMikdash, and thus the surface difference between electric lights and oil flames are irrelevant. He even argues that electricity might be better - since the miracle of the candles involved flames that consumed no apparent fuel, so too do electric lights not consume any fuel that we can see at the time of lighting.

Perhaps the most serious halachic argument involved here against lighting Chanukah candles is that there is not sufficient fuel present at the time of lighting to allow the candles to burn for the required time. Since we rule that there must be enough oil or wax present at the time of lighting, and one cannot ad later on if he sees that he has an insufficient amount, this would seem to be a real objection. Two answers have been suggested. The first answer is that since power outages are so infrequent these days (certainly during the winter months), it is considered as if there is enough power present from the moment the electric menorah is plugged in. Furthermore, one can always avoid the entire issue by using a battery-powered menorah, where the entire "fuel" source is present from the beginning.

There are some poskim, including Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzinsky and the Tzitz Eliezer, who seem to accept the position that one can fulfill his obligation with an electric menorah. In terms of reciting the blessing, some authorities are more hesitant on the issue, but there are those who claim that a blessing should be reciting if a proper menorah is being lit. Those who permit lighting an electric menorah to any extent would certainly say that one may not make the blessing on the candles if after lighting the electric bulbs one had the opportunity to light either oil or wax candles.

I would like to add in my own thought. As I noted above, there seems to be only one objection raised against electric candles that has serious halachic merit, namely the need for the requisite amount of fuel at the time of the lighting. Most other objections seem to stem from an innate discomfort with using electric lights for the purpose of Chanukah candles, and thus many of these other reasons are easily rejected. Making a case based on a series of such reasons attempts to replace quality of reasoning with quantity of reasons, a specious approach to argumentation at best. I wonder if there is a sociological aspect to this debate. Electricity was harnessed by mankind in roughly the same era that various factions split away from mainstream halachic Judaism. Perhaps using an electric menorah was seen as just another easy way out of keeping a mitzva, and thus was, and continues to be, strongly opposed by most authorities, even though there are technical grounds on which to permit it. I have yet to see this idea written anywhere, and if anyone has anything more to offer on this point I would be most appreciative.

Back to Chabura-Net's Home Page