Why Candles (Not Oil) for Synagogue Menorah? - The Jewish Voice
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Why Candles (Not Oil) for Synagogue Menorah?

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By Yehuda Shurpin(Chabad.org) Although one fulfills the mitzvah of lighting the Chanukah menorah with many kinds of candles, the best way to do the mitzvah is with a wick and pure olive oil, since the miracle of Chanukah occurred with pure olive oil. Nevertheless, there are many synagogues that specifically use beeswax candles for the menorah.

This custom is mentioned by Rabbi Moses Sofer, known as the Chatam Sofer (1762–1839), who writes that in most synagogues that he visited, they lit with beeswax.1

Was this ideal?

Some explain that the only reason beeswax was used in those days was that pure olive oil was a very rare commodity in certain locales. Nowadays, when it is much easier to come by, one should preferably use it even in the synagogue.2

Nevertheless, there are synagogues that to this day specifically use beeswax for their menorah, even though at home they would use olive oil. This continues to be the custom in the Chabad Lubavitch World Headquarters, also known as “770.”

Leftover Mitzvahs

Some explain that although we may ordinarily give precedence to olive oil, we give greater precedence to the concept of using (the leftovers of) one mitzvah for another. Thus, the custom was to take the leftover wax from the candles that were used to light up the synagogues and use them to make the beeswax candles for the Chanukah menorah.3

Although this explains the custom for those who actually used the leftover wax, nowadays, this isn’t necessarily done. So we’re still left with the question of why some synagogues give preference to beeswax candles over oil.

To understand this, we first have to understand a fundamental difference between the obligation to light the menorah at home and at the synagogue.

Lighting in the Synagogue

Although the lighting of the menorah at one’s home is done in order to fulfill the mitzvah and obligation to light the menorah, the lighting at the synagogue is done for other reasons. In fact, unless someone actually lives at the synagogue (such as a caretaker or traveler), one would not fulfill his personal obligation to light the menorah.

As we explained in Why Do I Hear Blessings at Public Menorah Lightings? the main reason for lighting the menorah in the synagogue nowadays (especially when it is no longer common for travelers to stay in the synagogue) is in order to publicize the miracle (pirsumei nisa), as it is a sanctification of G‑d’s Name when so many people gather in public to hear the blessings and witness the lighting.4

Additionally, our rabbis teach us that a synagogue is considered a mikdash me’at, a micro version of the Holy Temple.5 It is therefore a most appropriate place to commemorate (and somewhat replicate) the miracle of the Temple menorah.6

A Light Throughout the Day

The custom in many synagogues is that if it is safe to do so, the menorah is left burning throughout the day,7 or at the very least it is lit again in the morning during prayers.8 The reason for this is not only to further publicize the miracle, but also because the synagogue is compared to the Holy Temple, where the candles were lit throughout the day.

Some9 explain that the further the flame is from the actual fuel, the more the flame diminishes in quality. Wicks in oil absorb and transport the oil to the flame, increasing the distance to the fuel, while candle wicks burn down and melt the wax as they go, remaining at the same distance to the fuel.

Thus, in one’s home, when (a) we only need to have the menorah lit for the obligatory time (i.e., a half hour after nightfall) and (b) there is no custom for it to be lit during the day, we use wicks and oil, since the miracle occurred with oil.

In a synagogue, however, where we want the menorah to be lit throughout the day, we use a beeswax candle, since the flame always stays the same distance to the fuel. As such, the quality of the flame won’t be diminished later on.

Indeed, in 770, where it is relatively safe to keep the candles lit since people are there at all hours, the custom is to light very long beeswax candles, which last throughout the night and day.

Differentiate Between Lightings

Others, however, postulate a very different reason for the custom to specifically use candles. They explain that it is precisely because olive oil is preferable that we use candles in the synagogue. For although we make public menorah lightings to publicize the miracle, we at the same time want to stress that the purpose of the two lightings is different, and one has not actually fulfilled his own obligation of lighting the Chanukah menorah by attending the synagogue lighting ceremony.10

So even if you’ve attended a public menorah lighting ceremony, it’s important that you also light the menorah at home.

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