Are women obligated to say Hallel on Chanukah?
While there are several customs we observe on Chanukah – many involving food – there are only two
actual obligations: lighting candles and reciting Hallel.
Both are positive time bound obligations; in general women are exempt from such mitzvot. Yet the gemara cites three exceptions to this rule in the name of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi – four cups of wine at the Pesach seder, megillah reading on Purim, and Chanukah candles. Women are obligated in these mitzvot as “af hen hayu b’oto ha-nes,” “indeed they were part of the miracle.” Rishonim debate what “part of the miracle” entails – does it refer to women’s redemption by God’s miraculous intervention (Tosafot) or women’s active role in bringing about the salvation (Rashi) – but all agree that women are obligated to light Chanukah candles.
If women are obligated in Chanukah candles are they obligated to say Hallel? Generally, we differentiate between two types of Hallel: Hallel that is said on festivals that fulfill specific criteria – such as on Succot and Shavuot, and Hallel recited over a miracle – such as Chanukah and the seder night. One would think the same reasoning that applies to Chanukah candles would apply to Chanukah’s Hallel – women should be obligated as they were part of the miracle.
But this is not necessarily the case. While Rambam does not explicitly state that women are exempt from Hallel on Chanukah, it can be inferred from his statement in Laws of Chanukah and Megilla where he rules that a woman can’t recite Hallel on behalf of a man. Additionally, neither Shulchan Aruch nor Rema mention women’s obligation.
While women’s obligation to recite Hallel on Chanukah is often left unexplored, there are many sources that discuss their obligation to say Hallel on Pesach – specifically on the seder night. Indeed, Tosafot (Succa 38a) explain that women are obligated in Hallel at the seder for the same reason they are obligated in the four cups – since they too were included in the miracle. Tosafot explain that when the gemara (ibid) says women cannot exempt men through their recitation of Hallel this refers to Hallel on Shavuot and Succot, not that of the seder. Interestingly, Tosafot leaves out Chanukah, both from times that women are obligated and times that women are exempt.
Sdeh Chemed (Part IX Chanukah 9:2), on the other hand, explicit states that women are obligated in Hallel on Chanukah. He claims that the two mitzvot of Chanukah correspond to the two miracles – Hallel is said on the military victory and the candles are lit for the miracle of the oil. He surmises that Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi mentioned Chanukah candles specifically as it is less likely that women would be included in commemorating the miracle of oil, as they had no part in funding the oil for the Temple service. It’s obvious that women are obligated in Hallel as “they were part of the miracle,” the salvation from the Greek decrees eliminated by the miraculous victory in war. As women are obligated to light candles – kal vachomer (a fortiori) they are obligated to recite Hallel. Similarly, Torat Refael (OC 75) rules that women are obligated to say Hallel on any miracle they were a part of.
Another support for women’s obligation to say Hallel on Chanukah can be inferred from Rav Y. D. Soloveitchik’s explanation of the mechanism of “af hen hayu b’oto ha-nes.” Rav Soloveitchik explains that the three mitzvot mentioned in the gemara are all commandments that were enacted for pirsumei nisa (to publicize the miracle). Interestingly, the gemara (Brachot 14b) also refers to the recitation of Hallel as pirsumei nisa, and seems to be referring specifically to Hallel on Chanukah.
Considering there are so many explanations that would obligate women in Hallel on Chanukah, why does it appear so infrequently in halachic writings? Rav Moshe Harrari offers an interesting explanation in his work Mikra’ei Kodesh. (section 3, note 19) He explains that for most of Jewish history most women were illiterate and did not understand Hebrew; as they were unable to perform this mitzva they were never included in the rabbinic commandment to recite Hallel independently. (This would not be a problem on the seder night, as women could respond to the men’s reading at the family seder.)
As we have seen, there are few halachic authorities that explicitly state women are exempt from Hallel on Chanukah, yet there are several that rule women are obligated. The importance of Hallel should not be overlooked – we must not shirk our responsibility to declare our gratitude and praise God’s might and mercy for redeeming us time and time again. While Rav Harrari may have provided us with a reason why women’s obligation is not mentioned, he gave us an even better reason to take this obligation upon ourselves – in addition to our historic gratitude for the miraculous salvation from Greek tyranny “bayamim ha-hem” “in those days” we women must also give thanks that after generations of illiteracy we are finally able to participate in these songs of thanksgiving “bazman ha-zeh” “in this time.”