Ideal lighting or safe lighting? - Matan - The Sadie Rennert

Ideal lighting or safe lighting? Rabbanit Debbie Zimmerman

חשוון תשפ"ד

Topic : Chanukah , Shayla ,


Is one allowed to light a chanukiyah (nine branched chanukah candelabra, a.k.a. menorah) on a shaky stool next to a path?
My brother decided he needs to light outside, to the right of the stairway that leads to my parents’ house, between three and ten tefachim (handbreadths) from the ground. He insists that this is lechatkhila (ideal). 

My father always lights outside, in front of the house but not next to the entrance so the chanukiyah is clearly visible but out of the way. The rest of us generally light inside because of lack of space. I’m worried about my brother’s chanukiya. The ground is not flat so the stool is precarious to begin with, there are kids and animals that run around and could knock it over, and I’m worried that it’s a hazard. 

Are there halakhic reasons he shouldn’t light there? Should I say something or just leave it be?


On one foot:

This is an excellent question. The mitzvah of Chanukah candles is “neir ish u’beito,“ “a candle for a person and their household.”[1] These candles are lit for “pirsumei nisa,” to publicize the miracle of Chanukah.[2] The halakhic parameters of fulfilling the mitzvah balance these two elements – ideally, the chanukiya is lit in a place that connects the home to the outside world – the entrance or a window.

Even the earliest halakhic sources on Chanukah lighting state that the mitzvah is fulfilled differently depending on the circumstances. Early sources teach that one should light at the entrance to their  home, but those who live upstairs should light in the window, and in times of danger it’s sufficient to light inside the home where only the household can see.[3]

This “danger” is generally understood to be political or religious persecution, nothing to do with fire safety.[4] Indeed, the gemara indicates that passersby should expect candles lit outside during Chanukah and it’s their responsibility to take proper precautions.

General halakhic consensus is that it’s preferable to light outside, at the entrance to a home or, if the front door does not face the public domain and the courtyard is privately owned, at the entrance to the courtyard. The preference to light below ten tefakhim, however, is not definitive, and if there’s even a negligible difference in safety shouldn’t be observed.

As far as lighting at the entrance – every fire has risk, lighting indoors does as well. The Torah and halakha mandate that we remove hazards from our home and prohibit us from endangering ourselves to fulfill a mitzvah, with few exceptions.[5] Therefore, when there is a legitimate safety concern one should not light at the entrance to the home and should find a safer location that is visible from the public or semi-public domain and clearly associated with the house.

If you choose to speak to your brother about this make sure to do so in a respectful manner, one that does not dismiss his halakhic considerations but rather presents your valid halakhic concerns as well as your personal anxiety. Halakhic disputes should always be discussed with mutual respect. This is especially important on Chanukah; the original mitzvah was one lighting per household, and it’s important to maintain the wholeness of the household.


There are two aspects to this question. The first is the Torah attitude towards danger. Are we permitted to put ourselves at risk in general? What about to perform a mitzvah – such as the mitzvah of Chanukah candles?
The second is specific to Chanukah: How integral is it to light the chanukiyah outside? Or within 10 handbreadths from the ground? How important is it to observe the mitzvah in the most ideal way?

L’chatkhila and b’dieved

A beraita in Shabbat states that the mitzvah of Chanukah lighting is to light outside the entrance to one’s home, someone who does not have a ground level entrance should light in the window.[6] Rashi explains that they do so because they don’t have room in a courtyard.

The beraita concludes, “in times of danger, it’s enough to place it on one’s table.”[7] This danger is generally understood as societal – either general danger to Jews or specific decrees by rulers.[8]

This is one of many sources that teach us to observe a mitzvah in a less than ideal manner in times of danger. For example, the gemara in Sukka teaches that cedar beams less than four tefakhim (handbreadths) wide are kosher to use for sekhakh; Rabbi Meir prohibits larger beams, Rabbi Yehuda permits.[9] As proof, Rabbi Yehuda relates that they used such beams as sekhakh over a porch in a time of danger, the sages counter that this is not conclusive as it was in a dangerous time.[10]

Yaavetz explains that the Torah allows such beams but the sages prohibited them rabbinically, and in “she’at ha’dchak” “times of need” it’s permissible to fulfill a mitzvah in this way. As opposed to “she’at sakana,” which generally refers to societal dangers, often related to anti-Semitism, “she’at ha’dchak” refers to any time of great necessity. For example, when other options are unsafe or unavailable. Lack of a safe way to light at the entrance to a courtyard or home certainly qualifies.[11]

The mitzvah of ma’akeh, a guardrail

Just living is dangerous, but any rational person understands that some situations are more dangerous than others and there are often steps we can take to reduce risk. Driving a car is dangerous. But the danger is minimized when we wear seatbelts, have airbags, drive only when alert, and obey the traffic laws. Once we’ve followed basic safety precautions the benefit outweighs the risk.

In addition to being good sense, safety measures are halakhically mandated. The Torah commands us to build a railing around the roof “do not put blood in your home.”[12] The Talmudic sages prohibited a variety of actions based on the principle of taking caution, such as having a shaky ladder in the home.[13]

Rambam teaches that “There is a commandment to remove every deadly hazard, to protect against it, and act with proper care as it says, ‘Be careful and take extra care with your life.’ And one who does not remove it and leaves hazards that are dangerous has voided a positive commandment and transgressed ‘do not put blood[guilt in your home].’”[14] Shulchan Arukh copies his language.[15]

There are several Torah commands along the lines of “v’nishmartem me’od l’nafshoteikhem…” “You must be exceedingly careful with your lives…”[16] Within context these words do not seem to refer to physical safety concerns, rather to keeping God’s commandments not to put ourselves in danger from a spiritual perspective.

Avoiding physically dangerous situations is not listed in rabbinic counts of the six hundred thirteen Torah mitzvot either. Yet there’s widespread consensus that we are obligated to protect our bodies as well as our souls. Why?

Safety first

When discussing situations one is permitted to interrupt their amida prayer the beraita brings the story of a pious man who was praying on the side of the road and didn’t interrupt his prayers to return a local official’s greeting. The official waited for him to finish and admonished him, “Fool! Isn’t it written in your Torah, ‘Just be careful and care for your life,’ and ‘You must be exceedingly careful with your lives?!’ When I greeted you, why didn’t you greet me in return? If I had cut off your head with a sword, who is there to hold me culpable for your blood?!”

The pious man then uses a metaphor to explain his actions. Subsequent halakhic authorities debate whether what he did was prohibited, but ultimately the consensus is that if such behavior is risky, it’s also prohibited.[17]

Why use a non-Jew to teach this halakha?

It’s possible that this is one of those cases where a Torah source is unnecessary, as the value of human life is not just the basis of our religion, it’s the basis of all existence. Derekh eretz kadma la’Torah – the way of the world came before the Torah. Before we can observe Torah, and fulfill our spiritual potential, we must first be decent human beings, and fulfill our human potential. At the very minimum that means staying alive. Just as there’s no specific mitzvah to eat and drink regularly – to actively keep ourselves alive – we shouldn’t need a specific mitzvah to tell us to avoid endangering ourselves.

In some cases, “piety” clouds judgment. People are so focused on the spiritual they forget the physical. The pious man in the beraita needed a non-Jew to remind him what he should already know. The Written and Oral Torahs consistently teach us that God values life and health and that mitzvot are meant to guide our lives – “v’chai bahem,” “that you will live by them” – not lead to our deaths.[18] Some ideals are so great they’re worth dying over, but in general saving lives overrides mitzvah observance and we’re commanded to “choose life.”[19]

We’re commanded to actively violate most mitzvot to save a life, even in cases where there’s doubt. As not fulfilling a positive mitzvah is not as serious as violating a prohibition it’s clear putting ourselves or others at genuine risk to perform a mitzvah is prohibited.[20] Halakha clearly dictates that, in all but extreme cases, we must prioritize safety and future mitzvah observance over specific mitzvah observance that puts us at great risk.[21]

Doesn’t the mitzvah protect us?

The Tosefta in Pesachim teaches that one is not required to put one’s hand into holes and cracks to search for chametz that fell inside because of the danger.[22] The gemara questions, why is the beraita worried about danger? Don’t we believe that “shlukhei mitzvah einan nizokin,” “those on a mission to perform a mitzvah will not be harmed?” The gemara answers that this does not apply to cases when there’s a likelihood of danger.[23]

There’s little in life that doesn’t involve risk, but it’s important to weigh the potential risk against the benefit. In most circumstances there’s minimal risk in lighting a chanukiyah. But there are some situations where one’s obligation to protect themselves and the prohibition against putting oneself in a dangerous situation means that one should light in a less ideal way, or refrain from certain customs.

Where to light?

The earliest halakhic sources that discuss Chanukah mention safety concerns. The beraita teaches: The mitzvah of the Chanukah light is to place it at the entrance to one’s home, outside. And if one lives upstairs, they should place it in a window close to the public domain. And in times of danger one can put it on their table and it’s enough.[24]

There’s some discussion concerning what constitutes “public domain,” “upstairs,” and a “courtyard.”  What about someone whose front door opens to a semi-public area, such as a communal courtyard or the hallway of an apartment building? Should one light at the entrance to their home or at the entrance to the public domain? Or perhaps inside, near the entrance to the home?[25] Or perhaps this is a case where they should light in the window?[26] After all, the mitzvah is “neir ish u’beto” – a candle for a person and their household.

Many poskim rule that a chanukiya lit outside must be within a tefakh of the entrance to the courtyard or home to be kosher.[27] It’s possible your brother wants to fulfill these opinions. However, there are others who teach that we no longer have such courtyards and so the chanukiya should be lit at the entrance to the home.[28] There is also an opinion that once the custom to light indoors was established, it remains preferable, even if there is a possibility to light outside.[29] Others cite a different sort of danger – theives – as reason to light inside.[30]

This is only a smattering of the many opinions that discuss the ideal place to light. As danger includes risks beyond persecution and there are legitimate, albeit minority, opinions that maintain lighting indoors is preferable, if lighting outside carries a legitimate risk of danger or creates a hazard the mitzvah is to light inside the home.

A wind

Furthermore, halakhically, the mitzvah is only fulfilled if one lights candles that are likely to remain lit for thirty minutes after sunset. Therefore one may not light in a windy area where they are likely to be blown out. This would obviously also preclude a place an animal or child is likely to push them over, but when such an occurrence is unlikely it’s a kosher place to light and even if they are blown out or knocked over one has fulfilled the mitzvah.

Based on this halakha Rav Eliezer Melamed adds another reason one may choose to light indoors. The rabbis preferred lighting outdoors but never mandated one buy a glass box or erect something to do so. He explained that houses were closer together and protected from the wind when the mitzvah was instituted, but this is no longer the case.[31] Lighting in a window fulfills the ideal of publicizing the miracle, if not the ideal of surrounding the house in mitzvot – with the mezuza on the right and the chanukiyah on the left.

Interestingly, according to this interpretation, if the entrance to the stairway where your brother is lighting does not have a mezuza this is not a hiddur. For example, Rabbeinu Yerucham indicates that one should not light at the entrance to a courtyard that is not obligated to have a mezuza.[32]

Safety and Chanukah lighting

While all this is true, the sages also allowed for certain leniencies in the public domain on Chanukah. Since people would light Chanukah candles outside, passerby have a responsibility to look out for themselves. In a discussion about damages the gemara teaches that a shopkeeper who places a lit candle outside his stall in the market

The beraita states that if a camel laden with flax passes by a shop with a lit candle and caused a fire – if the candle was inside the camel owner is liable for the damages since the camel entered a private domain.[33] If the candle is outside the storekeeper is liable for the damages, since the candle is a danger in the public domain. Rabbi Yehudah says if it was a Chanukah candle then the storekeeper is not liable.

Practical ramifications

Ravina uses this to prove Rabba’s opinion that it is a mitzvah to light within 10 tefakhim (handbreadths, about 80 cm.) from the ground, otherwise the camel owner could contend that the storekeeper should have lit the candle high enough it wouldn’t be a hazard.[34] The gemara adds this may not be a proof, it’s also possible that one may light at any height (under 20 amot), and the rabbis did not want to make the mitzvah of lighting difficult because then people would be less inclined to light outside.

Rosh explains that lighting below ten tefakhim enhances pirsumei nisa, people would understand that the candle is not for people to use, but for the mitzvah.[35] Tur and Shulchan Arukh rule that it’s preferable to light within 10 tefakhim from the ground, but when lighting outdoors one fulfills the mitzvah anywhere within 20 amot (cubits) from the ground, and indoors at any height.[36] Rambam and Rif don’t mention the issue of 10 tefakhim, which makes it seem that they accept the gemara’s refutation. Meiri and Rava teach that the custom was to light above ten tefachim, possibly because they were lighting indoors.[37]

What can we learn from this?

This halakha also gives us a valuable tool to evaluate how much risk is allowed when lighting Chanukah candles. The general rule is that someone is liable for damages in the public domain if they act negligently. Lighting fire in the public domain where loaded animals pass by is generally negligent, but on Chanukah, as Rashi explains, it’s not. At the same time, the passerby whose camel and flax spreads the fire is also not liable – no one pays damaged. It seems that both acted equally responsibly and negligently, each covers their own damages. It’s not clear if this law would applies to places passersby shouldn’t expect candles to be lit outdoors, such as today outside of Israel or a place people don’t normally light.

The discussion surrounding the height of the Chanukiyah is interesting because it also sheds light on another question – were the rabbinic parameters regarding the ideal way to light designed to be adjusted as times change? The parameter not to light higher than twenty amot has already changed since people are used to looking higher up. So now that people do not generally light candles, and certainly outdoors, is there still a value to lighting close to the ground? Or, if anything, should we light higher where more people can see?


When it’s unsafe to put the Chanukiyah outside or when there’s no room to do so the optimal way to fulfill the mitzvah is in the window. It’s understandable to want to spread the light of Chanukah to those around us, but it’s also important to share it with those inside the house. The light of Chanukah reminds us that God wants us to live, safely and securely, so that we can fulfill our mission as Jewish people to spread this light to the world.

The mitzvah of lighting has changed as the world has changed – where to light, at what height, and even when to light. These changes were necessary to maintain the mitzvah of neir ish u’beito and pirsumei nissa. Your brother should find a way to balance safety and ideals – either place the Chanukiyah higher up near the entrance where it won’t be knocked over or inside the courtyard at the entrance or by the front door. All these are equally halakhically valid locations for ideal lighting if they can be seen by passersby, people inside the home, or even people entering the home. If there’s no safe way to light outside by the entrance, then it’s preferable to light in a window. If the windows are not visible from the streets or neighbor’s home one may light indoors where the family can see.

You can relay these halakhic points to your brother, but it may be more useful to include a different halakhic argument. He probably isn’t overlooking the risk, but rather believes it’s not that great and it’s more important to fulfill what he understands to be the ideal form of the mitzvah. In this case it may be preferable to approach him from the human side – you’re anxious or concerned about the way he lights and for the sake of Shalom Bayit (peace in the home) and your own peace of mind you’re asking him to fulfill the mitzvah in a slightly less ideal way.

Our sages tell us “Great is peace,” God is willing to compromise the truth for such shalom, your brother should follow this path and compromise his ideals a bit.[38]

The miracle of Chanukah began with the Jewish people coming together, banding together under Matityahu’s leadership. Infighting between brothers ended Hasmonean rule and it took over two thousand years to rebuild a Jewish State. You and your brother should work to understand the halakhic legitimacy of your different opinions and work together to find a solution. As the child’s song goes, “Every person is a small light, altogether we’re a mighty light.” We shine brighter when we shine together.

May the light of Chanukah burn brightly to illuminate your home and spread outward to light up the world.


[1] TB Shabbat 21b. The Hebrew word “ner” is translated as candle, but it’s really any combination of wick and fuel that can be lit. Since there’s no term for this in English we will use candles or lights.

[2] TB Shabbat 21b

[3] Shabbat 23b

[4] See Rashi and other commentaries.

[5] With the exceptions of worshipping false Gods, murder, and prohibited sexual relations. Refraining from a chillul Hashem (desecrating God’s name) and performing a Kiddush Hashem (sanctifying God’s name) is included in certain circumstances. See TB Sanhedrin 74a until the end of chapter.

[6] TB Shabbat 21b; The beraita uses the term for “attic” or “upper floor.”

[7] TB Shabbat 21b

[8] Rashi explains that this law came about because there was a festival in Babylon that tried to

[9] TB Sukka 14b. The halakhic definition of kosher sekhakh is that it is made of materials that are not “mekabel tuma,” can’t be rendered ritually impure. Manufactured materials, in Hebrew “keilim” which literally means vessels, are “mikabel tuma,” raw materials are not. The question here is at what point does a piece of wood go from raw or natural to manufactured.

[10] Rashi explains that the Gentiles did not recognize that these beams were used to construct a sukka.

[11] If it’s possible, both physically and financially, to prepare the area by the entrance so it is safe to light there, such as by building a pole or box that is secure, this is certainly preferable. But if it does not exist and can’t be easily erected, we are back to she’at ha’dchak.

[12] Devarim 4:9

[13] TB Bava Kama 46a and 73a. See also Berakhot 32b;

[14] Mishneh Torah Hilkhot Rotzeach 11:4; Shulkhan Arukh CM 427:8; Devarim 22:8.

[15] Shulkhan Arukh CM 409:3

[16] Devarim 4:15

[17] Hilkhot Tefilla u’Birkat Kohanim 6:9; Shulchan Arukh OC 104. There’s some nuance here. In cases of mortal danger one must stop praying, in other cases one is permitted to move but should not interrupt their prayer.

[18] TB Yoma 85b; TB Sanhedrin 74a; Mishneh Torah Hilkhot Yesodei haTorah Chapter 5; Sefer haChinukh 296.

[19] Devarim 30:19. See also TB Yoma 85b, Rabbi Shimon ben Menasya teaches one must violate Shabbat to save a life – “violate one Shabbat for them so they may observe many Shabbatot.”


[21] Shulchan Arukh OC 104; MIshneh Torah Hilkhot Tefilla 6:9

[22] TB Pesakhim 8b.

[23] The proof is from the Book of Shmuel. God commanded the prophet to go to Beit Lechem and anoint David as king. He asked God how he could do such a thing, the current king Shaul would put him to death for treason when he found out. God tells him to offer a communal sacrifice as cover for his mission.

[24] Shabbat 21b

[25] Rema 671:7, but see Mishna Berura 671:38 who says a window facing the public domain is preferable.

[26] The former is Tosafot and Rashba, the latter Rashi “mi’bachutz”. Tosafot, Rashba, and others rule that one should light at the entrance to the public domain; Rashi, Ran, and others are concerned that this severs the connection between the private home and Chanukiya. Mishna Berura rules like Tosafot.

However, as we will see, this may not be ideal in our times.

Some suggest that in this case one should fulfill both – after lighting in a window or right outside the door one household member should then light at the entrance to the public domain.

A few modern authorities rule that one can choose where to light: in their window or the entrance to their home. Some may make the decision based on which one people are more likely to see, but if both are acceptable fire safety should also be a consideration. If a hallway is not wide or children play in the courtyard one should choose the safer place to light.

[27] See Piskei Shemuot.

[28] See Halikhot Shlomo 14:4; Mikraei Kodesh by Rav Moshe Harari pg. 101; Chazon Ish OC 65:62

[29] See Ohr Zarua 2:323 and Shibolei HaLeket 185

[30] Rabbeinu Yerucham 9:1; Darkey Moshe 671:9; and others.

[31] Peninei Halakha Zemanim 13:2

[32] See Darkei Moshe OC 670.

[33] Shabbat 21b. Rashi teaches that the camel owner is liable because they made the load too big, and therefore they were negligent.

[34] Although not within 3 tefachim of the ground, as that is not respectful. Tur OC 671

[35] Rosh Shabbat 2:5

[36] Tur OC 671

[37] Ritva Shabbat 21b.

[38] Bereishit Rabba 48:18

Rabbanit Debbie Zimmerman Debbie Zimmerman graduated from the first cohort of Hilkhata – Matan’s Advanced Halakhic Institute and is a Halakhic Responder. She is a multi-disciplinary Jewish educator, with over a decade of experience in adolescent and adult education. After completing a BA in Social Work, Debbie studied Tanakh in the Master’s Program for Bible in Matan and Talmud in Beit Morasha.

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