The Chanukah Candle Light: Seeing Miracles But Only to Look at Them
As we light the chanukah candles, we recite הנרות הללו קודש הם, “These candles are holy…” (SHA OH תרעו 4 based on מסכת סופרים פרק כ). The Mishnah Berurah (ס”ק ח) says to begin reciting it after lighting the first candle, which is the essential mitzvah, and continue reciting while lighting the other candles.
Many families have a traditional tune, making it an integral part of the excitement of the candle lighting ceremony, ingrained in our memories from a young age.
Interestingly, the text is largely halakhic, stating the laws of the candles: קודש הם – אין לנו רשות להשתמש בהם בלבד אלא לראות אותם בלבד, “they are holy and we do not have permission to use them, but only to see them.” We don’t have many other mitzvot where we sing excitedly the halakhot of the mitzvah or the prohibition surrounding the object we are using for the mitzvah.
Why are we not allowed to benefit from the light of the candles? What makes them “kodesh”?
Masechet Shabbat (22b) discusses a specific example that one may not count money by the light of the candles. The Gemara explains that this would be ביזוי מצווה, degrading the mitzvah. Ramban explains that the problem is using an object of a mitzvah for a mundane purpose.
On Shabbat 21b, the Gemara discusses the question of using certain oils or wicks that may not stay well lit. This is a concern on Shabbat Chanukah, for one may violate Shabbat by relighting the candles or moving them in order to see better. But the Gemara brings an opinion that for Chanukah candles, כבתה אין זקוק לה ואסור להשתמש לאורה – if the flame went out, one need not relight it, and benefiting from the light is forbidden. For this opinion, there is no problem with using these oils on Shabbat, as we are not concerned with relighting (as this is not necessary) or with moving the candle for its light (as its use is prohibited). Rashi explains here that the reason to prohibit using the Chanukah candles for one’s own purposes is so that it will be clear that the candles are lit as for the purpose of the mitzvah of Chanukah, and not merely for light.
Along similar lines, the Gemara states that one should make sure to have another candle or fire lit for light. Again Rashi explains that this is to make it clear that the Chanukah candle is not being lit for light, but for the mitzvah.
Some of the Rishonim explain that the prohibition on using the light stems from the laws of the Mikdash. In the Mikdash, it was forbidden to use the light of the Menorah. The Chanukiyot we light are in remembrance of the Menorah of the Mikdash, and for this reason, the light is similarly forbidden (Ran daf tet and others. See also Ramban Behaalotcha)
הנרות הללו קודש הם – through making sure there is other light in the house, we show that the candles of the menorah were lit specifically for the purpose of the mitzvah, accomplishing Pirsumei Nisa, publicizing the miracle. We give proper respect for the mitzvah. And we recall the Menorat haMikdash, where the miracle happened and to where we long to return.
On Chanukah, we light the candles, and we are told to look at them but not use them; to stop, to pause, to reflect. Chanukah is a holiday of seeing, of finding light in the darkness, and noticing the miracles around us. May we merit to open our eyes and see the world around us in a new light.