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The mitzvah of fire safety: Chanukah and beyond

Kislev 5784 | December 2023


It seems that every year there’s at least one tragic house fire that starts with Chanukah candles. Such things should never happen, but the frequency with which it does shows that people have forgotten very basic Torah ideals and halakhic principles.

Safety first is a mitzvah

The Torah commands us to build a ma’akeh (guardrail) around a roof so no one can fall. Rambam explains there are two mitzvot here – a positive mitzvah to eliminate hazards in the home by making it safe, and a prohibition against disregarding a hazard. Rambam essentially expands the mitzvah of a ma’akeh beyond the roof, mandating we set up protections around other hazards such as a fence around a pool, bars on windows children can reach, fixing loose floorboards, etc.[1] Shulkhan Arukh rules accordingly. [2]

What about fire safety? If we’re obligated to build a guardrail for our roof and a cover for our well then we must need a clear space without any hazards to light a fire. This entails eliminating possible hazards – keeping it out of the reach of children, making sure it’s on a sturdy surface so it doesn’t fall, removing flammable materials from the vicinity, etc.

With few exceptions, we are not allowed to endanger ourselves or others to fulfill mitzvot. Certainly we must do everything in our power to minimize risks of Chanukah and Shabbat candle lighting, even if it means lighting in a less than ideal way. One who is negligent with basic fire safety has transgressed these commandments even if nothing bad happens.

The following are basic precautions we should all take.

General fire safety

  • Have the proper amount of functional smoke detectors in your home.
  • Ensure you have a fire extinguisher adjacent.
  • Do not buy children clothing made from flammable materials.

Chanukah fire safety

Where to light the Chanukiyah (Chanukah candelabra):

  • Out of the reach of children and pets
  • On a sturdy surface, preferably covered with tin foil or another fire resistant material
  • Far from the edge of the surface
  • Away from pathways where people may bump into it or brush against it
  • Away from soft furnishings and flammable materials
  • Do not leave candles unattended

How to light

  • Ensure the Chanukiyah itself is not made from flammable materials.[3]
  • Make sure candles are secure in the cups, oil and paraffin are properly prepared
  • Before lighting remove oil and paraffin bottles from the area and clean up spills
  • After lighting move matches, papers, and other flammable materials away
  • Do not reach over someone else’s lit Chanukiyah to light your own.[4]

Do not leave candles unattended

The candles must remain lit for thirty minutes after sundown. After that, halakha allows for extinguishing them for any reason. Therefore, if the household is planning on leaving or going to sleep after lighting, someone should wait until the candles have burned sufficiently and then extinguish them before leaving them unattended.

In general, one should choose safety over ideal lighting conditions. This may mean delaying lighting. If the alternative is a hazardous early lighting it’s better to have someone else light on your behalf, chip in with your host’s lighting even if you’re not sleeping there, or light once you get home, even if it’s late.

You may have lit in the same place for years without issue but this doesn’t mean there won’t be an issue this time. If you plan on leaving the Chanukah lights unattended, be careful to light in a safe place and avoid using regular Chanukah candles that can fall over. You can fulfill the mitzvah using oil or lighting tea lights floating in cups of water, which is much safer to leave unattended as long as there’s no soft furnishings nearby and no pets, robot vacuum, or breeze that can knock it over.

It’s ok not to be perfect

There are l’chatchila (preferable) ways to fulfill the mitzvah of Chanukah lights and less preferable ways. Halakha discusses the best location, height, time, and fuel to light;  it also discusses less preferable but still kosher options. Although it’s preferable to light outside the entrance to the home and at sundown, ultimately, Shulchan Arukh and Rema rule that one fulfills the mitzvah outdoors at any time of night people are likely to see it and indoors at any time at night if another person will see it.

As for placement, it’s preferable to light outside the door to the right, but when this is impossible or dangerous, or the doorway to one’s home opens to a semi-private area it’s acceptable, and possibly preferable, to light in a window facing a public area. There are some opinions that mention lighting within ten tefakhim (handbreadths) from the ground, but Shulkhan Arukh also rules that one may place the Chanukiyah at any height when lighting indoors, and within 20 amot from the ground when lighting outdoors.[5] Nowadays when buildings are higher and people are used to looking up, one may even light at greater heights.

Since Chanukah is a rabbinic mitzvah we may be lenient in general, and should certainly be lenient when there’s a legitimate safety concern. One may rely on opinions that allow for a messenger lighting in one’s home, chipping in for a host’s lighting even if not sleeping there, and lighting late at night when the one lighting is the only person to see it.

The minimum mitzvah per household/ person is one Chanukah candle (or wick and fuel – oil, paraffin, wax) that has the potential to burn for half an hour. A shamash, extra candle for lighting, is not necessary, especially when there is another source of light in the room. The custom is to light the same number of candles as the night of Chanukah. This is also preferable, but not strictly necessary. Therefore, in cases where more candles are dangerous, prohibited, or unavailable, one may light just one candle on any given night. For example, in a hotel room that has strong smoke detectors one may light just one candle. For extra safety one can place a candle, such as a tea light, in a cup or bowl of water.

In places where identifying as a Jew is dangerous one should light in a place where the Chanukiya can’t be seen from outside. This is mostly relevant for those traveling, as most people lighting already have a mezuzah on their door which shows they are Jewish.

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 follow the Torah and spread this light to the world.

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

[2] Shulkhan Arukh CM 409:3

[3] Many homemade Chanukiyot use decorations or glues that are highly flammable. These should not be lit under any circumstances. If your child has made such a Chanukiyah, figure out how to prepare them in advance to light another one instead so they are not too disappointed.

[4] We hold that the Chanukiyah should be in its proper place when lighting, and therefore if one lights a Chanukiyah and then moves it to the proper place they may not have performed the mitzvah. Therefore, a group of people lighting near each other should let the people with the furthest Chanukiyot light first.

Each person can either say the berakhot on their own when they light and then wait for everyone to sing together, or everyone can recite the blessings together and light while singing. One may wait a few minutes between reciting the blessing and fulfilling the mitzvah as long as they remain focused on the mitzvah in the interim.

[5] Tur OC 671

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.