Every מוצאי שבת חנוכה, “Chanukah that falls on Saturday night,” the question naturally arises: what do we light first, the נר הבדלה-Havdalah candle or the נר חנוכה-Chanukah candle? The question seems innocent enough. One of these rabbinic mitzvot obviously must be done before the other.
Unlike the situation when Yom Tov falls out on a Saturday night, where we can use the Yom Tov candles for Havdalah as well, here when a night of Chanukah begins Saturday night, we cannot use the same candle for both mitzvot. Why this difference? The Yom Tov candles and Havdalah candle are lit expressly “to be used.” Unlike Shabbat, on Yom Tov fire can be used. Once Shabbat is technically over, all work is permitted. The rabbis however prohibited work and eating until Havdalah is said. The permit to work is signified by lighting and then using the Havdalah candle. So the Yom Tov and Havdalah candles share a common purpose, “for use,” and can therefore serve for both designations.
The Chanukah candle, on the other hand, is expressly lit for פירסום הנס, “to advertise the miracle.” Any use of the light would break the status or designation of the Chanukah candle. We mention this specific law in the paragraph, הנרות הללו, “These Candles,” which we read immediately after lighting the Chanukah candles each night. The concept of the נר שמש, helper candle, is not just to light the Chanukah candles. It is there most importantly to provide another source of light in the room “for use” while the Chanukah candles are burning. Another electric light turned on in the same room with the Chanukah candles would satisfy this law. The “useful light” is then coming from the light generated by the lit electric lamp. The legal integrity of the Chanukah candles, “to exclusively advertise the miracle,” thus is maintained.
At least once every Chanukah, lighting the candles for Chanukah coincides with Saturday night. Which candle do we light first? The Havdalah and Chanukah candles, as explained, clearly have two different legal designations. Hence they cannot be interchanged or doubly designated.
One group of sages resolves this issue in favor of lighting the Havdalah candle first. They rely on the well-known and logical rule that determines the order of performance any time 2 mitzvot must be done. The rule is “the more common” or “the more frequent” mitzvah comes first. So on a regular Shabbat, for example, we have 2 prayers to say, Shacharit, the daily morning prayer, and Musaf, the additional prayer for Shabbat. Both can be said from sunrise until the conclusion of the morning. Which do we do first? Shacharit comes first since we say this prayer every morning, all 365 days of the year. Musaf for Shabbat, however, is recited only 52 times a year. Applying this rule to our case, in comparison with each other, Havdalah is performed 52 times a year while Chanukah candles are only 8 times a year. The practical conclusion is that the Havdalah candle is lit first.
The other opinion, endorsed by a different group of sages, is well aware of the “more common” rule. Yet they maintain the Chanukah candles are lit first. How so? Frequency, they argue, is one determinant for legal procedure. However, sometimes frequency plays second fiddle to the significance of a competing performance. The Chanukah candles were also created by the rabbis to commemorate a miracle of God. The miracle that we are celebrating on Chanukah is the survival of “the system of Judaism.” The rule “the more common mitzvah comes first” is merely a detail in the entire system. Chanukah celebrates the salvation of the system itself.
At this time in our history, circa 164 BCE, the survival of the Torah way of life was at stake. The ruling Hellenized government promulgated edicts that prohibited the practice of Judaism and served to force assimilation on its Jewish subjects. Finding the one jar of pure olive oil in the Holy Temple, which miraculously lit the Temple’s menorah for 8 continuous days until more pure oil could be produced, demonstrated God’s intervention was at work in the Jewish revolt and subsequent military campaigns to defeat the Hellenist domination. How so? What caused God’s divine assistance to be manifest in this way? The motivation of the Maccabees, who aside from their courage and bravery in battle were also Torah scholars, was to save the system of Judaism from the brink of annihilation. Restoration of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, the headquarters so to speak of the system of Judaism, was thus their primary military objective. This second group of sages, therefore, concluded that whenever a night of Chanukah falls Saturday night, the commemoration of the survival of the system of Judaism, represented by lighting the נר חנוכה-Chanukah candle, takes precedence over Havdalah.
Both opinions of what to do in this annual situation are rational. The Sanhedrin, however, never issued a definitive ruling in this case. So the final legal outcome is follow whichever opinion you want. It is a rare case of a win win legal decision. You can’t lose for trying.
This Chanukah let us rededicate our lives first of all to living as a people proud of our unique system of Judaism. Second let us redouble our support for our Jewish institutions dedicated to insuring the survival of the Jewish people and the Jewish religion. Making a contribution or pledge to assist in the construction of our new state of the art Paul and Maggie Fischer High School is a clear demonstration of your commitment to safeguard and pass on the system of Judaism to future generations
May Hashem continue His protecting care over the nation of Israel and all of His people scattered throughout the four corners of the world.
Shabbat shalom and Chanukah sameach,
Rabbi Robert Kaplan