Question: The Gemara in Shabbos states that one should ideally place one’s menorah by the side of one’s outside door. In a dangerous situation, one may place it on the table inside the house. If the dangerous situation the Gemara discusses, however, refers to potential anti-Semitic behavior by one’s neighbors, how does placing the menorah indoors help? Can’t non-Jews see the menorah through the window? Wouldn’t anti-Semites potentially search Jews’ houses? Is there any safe place to light in such circumstances?
Answer: Though most of our readership reside in locales where there is relative calm and tranquility that enables the practice of our mitzvot, there still are places in the world, even today, where the authorities take a dim view of Jewish practice. In addition, there are lands where the government guarantees freedom of expression, but those living in close proximity to Jews are hostile. Open practice of our religion may still be a concern. From your letter, this is what I gather to be your concern.
The Gemara that you have cited is Shabbos 21b. The danger to which you have correctly referred in regard to the Chanukah lights is from hostile gentiles, or hostile elements of the local populace. Let us review the Gemara: “Our sages taught: It is incumbent to place the Chanukah lamp at the door of one’s house on the outside; however, if one dwells on an upper floor, one places it in the window that is closest [facing] the public domain. However, in time of danger, it suffices that one place it on one’s table.”
Rashi (ibid., s.v. “mib’chutz”) explains that one needs to place the lights outside in order to facilitate “pirsumei nissa – publicizing the miracle.” Thus, if one is on the second floor or higher, where it is obviously impossible to place the lights outside, the Gemara informs us that placing the menorah at the window compensates because it will still be seen by people on the street. The last option, to light on the table, is problematic because to do so means that the candles will not be seen outside.
This actually partially resolves your question. When the Gemara offers this last option to light on the table, the assumption is that it will not be seen outside (either because a curtain is drawn or because the menorah is lit in an interior room with no windows). Still, one must wonder what pirsumei nissa one has accomplished if one lights on a table hidden from view.
The Ri (Rabbenu Isaac Dampiere, Tosafot, ibid., s.v. “u’b’sha’at hasakana”) explains that our Gemara is talking about people known as “Chavri” who came to Babylonia. (Rashi refers to them as Persians who would persecute Jews for lighting Chanukah candles on their Persian festival when they themselves would light in their temples.) The Ri asks a question similar to yours: If we are worried about the anti-Jewish Chavri, how does lighting on one’s table help? Shouldn’t we be afraid that the Chavri will enter one’s house and remove the menorah? Tosafot answer that the Chavri would not go so far as to enter homes in search of Chanukah candles.
The Ran suggests that the Gemara is not talking specifically about the Chavri. Rather, it refers to any situation where an edict prevents Jews from properly fulfilling the mitzvot. In such a situation, one should light menorah on one’s table. Even if the anti-Semitic authorities see the menorah, one will still be safe because they will assume that the menorah on the table is simply an ordinary source of light to illuminate the house.
We can still ask, though: What about pirsumei nissa? Who will see a menorah lit on one’s table?
We can suggest two answers: First, perhaps the pirsum is for those in the house. Second, due to the danger, perhaps one is exempt entirely from the mitzvah. If so, why light? So that the mitzvah not be forgotten. Furthermore, although the pirsum aspect of the mitzvah is not fulfilled, at least the lighting itself is. Perhaps we can compare lighting on a table to counting sefirat ha’omer, which is only a zecher l’mikdash and a rabbinical mitzvah in our time (according to most authorities) since we have neither the omer sacrifice nor the Temple to which it is brought.