This week’s parshah, Parshas Tetzaveh, briefly begins with the mitzvah of lighting the menorah. It is written in the pasuk that Aharon and his sons should ya’aroch (arrange) the menorah and its light.
By mentioning Aharon and his sons it is implied in the pasuk that the menorah must be lit by a kohen. Additionally, in Parshas Beha’aloscha, it is stated in a pasuk that Hashem specifically commanded Aharon and his sons to light the menorah.
Yet, interestingly, the Rambam writes in Hilchos Beis HaMikdash (9:7) that the menorah may be lit by anyone – including non-kohanim. Therefore, if a kohen prepares the wicks and brings the menorah outside the Kodesh, a non-kohen may light the menorah.
The Rishonim (see the Raavad there, who contends that this is only allowed b’dieved, and Kesef Mishnah there, who cites a Ritva and the Tosafos Yeshanim in Yuma 24b) were bothered by this ruling. They questioned the Rambam from the abovementioned pesukim, which indicate that this could only be performed by a kohen.
Rav Chaim Soloveitchik, zt”l, explains that according to the Rambam the lighting of the menorah was not part of the mitzvah. The mitzvah is that the lights should constantly remain lit. A kohen had to prepare the wicks and the oil, as that was an avodah, but lighting the fire was not an avodah. The pesukim that indicate that a kohen must be ya’aroch the menorah were referring only to the preparation of the candles, not the actual lighting of them. Since the lighting of the candles was not part of the actual avodah, a non-kohen was permitted to light the candles.
Regarding the mitzvah of the menorah, the Chinuch also says that the mitzvah is to have the lights remain lit.
It is written in the sefer, Mikraei Kodesh, by Rav Tzvi Pesach Frank, zt”l, that the Imrei Emes (the Gerer Rebbe) asked Rav Chaim the following question: Since a midrash says that the ner ma’aravi was never extinguished, how did they fulfill the mitzvah of lighting the menorah? They should have extinguished it in order to fulfill the mitzvah by relighting it.
The Imrei Emes suggested that it is written in Maseches Shabbos that adding oil to a lamp is a violation of the melachah of mavir (lighting a fire). The midrash does not say that a miracle similar to that of Chanukah occurred in which the ner ma’aravi replenished its oil supply. So perhaps they added oil to the ner ma’aravi, constituting a havarah. This is not a simple answer, for one could argue that although it is considered a havarah, it is nevertheless not a hadlakah (lighting).
Based on the above explanation, Rav Chaim answered that there is no mitzvah to light the menorah per se. The mitzvah is that the light should remain burning, which it did.
The sefer, Hararei Kedem, asks the following question pertaining to the Rambam’s view: When the Rambam wished to give an example of how a non-kohen could light the menorah, why did he have to say that a kohen took the menorah outside of the Kodesh? Why could the Rambam have not said that a non-kohen happened to be fixing something inside the Kodesh?
It is stated in Hararei Kedem that the Rambam understood that the mitzvah of the menorah in the Beis HaMikdash was not to light the menorah but rather to place down a lit menorah; in other words, hanachah oseh mitzvah. But one need not actually put down the menorah, for merely lighting it in its place served as actually placing the menorah. Thus, if a kohen was to bring the menorah outside of the Kodesh and a non-kohen would light it there, the kohen is performing the hanachah when the kohen brings the menorah back inside the Kodesh.