Throughout the world, Chanukah menorahs burn brightly to celebrate God’s miracles and His deliverance of the Jews from the Greeks.
In the evening, the streets in Israel and many Jewish neighborhoods worldwide are lined with glass boxes containing glowing menorahs at the entrance to homes.
Yossi had always lit inside the house, but now that he was older his father allowed him to light outside. One evening, the box tipped over and the glass door broke. The weather was calm, though, and it seemed that the menorah would burn even without the glass.
“Do you think it’s safe?” asked his friend Yankel. “What happens if something catches fire?”
“Nobody’s supposed to touch the flames,” responded Yossi. “Anyway, the ideal mitzvah is to light outside. If something happens, it’s not my fault; I’m just doing what Chazal instituted. In Chazal‘s time they didn’t have these glass boxes; people just lit bowls of oil outside.”
“I hope you’re right,” said Yankel. Yossi lit his menorah and watched the flames dance around in the mild breeze. He shook the box gently to make sure that it was stable. After watching the flames for ten minutes he went inside.
Yossi settled down with some chocolate coins to study for a test on hilchos Chanukah. Suddenly, there seemed to be a commotion in the street. He heard cries, “Fire! Fire! Call 911.”
Yossi ran to the window with his heart thumping. Sure enough, a small fire had begun spreading from his menorah. Fortunately, someone managed to dump a bucket of water on the fire and extinguish it, but there was some damage to the neighbor’s property.
When Yossi’s father came home late that night, he heard what happened and was very upset about the potential danger. He was also going to have to deal with the neighbor’s damage. Although Yossi felt bad, he still wasn’t convinced that he was at fault. “I was doing the mitzvah,” he protested. “What more was I expected to do?!”
“I think we should discuss this with Rabbi Dayan,” Yossi’s father said. He called Rabbi Dayan and arranged to meet the following day.
When Yossi and his father arrived, there were a few seforim on the desk with bookmarks at the appropriate places.
“Yossi, you raised an important question,” began Rabbi Dayan. “Is a person liable for a mitzvah that caused damage? The Mishnah [B.K. 62b] deals with the case of a camel laden with flax that caught fire from a candle in someone’s store and caused damage. The Mishnah concludes: ‘If the storeowner left his candle outside, the storeowner is liable. R. Yehuda said: Regarding a Chanukah candle he is exempt.’ ”
“You see,” said Yossi, “I was right! If the fire was caused by a Chanukah candle left outside, R. Yehuda exempts the storeowner.”
“Not exactly,” smiled Rabbi Dayan. “This is only R. Yehuda’s opinion. The Tosefta [6:13] states that the sages disagree with R. Yehuda and hold the storeowner liable, even though he had permission to place the Chanukah candle outside. This is the accepted halacha.”
“How can the storeowner be liable if the mitzvah requires him to light outside?” asked Yossi. ” What do Chazal want him to do?”
“The Rambam [Hil. Nizkei Mamon 14:13] and Shulchan Aruch [C.M. 418:12] address this,” answered Rabbi Dayan. “When recording the halacha they add, ‘He could have sat and guarded.’ Chazal instituted to light outside, yet at the same time they expect you to act responsibly. An unattended candle poses a hazard, and therefore Chazal require you to take proper precautions or look after the candle so that it should not cause damage or danger.”
“That’s a powerful message!” exclaimed Yossi, “Doing a mitzvah is not an excuse; it’s a responsibility that must be carried out carefully.”Rabbi Meir Orlian